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Totò Recall

The physically slighter Totò is typically the more assertive, volatile, and craven of the pair, with Peppino playing a robust, glowering peasant. Their hilarious Totò and Peppino Divided in Berlin (1962) begins with Totò, just up from Naples, wandering into a West Berlin bar to babble about his plans to become a used-clothing peddler. Instead, he's recruited by former Nazis to impersonate a war criminal at a Nuremberg-like trial. Peppino, who has been hired to provide the evidence against him, launches into his torrential testimony—provoking Totò to blow his cover—and thereafter the two are bound together, sometimes in handcuffs, in a cowardly, self-serving "friendship."

Chased by Americans, Soviets, and neo-Nazis, the two hapless Neapolitans are trapped in the East when the wall goes up (around them) overnight. This artless, irresponsible farce is as outrageous in its way as One, Two, Three—and even more ruthless in its Cold War travesty, dramatizing the European situation as that of the beleaguered, weak, opportunistic Totò.


Part Bob Hope, part Droopy Dog: Totò in Poverty and Nobility
photo: The Film Society of Lincoln Center
Part Bob Hope, part Droopy Dog: Totò in Poverty and Nobility

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Totally Tot: A 14-Film Retrospective
Walter Reade Theater
Through October 31

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A living legend for much of his career, Totò was largely ignored by Italian critics and cineastes. Roberto Rossellini created the unsuccessful Where Is Freedom? (1952) around Totò's little-man persona; six years later, Mario Monicelli gave Totò a cameo in his comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street. (The Rossellini film isn't included in the Walter Reade retro; the Monicelli, in which Totò, a paroled felon absurdly dressed in an ascot and striped smoking robe, delivers a pedantic lecture on safecracking, is—and, as the definitive Rififi parody, is a must-see.)

Monicelli also cast Totò in The Passionate Thief (1960), alongside the volcanic diva Anna Magnani—with whom Totò had appeared many times onstage—and the young Ben Gazzara. It's a long night of drama and coincidence in which Totò, who plays a penniless old theater director, is too pathetic and too much a third wheel for my taste—despite a classic bit of business in which he greedily stuffs his face at a swank New Year's Eve party.

The movie that established Totò's reputation outside Italy was Pier Paolo Pasolini's Hawks and Sparrows (1966). The most playfully "new wave" of Pasolini films, this on-the-road allegory predates both Godard's Weekend and Buñuel's Milky Way while fulfilling an earlier cinematic dream. In the 1920s, the painter Fernand Léger wrote a scenario for a Chaplin marionette; in Hawks and Sparrows, Pasolini got to employ Chaplin's equivalent, the flesh-and-blood Totò, with Ninetto Davoli as his idiot son. Pasolini called Totò and Ninetto, a far less substantial sidekick than Peppino or Aldo Fabrizi, "two typical heroes of neo-realism . . . living out their lives without thinking about it." The setup suggests a parody of The Bicycle Thief (even as it echoes the situation of Chaplin's The Kid), except that Pasolini has added a talking Marxist crow who, in the film's best joke, becomes Totò's dinner.

Hawks and Sparrows won Totò a special award at Cannes, but Italian audiences were disappointed. According to Pasolini, "They went to see Totò and have their usual laugh, which they gradually realized they would not be able to do." Hawks and Sparrows is not without its qualities, but after gorging on a score of Totò's other vehicles, I think I know how his Italian fans felt.

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