10 March 2014

Alberto Sordi

Last year's Il Cinema Ritrovato (29 June - 6 July 2013) had a section Bigger than Life: a journey through European Cinemascope, which included Mario Monicelli's La grande guerra/The Great War (1959). EFSP did a post then about the female lead of this dark comedy, gorgeous Silvana Mangano. Today, the newly restored version of  La grande guerra/The Great War will be presented in the Netherlands, in Eye Film Institute, with an introduction by film historian and EFSP contributor Ivo Blom.

A fine opportunity to do a post today about one of the male leads of La grande guerra/The Great War, Alberto Sordi (1920-2003). In a career that spanned seven decades, the actor established himself as an icon of Italian cinema with his representative skills at both comedy and light drama. He was also a film director and the dubbing voice of Oliver Hardy in the Italian versions of some Laurel & Hardy films.

Italian postcard by Rotalfoto, Milano (Milan), no. 325. Photo: Galfano, Roma.

Italian postcard by Bromofoto, Milano (Milan), no. 697.

Fellini Classics

Alberto Sordi was born in Rome in 1920 to a schoolteacher and a musician. He discovered his comic vocation when, as an altar boy, he raised giggles when he waved the censer too boisterously. At 10, he was singing in the Sistine Chapel choir, thanks to his father, a tuba player at the Rome opera house.

At 16, he went to Milan to record his own fairy tales. He enrolled in Milan's dramatic arts academy but gave up when a teacher told him he would never have an acting career unless he got rid of his thick Roman accent. This accent that would later prove to be his trademark.

His film career began in the late 1930s with bit parts and secondary characters in wartime films. After the war he began working as a voice actor for the Italian versions of Laurel and Hardy shorts, dubbing Oliver Hardy.

His first notable film roles were plum parts in two early Federico Fellini classics: Lo sceicco bianco/The White Sheik (Federico Fellini, 1952) as the exotic hero of fotoromanzi (melodramatic photo dime novels), and Fellini's I vitelloni (Federico Fellini, 1953) about a group of young slackers (also including Franco Interlenghi and Franco Fabrizi).

The year after I Vitelloni, Sordi played leading roles in 13 films. One was a short, in which he played a freakish Roman who is completely crazy for everything that comes from the States. Repeating the character in a full-length film, Un Americano a Roma/An American in Rome (Steno, 1954), he established himself as a star. Then followed a starring role opposite Nino Manfredi in Lo scapolo/The Bachelor (Antonio Pietrangeli, 1955) playing a single man trying to find love.

In 1959 he appeared with Vittorio Gassman as seedy first world war soldiers, who become heroes in spite of their cowardliness, in La grande guerra/The Great War (Mario Monicelli, 1959). The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and is considered by many critics and film historians to be one of the best Italian comedies.

Sordi became known for satirizing his country's social mores in pungent black comedies and farces. In the World War II comedy The Best of Enemies (Guy Hamilton, 1961), Sordi played a wide-eyed, expressive Italian commander opposite stiff-upper-lip British officer David Niven.

He directed himself as an honest Sicilian smuggled into New York as a hit man in Mafioso (Alberto Sordi, 1962). The film was barely seen outside of Italy at the time and was long forgotten, but American distributor Rialto re-released Mafioso in 2007 and netted enthusiastic reviews. Bruce Eder at AllMovie: "Alberto Lattuada's Mafioso (1962) was a movie so far ahead of its era, that -- looking at it 45 years after its release -- it seems at times as though it had been made in a time warp. After all, who made comedies about the mob -- even the Sicilian mob -- in 1962? And in a neo-realist style, to boot? "

Another example is Il diavolo/To Bed or Not to Bed (Gian Luigi Polidoro, 1963) about an Italian fur merchant in Sweden. The film depicts the clash between his fantasies about sex in Sweden with the reality of what he finds. The Hollywood Foreign Press awarded him for this part with a Golden Globe.

Another highly regarded comedy is the anthology I complessi/Complexes (Luigi Filippo D'Amico, Dino Risi, Franco Rossi, 1965) about various psychological complexes. The two other episodes featured Nino Manfredi and Ugo Tognazzi.

Gary Brumburgh at IMDb: "The titles of some of his most prolific characters were as simple as their titles: The Seducer, The Bachelor, The Husband, The Widower, The Traffic Cop, and The Moralist. Most of his protagonists amusingly, but not always pleasantly, stereotyped the worst attributes of Italian men and society, yet many of his films are unparalleled in quality and considered masterpieces. "

Italian postcard by Bromofoto, Milano (Milan), no. 697.

Alberto Sordi and David Niven in The Best of Enemies (1961). Collection: Pierre sur le Ciel.

Underdog and Prevaricator

Wikipedia indicates that Alberto Sordi was really masterful in two broad roles: the underdog, militating against injustices and prevarications, but also the prevaricator himself.

An example of the underdog is the returning emigrant unjustly convicted in Detenuto in attesa di giudizio/In Prison Awaiting Trial (Nanni Loy, 1972) or the miserly sub-proletarian of Lo scopone scientifico/The Scientific Cardplayer (Luigi Comencini, 1972) teased by the old millionaire Bette Davis into endless card games where he hopes to find release from his poverty.

A typical prevaricator is the rampant, unscrupulous doctor in Il medico della mutua/Be Sick... It's Free (Luigi Zampa, 1968). These characters were both truly despicable and completely believable.

Sordi also succeeded in dramatic roles, most notably in Un borghese piccolo piccolo/A Very Small Petit Bourgeois (Mario Monicelli, 1977) in which he portrays an elderly middle-class man, who after seeing his son killed in an armed robbery,  takes justice in his own hands. According to John Francis Lane in The Guardian it was his 'best performance'.

He was also among the large international cast of the dark comedy L'Ingorgo/Traffic Jam (Luigi Comencini, 1979) in which the stories of numerous individuals whose cars are stalled in a massive Roman traffic jam are told. The film was based on a novel by Julio Cortazar.

In Tutti dentro/Off to jail, everybody (Alberto Sordi, 1984), he played a judge who has warrants for corruption served on ministers and businessmen. Sordi directed and co-scripted the film nearly a decade before magistrate Antonio Di Pietro revolutionised Italian politics by doing just that. In 1985, Sordi was a member of the jury at the 35th Berlin International Film Festival.

One of his last films was the character study Romanzo di un giovane povero/The History of a poor, young man (Ettore Scola, 1995). He played an old man fed up with his despotic wife, who during an outburst asks his young and also sad neighbour (Rolando Ravello)  to help him to get rid of his wife by simulating an accident with the promise of a considerable amount of money.

Sordi won during his long career seven David di Donatello’s, Italy's most prestigious film award, and is the record holder of David di Donatello awards as best actor. He also received a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 1995.

In 2003, Alberto Sordi died in Rome shortly before his eighty-third birthday following a heart attack. He was never married, but didn't disdain female company according to John Francis Lane in his obituary: "A loner, he enjoyed a quiet life with his dogs and his two sisters in a splendid villa near the Caracalla Baths." A huge crowd gathered to pay their last respects at his funeral.

Scene from Lo sceicco bianco/The White Sheik (1952). Source: NanniAglione (YouTube).

Scene from La grande guerra/The Great War (1959). Source: GoatDigital (YouTube). Sorry, no subtitles.

Trailer Lo scopone scientifico/The Scientific Cardplayer (1972). Source: FILMAUROsrl (YouTube).

Sources: John Francis Lane (The Guardian), Bruce Eder (AllMovie), Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), AllMovie, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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