The UCLA-County Museum of Art's "Comedy, Italian Style" retrospective continues tonight at 8 in the museum's Bing Theater with Luigi Comencini's "Bread, Love and Jealousy"--a.k.a. "Frisky" (1954), a follow-up to "Bread, Love and Dreams," which also starred Gina Lollobrigida and Vittorio De Sica.
Like its predecessor, it's a mildly pleasant rural comedy in which the plans of De Sica's middle-aged, small-town police official to marry and settle down are disrupted by Lollobrigida's barefooted spitfire. "Bread, Love and Jealousy" has frankly not aged all that well, with Lollobrigida coming across more as a movie star than a genuine peasant, but it does boast a splendid black-and-white print and good subtitles. Playing with it (but not previewed) is a very early Mastroianni film, Luciano Emmer's "Sunday in August" (1950). Phone: (213) 857-6201.
Saturday's offering at UCLA (Melnitz Hall, at 7:30 p.m.) is much stronger, a pairing of Mario Monicelli's classic "Big Deal on Madonna Street" (1958) and Dino Risi's undeservedly obscure "A Hard Life" (1961), clearly one of the key discoveries in the retrospective. The first is one of the funniest and most famous of all Italian comedies, with Vittorio Gassman and Marcello Mastroianni mixed in an inept attempt to rob a pawn shop. (This wonderful spoof of caper pictures was remade, ill advisedly, by Louis Malle as "Crackers" in 1984.)
Alberto Sordi has long been one of Italy's great comedians: a paunchy, unhandsome Everyman yet ever the vulnerable figure of massive ego and pride. Sordi has a deep love of the bravura, and "A Hard Life"--passionately directed by Dino Risi from Rodolfo Sonego's epic-scale, largely autobiographical script--gives him a splendid, sturdy opportunity to express a full range of emotions.
In "A Hard Life," which spans and illuminates two decades of Italian life, Sordi is a leftist journalist, a minor but loyal member of the Resistance, whose contributions are quickly forgotten in the postwar era and who is persecuted for his political ties.
"A Hard Life" has very specific, very bitterly critical references to Italian political history, but is universal in its appeal as the story of the little guy who inevitably pays a heavy price for his integrity. Yet, as Sordi emerges as symbolic of Italy itself, "A Hard Life" becomes a plea to all Italians not to sell out, despite tremendous pressures to do so. "A Hard Life" co-stars the poised and lovely Lea Massari as the girl who saves Sordi from the Nazis only to experience the decidedly mixed blessing of becoming his wife. More satire and saga than comedy, "A Hard Life" plays like a companion film to the far more famous "La Dolce Vita," also released in 1961.
Sordi also stars in another epic, Luigi Comencini's intermittently involving 1960 "Everybody Go Home!" (at Melnitz, UCLA, Sunday at 7:30 p.m.), which is set in the dangerous, confused wake of the Italo-American Armistice of September, 1943, and focuses on Sordi, a hapless first lieutenant in the North of Italy who commences a long, perilous trek home. This film belongs even less to the category of comedy than "A Hard Life," but it does offer a rueful, compassionate view of the Italian character, for better or worse, in a treacherous, weary and guilt-ridden period. Some moments have power while others smack of 20/20 hindsight. Sordi's co-stars are Serge Reggiani, as one of his men who's determined to carry truffles for their major's wife all the way to Naples, Martin Balsam (dubbed into Italian and apparently cast to secure American distribution) and Nino Castelnuovo.
With it is Comencini's 1961 "The Tiger's Back," which stars Nino Manfredi as a luckless type who inadvertently winds up in prison, where his fellow inmates include Gian Maria Volonte and Mario Adorf. The film deceptively plays like a prison escape drama with wry touches, only to turn into a comedy that's pitch-dark as only the Italians (and Japanese) can make them. Phones: (213) 825-2581, 825-2345.