With scores of pics never getting Stateside release, Italian writer/director Mario Monicelli remains largely known & celebrated for BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET/’58, a founding film in the socially engaged, post-war commedia all’italiana style of the ‘Boom’ years. With their bleak/ambiguous endings & tragic undertones, they achieved universality thru Italian specificity. Famous titles like Pietro Germi’s DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE/’61 and De Sica’s MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE/’64 carried the genre forward, along with directors Dino Risi, Ettore Scola, Alberto Lattuada & others. Monicelli’s I COMPAGNI (literally COMRADES), is a topsy-turvy part of the tradition; a full bore Zola-esque period tragedy (a la GERMINAL) about a textile workers’ strike in turn-of-the-last-century Turin, magnificently worked up in commedia all’italiana attitudes. Heartbreaking, jaw-dropping, painfully funny, grimly realistic, it’s an unknown astonishment ripe for the basic film canon. Marcello Mastroianni, in one of his greatest roles, is powerful & quietly devastating as an on-the-run union agitator, delicately grabbing opportunity as it presents itself. Watch him jump a beat ahead when Annie Giradot’s prostitute offers to share her bed. Commie & capitalist commingling. Silly to pick & choose among a more or less perfect cast, but pay special attention to young Franco Ciolli. In his sole film appearance, he’s unforgettable as Omero, an older boy in the mill charged with keeping a kid brother at his studies. Lucky in his casting, Monicelli also got lucky with his locations (or just smart), finding a stunner of a factory to retro-fit into a labor-intensive torture plant. And even luckier in cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno who makes the most of every possibility at work and in the slum-scape tenement life nearby*, often shooting in a manner that recalls the orthochromatic film stock of early silents.** The film is unmissable.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Rotunno shot this between Visconti’s THE LEOPARD/’63 and De Sica’s YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW/’63, giving each a different, perfectly judged look.
DOUBLE-BILL: **The early parts of the modern story in D. W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE/’16 (later released separately as THE MOTHER AND THE LAW/’19) were an obvious influence here.