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Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Legend of Alberto Sordi - Rome's Eternal Son

′′They will always judge you, whether you behave well or if you behave badly. So screw it and live as you want but above all don't listen to anyone.′′
 - Alberto Sordi

By giving his fellow Italians something to laugh about during tumultuous times, he emerged as his generation’s King of Comedy.

One of Italy’s best-loved personalities, Alberto Sordi played a pivotal role in Italian cinema from the end of World War II to the postwar economic boom of the 1950s. During those tumultuous years, he gave his countrymen a hearty laugh when they might have otherwise cried. Former Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi perhaps said it best: “Alberto Sordi interpreted the feelings of Italians, especially in their most difficult and tough moments.”

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.

In 1942, he had a role in Mario Mattoli's "I tre aquilotti" (The Three Pilots). Set at the Royal Air Force Academy of Caserta, the film follows three students and close friends as they go through their schooling and face battlefield challenges in World War II. 

After more than a decade of paying his dues with small roles, he landed the lead in Roberto Savarese’s 1951 “Mamma mia, che impressione!,” which he also cowrote with Cesare Zavattini. Sordi’s performance impressed his friend Federico Fellini who cast him in the title role of his 1952 “Lo sceicco bianco” (The White Sheik) and as Alberto, an unmotivated mammoni in his 1953 follow-up, “I vitelloni,” which is considered Sordi’s breakout role.

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.

One cannot talk about Sordi and Rome without mentioning "Il medico della mutua" (Be sick, it’s free), which has become my favorite during that prolific 1950s - '60s period. Upon returning from Rome last December and seeing posters in a pharmacy for this film, I watched it and realized there was so much more to this actor than I had known. The film was made in 1968 when a 48-year-old matured Sordi was just starting to age perfectly. 

The “mutua” is the system under socialized medicine in which a population receives free healthcare. “Mutuati” is another word for patients, described in the film as “the most diligent visitor to doctor’s offices” and “unmatched in his consumption of prescriptions.” The opening scene takes you on a driving tour through Rome beginning at the banks of the Tiber River. The first lines out of Sordi’s mouth are “Avevo previsto tutto. Avevo programmato tutto” (I had foreseen everything, I had everything planned). The story is then recounted as a flashback of events leading him to collapse from exhaustion. Sordi was quoted as saying “I observe and reflect real-life and ordinary people, and sooner or later that raises a laugh.” He didn’t just reflect them, though. He emphasized their weaknesses and idiosyncrasies and this is what made his films and performances so over the top funny. "Il medico della mutua" is a prime example. Then the closing shot at dusk with the terracotta shades of Rome's apartment buildings brings the film full circle. There is so much nostalgia in that shot.

Also in the late ‘60s, Sordi stepped behind the camera and made his mark as a director. He made 19 films and enjoyed a string of hits, which he directed and starred in, including “Io so che tu sai che io so” (I Know You Know that I Know), which costars Monica Vitti and follows the drama of a husband who discovers his wife’s affair and “In viaggio con papa” (Traveling with Dad), the hilarious story of a father/son road trip, which costars Carlo Verdone.

Watch this short clip from “In viaggio con papa”.. 

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 2006 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..

Two months later, he passed away during the night after suffering from pneumonia and bronchitis. The permanent tributes to him all over the Eternal City give testament to the lasting impact he’s had on his culture. In addition to his foundation, which fosters young filmmakers, there is a street named after him in Villa Borghese near the Casa del Cinema, and the Galleria Alberto Sordi near the Fountain of Trevi, which houses restaurants and retail shops, was named in his honor in 2003.

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 SicaSophia Loren and Franca Valeri and is available on Netflix. 




- Written by Jeannine Guilyard for the October issue of Fra Noi Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Chiara Mastroianni: The Scion of Screen Legends

Chiara Mastroianni in "Making Plans for Lena"
She is the daughter of two cinema legends, but she by no means lives in their shadows. With 56 films to her credit, Chiara Mastroianni has emerged as a versatile contemporary actress who brings heart, soul and infinite talent to every role she takes on.

Mastroianni was born in Paris in 1972 to Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni. She inherited her parents’ stunning looks and penchant for performing, but she has managed to forge her own voice and identity. She has often shared the screen with her parents and such was the case with the role that launched her prolific acting career.

