Monicelli, Mario: Tribute to Seminal Italian Director at Vienna Film Museum

Director Mario Monicelli was an exceptional figure of Italian cinema: a progressive thinker whose work provided critical, and often satirical commentary on Italian politics and history for more than half a century.

His work combines a Marxist humanist perspective and a distinctive comedic sensibility, while casting major film stars of the time.
 
Totò cerca casa (1949), realized in collaboration with Stefano Vanzina, deals with the many problems Italy faced in the post-war period, including the desolate housing conditions and other socio-economic issues.

Un eroe dei nostri tempi (1955) displays the neuroses bred in the souls of an  overwhelmed middle class in the wake of a rampant economic miracle.

I compagni (1963) saw Monicelli explore issues of organized resistance against capital.

The rarely shown pop grotesque Toh, è morta la nonna! (1969) takes viewers directly to world of ’68, where big industry finally collapses.

Vogliamo i colonnelli (1973) describes the coups attempted by right-wing extremist elements in the government and military in the 1970s.

What Un eroe dei nostri tempi did for the boom, Un borghese piccolo piccolo (1977), an unsettling hybrid of comedy and vigilante justice thriller, did for “anni di piombo,” the “Years of Lead” in which assassinations and terrorist attacks by both right- and left-wing paramilitary groups turned the country into a battlefield.
 
After Monicelli’s most pessimist, darkest phase, at a time when film was becoming less and less relevant for political thinking, he retreated into a cinema of skeptical cheerfulness.

Reflecting values of the Commedia all’italiana, a melancholy defined late masterpieces such as the family breakdown story Speriamo che sia femmina (1986) or the Giuseppe Berto adaptation, considered to be the key to his oeuvre, ll male oscuro (1990).

As in numerous other films from the 1980s and 1990s, narratives center on emotional failures, sheer desperation, and regrets over what might be a wasted life. They raised questions of domesticity: Were wives and children more important than collective political causes after all?

Several of these films end on a gloomy note reminiscent of Pirandello. Not even more than one life can protect you from suffering defeat at the hands of life itself. Human beings are neither good nor bad. Ultimately, their needs and wishes are to make it through days not much worse off than they were at the outset.
 
Following La grande guerra (1959), Monicelli became one of Italy’s most popular, most award-winning and most commercially successful filmmakers. And while the principles of his work were understood, the specifics remained accessible only to local audiences, above all the humor of language in his films. The anti-war sentiments in La grande guerra, as well as the buddy movie dynamics between the unfortunate soldiers Oreste and Giovanni are easy to comrehend, while the effect of regionally specific jokes in the dialogues (Roman and Milanese idioms) are more difficult to translate.
 
Monicelli’s aesthetics were just as vital to his success. Regardless of how genre-steeped the approach got, his films were always built on a classical realist foundation. Epic narratives like La grande guerra, I compagni or L’armata Brancaleone (1966) and their sequel (arguably an allegory of the Vietnam War) Brancaleone alle crociate (1970) continue to fascinate with their attention to detail and their sheer imagery to this day. Sites covered in corpses and military equipment, giant machine halls shaking with terrible noise, outworks reeking of filth and feces provide settings for raging, pointless lives. However, at times, Monicelli opts for a detour by means of genre excess, such as in the melodramatic dime novel farce Romanzo popolare (1974), where he exaggerates stereotypes with such force that real desires as well as underlying fears are forced to reveal themselves.
 
Mario Monicelli lived to be almost one hundred, he saw political systems come and go between 1915 and 2010, survived wars and numerous national and more private crises, all the while remaining true to his own political principles.

Late in life, he quit Craxi’s PSI and became an active member of the Marxist-Leninist Rifondazione Comunista. His only fear in life was boredom. His relationship with a woman 40 years his junior as well as the label of diehard leftist did not disturb him.

In one of his last interviews Monicelli said: “Never harbor any hope. Hope is a trap, a vile thing invented by those in power.”

He took his life by jumping out of a window in order to avoid the inevitable suffering from his cancer diagnosis, 
 
The retrospective takes place in close collaboration with the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia National Film Archive and Istituto Luce Cinecittà, which provides most of the 35mm prints for the program.

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