Italian cinema’s betes noir, Daniele Cipri and Franco Maresco, pay posthumous homage to the country’s unsung kings of B-comedy, Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia, in “How We Got The Italian Cinema Into Trouble,” an absorbing docu about a pair of talented but trashy Palermo street performers who during the 1960’s rose to bigscreen popularity despite critical drubbing. Richly researched — with almost none of Cipri and Maresco’s trademark dark antics — pic divulges an untold mercenary side of cinema Italiano in its heyday. Obscure subject matter limits prospects outside Italy to specialized fests and niche TV. Unmarketed domestic release, has been lackluster.
Both born into postwar poverty, Franco and Ciccio — as they became known — formed a classic comic duo. Franco was short, stocky, with bulging eyeballs and manic energy. Ciccio was tall, wispy, the straight man with a seedy aristocratic air.
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Title ironically refers to how the pair became perceived as pariahs in highbrow Italo circles while churning tons of lucrative low-grade comedies. Between 1964 and 1966 Franco and Ciccio starred in 38 movies — including “Primitive Love,” which co-starred Jayne Mansfield, “War, Italian Style,” which featured an over-the-hill Buster Keaton, and “Dr. Goldfoot and the Sex Bombs,” directed by Mario Bava. During three decades the duo made 120 pics.
Fellow Palermo natives Cipri and Maresco proceed from Franco and Ciccio’s dusty stomping grounds in the Sicilian capital to their first stage gigs, and their big break into movies thanks to singer Domenico Modugno, “Mr. Volare,” who became their greedy manager.
Work at a breakneck pace took its toll and the tragicomic clowns began to bicker, largely because Ciccio yearned to be more selective in picking projects, while Franco, who grew up hungrier, could not bear to turn anything down.
During their brief breakup in the 1970’s Ciccio worked with Federico Fellini, playing the crazy uncle who climbs a tree shouting “I want a woman!” in “Amarcord.” Franco was the protag of a “Last Tango in Paris” parody, which, in the docu, Bernardo Bertolucci amusingly says he never saw, for fear he may have liked it better than the original.
The advent of Silvio Berlusconi’s networks in the ’80s saw Franco and Ciccio’s film careers nosedive, replaced by a stream of TV skits. One their last movies, “Cream, Chocolate and … Paprika,” was produced by the son of a Palermo Don, which caused Franco to be investigated for Mafia association in 1989, a blow from which he is said to have never recovered, despite being cleared of charges.
Cipri and Maresco, who owe their cult status to absurdist comedies like “The Uncle From Brooklyn,” and “Toto Who Lived Twice,” adopt a largely straightforward docu style, laced with only a few wacky vignettes. These include some faux film critics, including one played by real Italo crit Gregorio Napoli parodying himself, as also seen in their previous work, “The Return of Cagliostro.”
Editing by the directors and Claudia Uzzo of the treasure trove of archive material, threaded with plenty of interviews with industryites and with the comics’ family members, is smooth.