I had the pleasure of seeing my first Mario Monicelli film last week by extending my Thanksgiving weekend (which more closely resembled Christmas upstate) when I skipped work in favor of recovering from scenic travels and turkey-related jet lag, a post-holiday ailment clearly dreamt up on tryptophan. I rushed to Film Forum to catch Big Deal on Madonna Street (its last screening), which was part of a series on the director. The 35mm print drew an older crowd — unsurprising, given its 2:15pm showtime — including a fraction of Italian speakers. More surprising though: an elderly lady in sensible shoes and a very large Celine shopping bag who excused herself into my row a few seats down. A few moments later, a late straggler shuffled passed me to find a seat, but was denied further entrance as elegant shopper's shopping bag had taken up residence and claim its own seat. Glancing over, I witnessed its contents. Not luxe purchases, but presumably homemade soup in a pot. One of the strangest things I've seen in a theater, but the smells of garlic and tomato did not distract me from the farce on screen, in which small time crooks plan to rob a safe in a pawnshop by breaking down the adjoining wall in the apartment next door. Everything that can go wrong does, in this send up of Rififi and The Asphalt Jungle and more, but instead of gut-wrenching suspense, or train-wrecks, are simple goof-ups stacked one after another, each full of mirth. The misfits include a former boxer (Vittorio Gassman), a photographer without a camera (Marcello Mastroianni), an overprotective brother, and an always hungry hobo. Love (in the form of Claudia Cardinale) gets in the way more than once and there are great bits of snippy and sarcastic dialogue as well as physical humor.
I was intrigued enough to return to Film Forum to catch The Passionate Thief with the dazzling Anna Magnani. She plays Tortorella, an aspiring actress (read: extra) trying desperately for love and Lello (devilish Ben Gazzara), an expert pickpocket on a long and cold New Year's Eve. Her romantic plans are thwarted due to her nuisance of a friend Umberto (famous comedian Totò) who is reciprocally and simultaneously hindered by her, as he tries and fails (his conscience gets in the way) to assist Lello with the stolen goods. Expressive to the fullest with her alto voice, full of joy and sorrow, and her physical not-quite-grace, Magnani is a force of life who shimmies and shivers and even carries her an her grandfather, on her back at one point— a feat not many actresses can claim, piggyback rides for adult males. She perfectly embodies the down-and-out crowd that interests Monicelli—those who cannot afford the cab fare or price tag of dinner, but who are not without a heart.