Film Review: “A Difficult Life” – A Satiric Italian Gem About a Likable Rogue
By David D’Arcy
The first American release of a 1961 Italian comic treasure that spoofs corruption in postwar Italy.
A Difficult Life, directed by Dino Risi. A 4K restoration screening today and tomorrow at Somerville Theatre.
Out of prison and out of work as Italy struggles to get on its feet in the early 1950s, the journalist Silvio Magnozzi (Alberto Sordi) devotes himself to publishing his novel, called “A Difficult Life” (Una Vita Difficile). Editors tell him that it’s mediocre and unsellable. For a man who’s been rejected at almost everything, there’s still one field left, they say — the cinema.
Silvio heads to a film in production, and can’t find work there, either. Yet he does run into an Italian aristocrat who’s also down on his luck, costumed as an ancient Roman soldier. Silvio learns that work as a film extra, with a free lunch from the producers, pays much better than his job as a journalist did when he had it.
Before Rodney Dangerfield’s farces of disrespect, Italians enjoyed A Difficult Life (1961), a comedy about Italy at war and at peace directed by Dino Risi, a champion of the lightheartedly irreverent genre commedia all’italiana. Alberto Sordi plays a principled man — at least principled enough — who encounters failure even after he is willing to betray his beliefs. Released in the United States for the first time by Rialto Pictures — Una Vita Difficile premiered in New York earlier this year — the plot follows Magnozzi as he stumbles through Italy’s imperfect, improvised, and incomplete recovery from fascism and postwar poverty. This satire about a serial loser supplies plenty of pleasure, as does any encounter with Sordi (1920-2003), whom Italian audiences loved but who never connected with the American public.
Things begin as the war is ending. German troops are still shooting partisans in the north, where Benito Mussolini, on the run, was captured and killed with his girlfriend. They were then dangled as a pair on meat hooks. The bearded Magnozzi is on the grounds of an inn where a young woman is doing the laundry. A German soldier finds him and leads him away. The Italian holds up two hands, pretending to type, insisting that he’s with the press. The German is not convinced: Magnozzi is lined up against a wall and waiting to die. He (along with the rest of us) hears a loud crack off-camera. The woman, Elena (Lea Massari), has hit and killed the soldier with her iron. It’s a rare moment of good luck for Magnozzi: his bond with Elena begins and it is constantly being tested. This Italian Everyman is not a man any woman should trust.
Two years later, Magnozzi returns and takes Elena off to Rome. Her fate could have been worse: a boring life with a penniless journalist on the picturesque provincial shores of Lake Como. They live and conceive a child in a flat with no water, eating without paying at restaurants. Given Silvio’s penury, his ever-present necktie comes across as an odd trait, the mark of a man who wishes he were more respectable. Sordi and director Risi play poverty for laughs; the jokes about freeloading reporters point gently at the grueling hardships many Italians endured. And when Magnozzi insists that his newspaper investigate appalling conditions in the south, his publisher replaces his stories with interviews with aristocrats.
The script caroms from press self-censorship and business corruption to looks at the self-serving greed of the lucky few who revel in the beginning of what would become La dolce vita. There’s even a sequence, set in 1948, of rioting by leftists after a fascist student shot the Italian communist party leader Palmiro Togliatti (who survived). Magnozzi ends up in court and then in prison. The jailed ardent leftist leads a strike for better conditions and wins concessions. For that he earns solitary confinement for himself.
Some scenes drawn from Italy’s postwar history will be revelations to Americans. The starving Silvio and Elena are taken by a minor aristocrat from Elena’s hometown (who later surfaces as the film extra) to a dinner in Rome at the dusty abode of monarchists. The hosts seem well-fed and no worse for wear after cozying up to fascists. As Silvio stuffs his mouth with food, he insults Italy’s royal family. At that moment the radio just happens to announce the defeat of the king’s party at the polls. It’s a tragic event for the royalists; for once, the joke is not on the oft-defeated Magnozzi. These stuffed shirts and spectral figures are historical waxworks that somehow outlived fascism and World War II. They survived only to see new voters reject efforts to bring them back into power. Maybe this macabre dinner, which resonates with the treatment of the anachronistic stars in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, explains why some call Risi the Italian Billy Wilder. Yet Sordi, befitting the luck of an unemployed leftist journalist, is lower on the food chain of Italy’s recovery than William Holden’s idle screenwriter was in Hollywood.
True to the film’s title, Magnozzi is a proud man who’s barely treading water, always falling into situations where he’s fated to fall short — with his bosses, with his wife, and with a rising economy that is leaving him behind. Yet Sordi and Risi were entertainers. They knew that filmgoers, though angered by the craven wheeling-dealing around them, wanted to laugh — or at least be distracted — which explains the presence of fast, shiny cars, stylish women wearing the latest fashion, and the excess of beau monde glamour.
In 1962’s unsettling comedy Il Sorpasso (The Overtaking), Risi concluded his comic critique of the excesses of rampant indulgence with Vittorio Gassman and his loud new sports car veering off a cliff. A half-dozen scenes in A Difficult Life could have ended with Magnozzi just as dead. But Risi probably thought that Sordi’s likable rogue persona, often a heel with women, was too beloved by his public to be dispatched that way.
David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including The Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.