by Tony d’Ambra
“Rubare è un mestiere impegnativo, ci vuole gente seria, mica come voi… Voi al massimo potete andare a lavorare.” (“Robbery is a serious craft, you need to know what you are doing, not like you guys… the best you can hope for is honest work.”)*
A wacky gang of incompetent penny-ante Roman felons hatches a heist with hilarious consequences. This is all that really needs to be said about this classic cinematic caper from the masters of la comedia all’italiana, the writing team of Furio Scarpelli & Agenore Incrocci, and director Mario Monicelli, but of course dear reader you have come here expecting more. At least four-to-five hundred words, choice turns of phrase, a display of filmic erudition, and a certain – even if counterfeit – humility. Oh well, if I must.
As well as a neo-realist patina in the scenes filmed on the streets of Rome courtesy of DP Gianni Di Venanzo, there is a dark expressionism in the night scenes that gives a dark edge to the comedy in Big Deal on Madonna Street. More on the flip-side later. Piero Umiliani contributes a boppy jazz score, which adds a lot to the fun.
There are also extensive connections with De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves from a decade before which go beyond the thematic. For those who are familiar with De Sica’s film there is a discomfiting irony in a scene at the start of Big Deal on Madonna Street where a stolen pram is sold to a fence – the petty larcenist saying he is reduced to pinching prams as almost all cars and bicycles are now fitted with alarms – and later with the gang stealing a movie camera to case the scene of the heist from the very same flea market where De Sica’s Antonio desperately searches for his bicycle. Then there is the engaging comedia in Bicycle Thieves from Antonio’s young son Bruno, who in his innocence is the aching counterpoint to the father’s despair. The comic relief afforded by his presence is to be cherished. His first scene when he is cleaning the bicycle for Papa’s first day on the job is full of pathos and humour – Bruno telling Antonio that the pawnbroker didn’t look after the bike as there is now a scratch on the pedal and that he would have complained. This is by way of saying that in Monicelli’s film as in De Sica’s, the unique flavour of the Italian language is integral, and with a number of the character’s speaking different dialects, the individual characterisations have a spice all their own. Sadly so much of this expressiveness is lost in translating the dialog for the sub-titles. The line I quote at the top of this essay is redolent of an idiom and humour that can never be fully translated.
Humour. The essence of true comedy is the unexpected. Whether from razor sharp wit, innuendo, risible delusions, or slapstick, laughter is truly unleashed when we are caught by surprise, when unassailable absurdity is topped by the even more ludicrous; and we are again reduced to tears of joy, aching sides, and uncontrollable fits of coughing. Your soul skips and oxytocin fills your blood-stream. All is well with you, and the world. But just in case you get too carried away Monicello has a poor sod – un povere disgraziato – chased into the path of a tram and killed. Cut to the crematorium and Toto in dark glasses: ”Better later than sooner.”
If the essence of true comedy is the unexpected, the key to great comedy is love. An empathy with the absurdity of existence, of its ultimate futility, and a sad fondness for the pathos of life. The attitude that yes we are miserable but heck we can die laughing. This madness takes hold of De Sica’s Antonio when he blows whatever money he has left on lunch in a restaurant. The original Italian title for Big Deal on Madonna Street, I soliti ignoti aka “The Usual Unknown Suspects”, has a savour of this pathos (while its aptness is revealed in a newspaper headline shown on the screen just before the end title).
I wonder what was going through Mario Monicelli’s mind as he prepared to end his life by jumping out of a hospital window in 2010 at the age of 95. Perhaps he was thinking thoughts like those he admitted to in an interview he gave three years earlier: “Death doesn’t frighten me, it bothers me. It bothers me for example that someone can be there tomorrow but me I am no longer there. What bothers me is no longer being alive, not being dead.”
This idea of ’absence’ as loss is behind the greatest moment in I soliti ignoti, which is not found in the rollicking absurdity and high jinks that lead up to the disaster, nor in the towering stupidity and incompetence of the heist proper, but on the early morning after when the perps straggle out onto the deserted streets of Rome, say their goodbyes, and go their separate ways. A palpable regret suffuses the screen and your own heart aches for your loss as well as theirs. Arrivederci. Till we meet again.
* my translation.
How Big Deal on Madonna Street made the Top 100:
Frank Gallo No. 11
Tony d’Ambra No. 16
Frank Aida No. 18
Maurizio Roca No. 26
John Greco No. 34
Peter M. No. 44
Sam Juliano No. 60