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The more ludicrous life gets, the more we need Italian comedy. When the world gets you down, the most surefire cure might be Anna Magnani — in a blond wig and a skintight evening dress dotted with flirty crystal fringe — traipsing from one end of Rome to the next, desperately in search of New Year’s Eve fun. She’s the shimmery, shimmying center of Mario Monicelli’s 1960 farce The Passionate Thief, which has never been released in the United States on VHS or DVD. But che fortuna! It rolls into town, newly restored, for a one-week run on December 5, as part of Film Forum’s two-week celebration of the Italian comedy maestro.
Monicelli, along with Dino Risi and Pietro Germi, was one of the foremost figures of the commedia all’italiana, or Italian-style comedy, a genre he helped usher into the world with 1958’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (November 28 and 29 and December 1). Madonna Street is a raucous but fleet little thing: Less broad than many of the Italian comedies that would follow throughout the 1960s, it has an almost delicate, twinkling texture, particularly for a story about inept lowlife crooks in Rome trying to pull off a supposedly foolproof burglary. Lean, handsome Vittorio Gassman is former prizefighter Peppe, who gets a bead on an easy way to break into a state-run pawn shop. His bumbling cohorts include safecracker Dante (played by the hugely popular Italian comedian Totò), who’s called upon to help execute an intricate, faux-scientific scheme that seems like something right out of a movie, probably because it is right out of a movie, Jules Dassin’s 1955 Rififi.
Marcello Mastroianni’s Tiberio is a temporary single dad (his wife is in jail, which means he’s left to mind the baby) who’s enlisted as the photographer for the group: He steals the necessary equipment from a flea market, employing an ingeniously loony technique involving an overcoat and a fake arm. And the luscious Claudia Cardinale has a tiny role as a meek young woman kept behind closed doors by her overprotective brother (Tiberio Murgia). If anyone can add the va-va-voom factor to a housekeeper’s kerchief, it’s Cardinale.
Minor and major tragedies befall this little troupe, but they press on, undaunted: Their ebullience gives the picture its raggedy joyousness, and the jaunty, percolating jazz score, by Piero Umiliani, doesn’t hurt. The Passionate Thief is in some ways a more ambitious picture than Big Deal on Madonna Street, and it’s also a slightly less graceful one: Its twists and turns are more elaborate, and its tone is noisier and more boisterous. But that’s part of the fun, and it’s best just to yield to it — easy enough to do when you’re falling into Magnani’s ample embrace.
Magnani is Tortorella, an irrepressible, not-so-young woman who makes her way as an extra at the Cinecittà film studios. When we first see her, she’s decked out in a toga, part of a throng of citizens witnessing a biblical marvel: “Miracolo! Miracolo!” she cries with rapt conviction, stretching her arms to the heavens. It’s New Year’s Eve, and just after she gets off work, Tortorella is recruited as the 14th guest of a dinner party — she doesn’t know that she’s a last-minute addition, an afterthought to boost the group’s numbers past unlucky 13. As it turns out, they leave her in the lurch anyway. She’s left waiting, dejected and overdressed, by one of the city’s fountains. As luck would have it, she runs into Umberto, the hopeful older suitor who’d earlier tried to engage her for the evening — he’s played by Totò, who had appeared onstage with Magnani in the 1940s.
The pairing is lively and rapturous, the two bickering and teasing like the best and worst of friends. Further complicating this already complicated evening is the fact that Umberto, having given up on Tortorella when making his New Year’s Eve plans, has accepted a gig as a thief’s accomplice. That thief, Lello, played by a slippery-smooth Ben Gazzara, naturally catches Tortorella’s eye. But this is Magnani we’re talking about: Tortorella, in her fringy dress, the ends of her white foxtail wrap sweeping around her like wings, doesn’t desperately chase after him. Instead, she simply believes with all her heart that he’s chasing her. Because really, what man in his right mind wouldn’t want her?
Monicelli opens The Passionate Thief with a gorgeous montage of Rome at Christmastime, a world of tinsel-festooned shop windows and cheerful winter neon. It’s dazzling enough that you might wonder, momentarily, if anything that follows could live up to it. And then there’s Magnani’s Tortorella, showing up for her New Year’s Eve assignation. She’s changed her hair to blond for the night, and it’s all wrong, yet so right. Tortorella is pulling out all the stops for the evening, going straight over the top, as if a wig could make a woman larger than life. But beneath, it’s just Magnani, if there ever could be such a thing as “just” Magnani.
From role to role, you can never be sure if those soft, dark circles beneath her eyes speak of true world-weariness or merely a slight lack of sleep, the inevitable price to be paid when a woman is busy having exciting adventures. Maybe that’s one of the keys to Magnani’s magic — love, both the sadness and the joy of it, has left its mark so visibly around her eyes. In The Passionate Thief, Magnani is, as always, larger than life without even trying. She hardly needs the wig, but she wears it well.