Commedia All’Italiana: Comedy, Italian-Style

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A confluence of economic prosperity, skilled directors, screenwriters at the top of their game and equally gifted actors created a perfect storm of talent to birth Commedia all’italiana. This film genre translates as “comedy, the Italian way” or Italian-style comedy, but it is specifically associated with a group of films produced from the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s. Thanks to the success of the Marshall Plan after WWII, Italy was experiencing a kind of economic freedom that translated to their everyday life and their art. In the film world, directors and writers started turning to making seemingly commercial comedies, but in actuality the films of the Commedia all’italiana genre were some of the most hyper-critical of the political and societal structures. Where there’s comedy, there’s criticism. I’ve always said that (I haven’t).

After months of writing Comedy Tourism it feels redundant to point out the popularity of slapstick in a country, but Italy is no exception. Italians love their slapstick. A blog post from a British teacher there to teach English expressed frustrations over the Italian’s love of Benny Hill and comedy of that nature. Naturally broad slapstick and men falling over busty women can get tiresome, but come on, I still laugh every time I hear the Benny Hill theme song. It’s a classic!

But if you’ve spent any time in theater in high school or college — it’s okay, you don’t need to raise your hand; just nod along silently, brothers and sisters — you would know that comedy kind of originated in Italy. Please forgive me for being reductive here, but Commedia dell’Arte was an early form of comedy street performance. Started in the 1100’s, it really hit its stride in the 1500’s and has been a major influence on comedy since. Involving masks and elaborate, dramatized gestures, Commedia dell’Arte involved a stock of “types” or “archetypes.” Audiences recognized the characters by their mask and costume, which were always consistent. There were a lot of misunderstandings and a lot of slapstick — but basically all you need to know about Commedia dell’Arte: it was important and it started in Italy. Now, I must run for the hills before every theater major reading this attempts to burn me at the stake.

While Italians may love slapstick, they also enjoy irony and wordplay. They do not, however, enjoy laughing at themselves. But in Commedia all’italiana films they were certainly ready to laugh at their countrymen. The Film Museum in Austria recently did a retrospective on the films, describing the genre as “synonymous with piercing social commentary in the shape of virtuoso entertainment — a stronger popular cinema was hardly imaginable anywhere.” The film industry was booming during the 60’s, due in no small part to the popularity of these Commedia all’italiana films. The wild success of socially conscious comedies seems so improbable to me, and yet for a while Italians could not get enough of these films.

For starters, the films had a cloak of commerciality shrouding them from pretension. Nobody likes to be preached to or lectured, but if you are let in on the joke the game on. According to Film Reference, these movies “helped force the average Italian into a greater awareness of conflicting values, by attacking age-old prejudices and questioning the inept rule of governing elites and institutions.” Though the laughter might have been “bittersweet,” these films definitely caused some major knee-slapping.

So is this article just an excuse to film-nerd out? Yes. Wait, no! No! Not only do I think it’s important to inject a little history into comedy tourism, but also these films really hold up! If you can get past the subtitles and black and white film (for some), a lot of the movies from this genre are seriously funny. Take for example, Divorce: Italian-style, released in 1961.

If you hadn’t made the connection already, part of Commedia all’italiana eponym is an homage to this film — considered a cornerstone of the genre. Divorce: Italian-Style is about a bored Sicilian gentleman who wants to murder his wife so he can marry his younger, juicier mistress — who happens to be his first cousin. Cue the laugh track? All you need is the tiniest bit of cultural context and you will be treated to a madcap, black comic romp. At that time, divorce was still against the law, which many bored Italians to seek out affairs, which naturally, in turn, led to honor killings. And since honor was so important in society, the legal punishment for this special kind of murder was oh-so lenient. Sounds absurd, director Pietro Germi and his screenwriters agree — hence this film. It certainly helps that the film stars Marcello Mastroianni, who I would put in the category of actors who I could watch peel a potato for hours. He pouts, frets and daydreams, and you’re rooting for him the whole way. That’s right, not only are you laughing, you are also rooting for the main character to straight up kill his wife. To be fair, she’s really annoying.

The film is so layered it even has inside jokes. In one of the more climactic scenes, the entire town gathers at the local hall to watch a racy new film from director Federico Fellini called La Dolce Vita. Guess who stars in La Dolce Vita? Marcello Mastroianni! But how?! Now That’s What I Call Meta Comedy Volume 5! So successful was this film, that Mastroianni was actually nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award.

While it may be Criterion Collection, don’t let that deter you. If you’re a sucker like me who pays for Hulu Plus, you can watch it right now. If you need anymore convincing, Divorce has a whopping 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Come on guys, please don’t make me beg.

Pietro Germi, a former neorealist filmmaker, directed other popular films for the genre, but he was only one of many directors associated with this time period. Mario Monicelli was responsible for the purported “first” Commedia all’italiana film, Big Deal on Madonna Street. Dino Risi was considered the master, and his film The Easy Life is a must-see classic. Albert Lattuada’s black comedy Mafioso, about an outsider plucked to do a mob hit, is another quite popular film from this time.  By the late 60’s and early 70’s the films started to get more experimental or “weirder,” and by the time the oil crisis hit this genre was considered essentially over.

As for the rest of the Commedia all’italiana films, well, there are a lot — and I don’t expect you to have seen them all by the time school starts. Consider the four mentioned above to be your non-required viewing list for the end of summer.

In today’s comedy landscape, it is amazing to imagine that a subversive and socially critical comedy can achieve both critical and commercial success. Leave it to the Italians to have their cake and eat it too.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.