The lowly Italian comedy gets royal treatment in fest sidebar

The venerable Venice Film Festival paying tribute to commercial Italian comedies could be likened — almost — to the Pope praising porn.

But, unlike the Vatican, Venice is transcending age-old stigmas with this year’s “Italian Comedy — The State of Things (1937-1988)” retro, which it is calling “a tribute to a genre that has all too often been relegated to the shadows.”

From the days of Neapolitan comic great Toto to the first expertly crafted Christmas comedies, known as Cinepanettoni — the vulgarity-filled bedroom farces set in exotic locations that millions of Italians still lap up during the holidays with their panettone spongecake — local laffers have always been the Italo industry’s biggest driver.

And, of course, a mirror of Italian society and also the industry itself.

Venice topper Marco Mueller is quick to note that the Lido is letting these once-ostracized titles into the temple coinciding with a rare year when Venice has a hot Italian comedy in the competition, Carlo Mazzacurati’s “La Passione” (The Passion), a biting satire of what it’s like to be an Italian filmmaker in the Silvio Berlusconi era.

“We think that a strong contemporary Italian comedy with export potential could create the conditions to let the world know about the wide range of comedic experience in Italian cinema, from completely farcical to very stylized,” says Mueller. “We’ve also had our Buster Keatons and our Marx brothers, but those films never travelled.”

Now some Italo distributors, like Ripley’s Film, are busy preparing DVD copies of vintage Italo laffers that had been languishing in their vaults.

The Venice retro is divided into two sections, with one focused on the 1930s through the mid-1970s, including “Tutta la citta canta,” a rare experiment in comedy by horror-film maestro Riccardo Freda; “Non ti pago!” from 1942, featuring the late stage maestro Edoardo De Filippo; and Antonio Pietrangeli’s 1955 “The Bachelor,” starring sorely missed Italo king of comedy Alberto Sordi, who passed away in 2003.

The other section will see some of the most popular Italian comic actors still active, including Diego Abatantuono, Lino Banfi, Lando Buzzanca, Christian De Sica, Enrico Montesano, Renato Pozzetto, Gigi Proietti, Carlo Verdone and Paolo Villaggio, who will come to Venice to talk about their films, such as horse-betting caper “Febbre da Cavallo,” soccer fever satire “Eccezzziunale … veramente” and the 1983 “Vacanze di Natale,” the first of the 26-title Italo Cinepanettoni series — still being made — that systematically score at the box office despite always being blasted by crix.

“Italian Comedy — The State of Things (1937-1988)” is the continuation of other similarly conceived retros presented in Venice in recent years, all aiming to cast light on the less-known side of Italian film production: from 2004’s “Italian Kings of the Bs — the Secret History of Italian Cinema,” to “These Ghosts 2 — Italian Cinema Rediscovered,” which unspooled last year.

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