In André Téchiné’s 1993 “Ma saison preferee” (My Favorite Season), Mastroianni is a typical teenager named Anne. As her mother, played by Deneuve, deals with the responsibilities of taking care of an aging parent whose health is rapidly deteriorating, Anne tries to make sense of the chaos around her by forming a bond with her mother’s office assistant. Mastroianni embraced the nuances and intricacies of her character, earning a nomination for a César Award, the French version of an Oscar. 


The following year, she played Sophie Choiset in Robert Altman’s ensemble film, “Prêt-à-Porter” (Ready to Wear), headed by her father along with his Golden Age leading ladies, Sophia Loren and Anouk Aimée. Although the two Mastroianni’s didn’t interact in any scenes, they were framed together in one shot near the beginning of the film. Sophie Choiset is part of a news crew covering fashion week headed by correspondent Kitty Potter (Kim Bassinger) and takes over the mic when shallow Kitty is at a loss for words to describe the message of the week’s closing show.

Father and daughter presenting
"Three Lives and Only One Death"
at the 49th Cannes Film Festival
In 1996, she shared the screen with her father in Raoul Ruiz's "Trois vies et une seule mort" (Three Lives and Only One Death). The two played father and daughter. However, her character, Cécile, only found out at the end of the film when her father, a schizophrenic, was beyond the point of no return. There are several tender moments between the two, in particular, when she reaches over and gives him a kiss on the cheek. Watching them together, one cannot help but notice the striking physical resemblance. 

Mastroianni’s collaboration with director Christophe Honoré has had a huge impact on her career. Together, they have given voice to the plight of Generation X through their films, displaying a chemistry not unlike what her father shared with Federico Fellini.

Mastroianni absolutely shines in the title role of Honoré’s 2010 film “Non ma fille, tu n’iras pas danser” (Making Plans for Léna). Driven by profound unhappiness and inner turmoil, Léna leaves her husband, escaping with her children to the family’s country home. The weekend goes sideways when her husband shows up, setting in motion a gripping family drama. All the performances are outstanding: intense yet subtle. It’s a thought-provoking portrait of the toll stress can take on one’s mental health. Honoré manages to show the point-of-view of each generation of the family. It’s a thought-provoking portrait of life. The performances are outstanding­– intense yet subtle.

Deneuve and Mastroianni play mother and daughter in Honoré’s devastating 2011 “Les bien-aimés” (Beloved), which takes place over the course of three decades. The pair converge at the start of the film in a tender encounter during which they sing about the travails of love and then walk across a Paris bridge into the night. What begins as a rom-com-style musical turns into a deeply moving drama that celebrates life after loss. Mastroianni gives a heartfelt, intense performance as Véra, a woman struggling through an impossible love affair with an expat musician from New York. There is a storyline about the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, which was done delicately and tastefully and takes us back to the strangeness and surreal atmosphere of that day. The film is two hours long and by the end of it, you really feel like you just spent three decades with these people. This is a film that will stay with you long after it ends. 

Honoré and Mastroianni’s latest collaboration premiered in May on Lincoln Center’s virtual platform.  “Chambre 212" (On a Magical Night) is a fantastical tale of the consequences of infidelity. Mastroianni is brilliant; funny yet reflective as her character, Maria, a law professor, moves into the hotel across the street after revealing to her husband that she’s been having an affair with one of her students. She talked about her character during a live Q&A hosted by Lincoln Center. “It was wonderful to play such a character because she’s so free. I don’t feel like that at all. Not for conventional reasons, but just the idea of freedom, of doing something you want to do and I think that’s what makes her really cool because she could have been a character that is unbearable. So for me, it was wonderful to have the energy of that character,” she explained.

During the Q&A, she was asked if she ever rewatches her father’s films and if she has a favorite. “Yes, I do re-watch movies and I watch many interviews because movies are movies but interviews, he is being himself.” 
Regarding a favorite, she said, “It would be difficult for me to pick one performance because I think he’s always been so strong. I think of “8 ½” or “A Special Day,” the Ettore Scola movie with Sophia Loren, or “Drama of Jealousy” (The Pizza Triangle), an Ettore Scola movie again with Monica Vitti, or “Bell’Antonio.” It’s a big menu.” 

Watch the clip..

