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Saturday, September 15, 2018

Luigi Comencini: A Master of Commedia all'italiana

He was one of the masters of the popular post-WWII genre of filmmaking, Commedia all’italiana. Now, his daughters are carrying on his legacy.

Born in 1916 in Salò, a town located near Lake Garda in northern Italy, Luigi Comencini studied architecture in Milan. He began his shift to filmmaking in the mid-1940s as a photojournalist  documenting the ruins and reconstruction of his native North and the Po Valley. Combining his architectural knowledge with his keen eye, he created telling photographs of the post-war years that chronicled the devastation of poverty on children in particular. 

He transitioned to filmmaking in the late 40s with his first feature film, Guaglio, which follows a young priest after his luggage is stolen in the Naples train station. The film was a hit, paving the way for some major talent to sign up for his second project, L'imperatore di Capri (The Emperor of Capri). Released in 1949, the comedy stars the beloved Neapolitan actor Antonio De Curtis better known as Totò and was produced by the iconic Carlo Ponti. The plot of the story centers around on a beautiful young woman who mistakes Totò’s character, a waiter, for an Arab prince.

Comencini’s next hit was his 1953 comedy Pane, amore e fantasia (Bread, Love and Dreams) starring Vittorio De Sica, Gina Lollobrigida and Marisa Merlini. De Sica plays a veteran police officer charmed by two of the town’s women: a midwife closer to his age and a women old enough to be daughter. Gina Lollobrigida gives an explosive performance as a rebellious, free-spirited woman always on the move. Her simple yet extraordinary beauty is second only to her talent for acting as also for singing as she does in a couple scenes. Vittorio De Sica is also a sight to behold as he cannot help but generously show off his smile whenever he’s in Lollobrigida’s company. The film is interestingly considered a “neorealist pink” film, meaning the end of the neorealist period was approaching as a result of the improving conditions in Italy.

Comencini was very active in the 50s and 60s making a movie practically every year, sometimes two. He worked steadily through the 70s, utilizing the great actors of that decade, Nino Manfredi, Alberto Sordi and Ugo Tognazzi. One of those films being the 1974 comedy Lo Scopone Scientifico. Starring three legends of cinema: Bette Davis, Silvana Mangano and Alberto Sordi, the film was shot on location in the poor Borgata neighborhoods of Rome and follows an unlucky husband and wife team as they try to beat a millionairess at cards. Both Sordi and Mangano earned David di Donatello awards for their performances. The film is an example of Commedia all'Italiana at its best.

In the 80s, Comencini began to phase out of cinema. His 1984 television series Cuore was a big hit and featured his grandson, Carlo Calenda, son of Cristina, who is now a political star in Italy’s Democratic Party working in the Renzi and Gentiloni administrations. 

Luigi Comencini passed away in 2007 at the age of 90, but his cinematic legacy lives on in his daughters Francesca and Cristina. The two are prolific authors and filmmakers in their own rights, telling compelling stories from a woman’s point-of-view. Cristina’s 2005 film La bestia nel cuore (The Beast in the Heart) adapted from her own novel, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Both Cristina and Francesca have presented their films at festivals throughout the world, including Lincoln Center’s annual Open Roads: New Italian Cinema. 

Chatting with the Comencini sisters at MAXXI Museo in Rome
In 2016, Cristina and Francesca along with their sisters Paola and Eleonora participated in an exhibition honoring their father’s early photography. The photos were the subject of a book, Luigi Comencini. Italia 1945-1948, which features 50 photographs taken by the director during those years right before he ventured into filmmaking. Comencini’s daughters were the featured guests of an interesting discussion in which stories and memories alternated with sequences from their father's films personally chosen by each one of them. Francesca's comments and memories in particular were funny and endearing. She seems to have inherited his sense of humor.

Luigi Comencini’s Bread, Love and Fantasy is available on DVD through Amazon.

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