- Alberto Sordi
Born in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome in 1920, Sordi grew up in a creative household. His mother was an elementary school teacher and his father, a professional musician for the Rome Opera House. A young Sordi joined the children’s choir of the Sistine Chapel but was unable to continue after his distinctive low voice began to take form. In elementary school, he participated in theatrical performances with marionettes. As a teenager, he studied theater and discovered his natural talent as a comedian. He attempted to work with a theater company in Milan but couldn't shake his Roman accent and mannerisms, so returned to his hometown. He found work on radio shows and performed onstage doing comedy skits. In the late ‘30s, he began his film career working as an extra.
Sordi rose to fame during an unprecedented time when he and so many of his colleagues were icons in the making. The films made during those years would define a unique and unparalleled time for Italian cinema. The majority of Sordi’s characters found themselves in unfortunate situations as they rode the wave of Italy’s booming economy. Sordi made a whopping 40 films from the mid to late 1950s. Different versions of this deceitful but likable character appear in dozens of films.
In Steno’s 1954 “Un americano a Roma” (An American in Rome), he plays Nando Moriconi, aka Santi Bailor from Kansas City, a young Italian obsessed with American culture. In Antonio Pietrangeli’s 1956 “Lo scapolo” (The Bachelor), he’s Paolo Anselmi, an inveterate bachelor until he suffers an upset stomach one night and realizes just how alone he is. In Antonio Pietrangeli’s 1957 “Souvenir d’italie” (It Happened in Rome), he plays Sergio Battistini, the boy toy of a wealthy older woman who falls for a young traveler hitchhiking through Europe. And in Vittorio Sala’s 1959 “Costa Azzurra” (Wildcats on the Beach), he stars in one of a quartet of comedic love stories set in the French Riviera.
Sordi took a young Verdone under his wing, making him the most likely successor of the comedy genius. When I talked with Verdone at the 2005 edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, I asked about the comparisons to Sordi. “Sordi was a great actor. I was a spectator and a fan of his movies but he had a mask and the mask was unique, so you cannot imitate a mask. Sordi always interpreted one character; very Italian, cynical and funny but it was only Sordi,” he explained.
In a 1997 interview, reflecting on his mortality, Sordi confessed: "I think about death like everyone else but without anguish. I know that I will leave one day. However, I continue to live with the same enthusiasm as when I was young. Life is a gift too big not to enjoy. And as a Catholic, I believe in the immortality of the soul."
In 2001, Sordi was diagnosed with lung cancer. He continued making appearances until December of 2002 when he was scheduled to appear at the Rome Film Festival to launch a retrospective of this work. He was too weak to attend and instead, recorded a heartfelt video greeting. Watch it below..
Below are his films available to stream on Amazon. If you don't need English subtitles, there are dozens of films and interviews available on YouTube. Click here to watch Alberto Lattuada's 1962 "Mafioso" on the Criterion Channel. Also, check out "The Sign of Venus," in which he had a supporting role. The 1955 comedy features a whole host of legends including Vittorio De Sica and Sophia Loren, and is available on Netflix.