Many of Mastroianni's films are available on Amazon. “My Favorite Season” and 
"Three Lives and Only One Death" are available on YouTube.


- Written by Jeannine Guilyard for the November 2020 issue of Fra Noi Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

The Timeless Cinema of Giovanna Ralli

She rose to fame in the post-war films of the 1950s with her simple yet stunning beauty, quick wit and tough as nails persona. She held her own alongside Italian cinema legends like Vittorio De Sica and Alberto Sordi. Now in her 80s, she talks about the past with sweet nostalgia.

Born in Rome on January 2, 1935, Giovanna Ralli wasted no time getting into show business. She made her feature film debut at the age of seven in Vittorio De Sica’s 1942 “I bambini ci guardano” (The Children Are Watching Us). Six years later, she began her theater career, becoming an actress in Peppino De Filippo’s stage company. But it was the big screen where she found her home. A small role in Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuada's 1950 “Luci del varietà” (Variety Lights), set her film career into motion. 


Among her early roles is Marcella in Gianni Franciolini’s 1955 “Racconti Romani” (Roman Tales). In the spirit of the post-war economic boom, the film follows four young men as they carry out schemes to make quick money. Of course, each scheme is a flop, which gets them into trouble with their better halves and law enforcement. Marcella is the temperamental fiancé of Otello (Antonio Cifariello) who works day in and day out at a fish market trying to make ends meet. With each new scheme, she becomes more stressed about finances and loses her patience until she finally gives Otello an ultimatum. Although there is a focus on the economic difficulties facing Rome’s population of workers, the film is a feel-good comedy and feast for the eyes from start to finish as it features the most beautiful and historic sites of the Eternal City.


Vittorio Sala’s 1959 “Costa Azzurra” (Wildcats on the Beach), a quartet of comedic vignettes set on the French Riviera, features a spry Ralli in the role of Giovanna. Married to Alberto (Alberto Sordi), the couple travels from Rome to answer a casting call. After Giovanna auditions, Alberto senses from the snobby director that she is not right for the role. When he answers a call from the director to meet with him, he suspects it’s a ploy to let Giovanna down easy when in reality, the director is interested in casting him. This leads Alberto to dream of becoming a famous actor. Giovanna has a bad feeling. She follows her gut and in the end, saves Alberto from himself. Ralli is sensational in this role and her chemistry with Sordi is undeniable. The two remained lifelong friends as she recently recounted on Italian television in an interview with journalist Mara Venier.


That same year, she had a small but key role in Roberto Rossellini’s “Il Generale Della Rovere” (General della Rovere). Set in 1944 Rome with historical footage interspersed, the film was adapted from the novel by Indro Montanelli, which is based on a true story. In order to avoid the death penalty for embezzling money from military families, Vittorio Emanuele Bardone/Grimaldi (Vittorio De Sica) is recruited by the Third Reich to go under cover in a northern Italian prison. Initially hired to impersonate the Italian resistance leader, General Della Rovere, who had been previously killed by German forces, he sympathizes with the inmates and becomes a martyr, refusing to betray them. Ralli plays the role of Valeria, Grimaldi’s girlfriend. She is a blonde femme fatale tired of being strung along by Grimaldi. When he asks that she pawn her jewelry to make up for money he lost gambling, she tells him to leave. Later, when he is picked up by German authorities, she is called in as a character witness and shows no pity.


Ralli in 2020 during an interview with journalist Mara Venier
Paul Wendkos’s 1970 western, “Cannon for Cordoba,” offered Rally the opportunity to act in an English-language role. Set during a 1912 battle against Mexican bandit revolutionaries crossing the border of Texas, the film follows the most dangerous, Hector Cordoba, portrayed by Italian actor Raf Vallone. Ralli plays Leonora, his ex-lover whose brother and father were murdered by him. She wants revenge and joins the American forces to get it. Vallone and Ralli are a sight to behold in the scenes they share. In all fairness, they weren’t given a great script but their scenes are truly captivating.

Ralli was married to attorney Ettore Boschi for 38 years until his death in 2013. In an interview with Il Messaggero, she recounted their relationship. “We both hated worldliness and in the evening, when he came home from work, we often ended up on the sofa, happy, after a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce, in front of an old movie." 


She continued working through the years and in 2014, made her last film with Pupi Avati. Click on the links below to stream a selection of her films on Amazon.



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