Monday, December 15, 2014

The Passionate Thief

If you want to see Anna Magnani’s earthly talents turned to comic advantage then check out Mario Monicelli’s The Passionate Thief (Risate di goia, l960), the restored print of which is currently completing a run at Film Forum. Magnani, whose suffering persona in films like Rome, Open City (1945) and Mamma Roma (1962) was accentuated by those famous eyes which sparkled with life in spite of the dark rings, plays the part of, Tortorella, a down on her heels extra at Cinecitta, out for a good time on New Year’s eve in Rome. The Passionate Thief is worth seeing if only for the blond wig Magnani sports as part of her party outfit. Magnani is passionate even in her comic roles, though the passionate thief in question may refer to the character of Lello (Ben Gazarra) who calculatedly seduces Magnani only to use her as a front. “Steal but why play with my feelings?” Magnani cries at the end to which Gazarra replies, “Because I’m a thief and not ashamed of it.” The famous comic actor Toto plays Umberto, a bungling scammer and sometime performer, who is the straight man in the face of Magnani’s frenzied energy. He’s a Buster Keaton double, as they open up their only possession, an umbrella, to protect themselves from the sun rather than the rain. By the end of her New Year's, Tortorella’s fortunes have fallen even further with her taking the rap for the theft of a necklace from the Madonna in a church. Here Monicelli conjures the memory of another famous Italian screen actress, Giulietta Masina, who played an equally down on her heels character, the prostitute in Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria (l957). Fred Clark has an uproarious cameo as a drunken American tourist who seems like an easy mark, but inadvertently ends up relieving the thieves of their jackets before attempting to jump into a fountain. Poverty is really the subject (“Why are some people born rich and others so poor?” Gazzara’s character asks at another point) and as in Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), Monicelli uses the comic caper to underline a theme that neo-realists like Rosellini, Visconti and De Sica presented in a more sinister light.

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