Mario Monicelli has spent the last 60 years telling Italy’s sad stories with a smile. The father of Italian comedy, he is also the winner of two Golden Lion awards – one for The Great War, the other a lifetime career award. Monicelli has just celebrated his 93rd birthday but his grasp of Italian society and politics is as sharp as ever. EuroNews met him at his home in Rome, the city where he’s lived for more than 70 years.
EuroNews: “Mario Monicelli, before the elections of the 13th and 14th of April you, along with other intellectuals and artists signed a document supporting the Left. Yet the vote effectively deleted the Left from parliament. Do you now consider yourself to be a campaigner outside parliament?”
Mario Monicelli: “Yes, well… at the end of the day I’ve always been a campaigner on the outside. But now… it wasn’t completely unexpected, although the way things happened were. But otherwise we hadn’t expected that…”
EuroNews: “The new Berlusconi government has made one of its priorities the question of security and clandestine immigration. There have been accusations of racist policies and xenophobia, do you think these are excessive?”
Mario Monicelli: “Well yes, in the sense where the accusations eventually… The truth is that when a society goes through a crisis, is waylaid, disorientated they always find a scapegoat to blame. And then all of a sudden you have the Roma, immigrants, security, you have a lot of noise around these questions. It is a natural reaction. Society is in crisis and is disorientated. That’s the truth.”
EuroNews: “In the general election the Northern League scored a clear success. In his election advert Umberto Bossi’s party suggested – I quote – sending wasters and scoundrels back to their own countries. But a few decades ago that was us, wasn’t it? The Italians were considered wasters and scoundrels?”
Mario Monicelli: “Yes, in effect yes. But we quickly forget. Straight away. If we take our immigration to the United States; over there we were treated the same. We were treated like delinquents – the convictions of Sacco and Vanzetti, for example. We were the scapegoats at that point.
“We can see throughout the course of history exactly the same phenomena repeating themselves. In any case, when those people who throughout their life have held inferior positions gain the upper hand they become just as bad as the others, it’s a natural thing.
EuroNews: “Italian comedy was born in 1958 with the film I Soliti Ignoti – or Big Deal on Madonna Street. Half a century on is this type of cinema dead or does it live on in different forms?”
Mario Monicelli: “No, you see Italian comedy is not a product of the 1950s or of our cinema or of a particular individual. Italian comedy has always existed in Italy. It’s the way we represent our truth, our society, our desires, our despairs with voices which mix comedy and farce with misery, death and sickness.
“It is also comedia dell’arte, with characters such as Punch and Harlequin – the servants who try to cope and to come through their situtations, to protect themselves from the misery and from their bosses who mistreat them.”
EuroNews: “The 1951 film Guardie E Ladri. Toto and Aldo Fabrizi are the protagonists. A swindler and an agent who tracks the thief. The agent – Aldo Fabrizi – says to the thief, Toto ‘stop, it’s an American! What do you want them to think of us?’ What do they think of us today?”
Mario Monicelli: “We project a terrible image of our country, as we always have done. With the exception of the time when we were making these films. Italy at this time had begun to have a new view of itself.
“Our economy was going through a growth phase, we were in the process of rebuilding our country after the long years of dictatorship after an infamous war which we lost. And the reconstruction was going well. It was a good moment in Italy. And our comedies found their voice – it was important to take care with the image we projected of ourselves. Now the image we project is such that it can no longer be redeemed.”
EuroNews: “The Organiser from 1963. Marcello Mastroianni travelled Italy in order to promote the idea of workers’ rights. Today the unions are accused of having too much power. Have the Italy of then and the Italy of now got anything in common?”
Mario Monicelli: “Well yes, there’s always the class war. Even if nowadays everyone claims – the current government particularly – that it no longer exists. On the contrary, the issue of class still exists. It is less in evidence but it is still there. Even if the workers vote for the Right as we’ve seen happen with the Northern League, which in the end isn’t even a party of the Right.
EuroNews: “In 2004 the Cannes film festival was dominated by Michael Moore. This year Sean Penn, the president of the jury, opened with a harsh critique of George Bush. Has the festival become more politically committed?”
Mario Monicelli: “I think so. Perhaps. I haven’t seen the films in competition. In any case, considering the films which have been shown up til now, I would say yes. Especially when it comes to Italian films. In the end Italy has a political brand. Big Italian cinema has always had its political trends. I think even more so than elsewhere.”
EuroNews: “What will be the theme of your next film?”
Mario Monicelli: “No, there won’t be any other films. I’ve finished, I’ve made quite enough – I’ve made 65! I think that’s enough.”