Thursday, December 2, 2010


A few weeks ago I commented on the death of Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis, who was ninety one and deserving of a footnote in film history for his involvement in the production of De Santis' Bitter Rice (1948), and two of Fellini's greatest films, La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1958). He died in Beverly Hills, from what are mysteriously known as "natural causes."

One of the most important details that an autopsy establishes is the cause of a person's death - whether by homicide, suicide, or natural causes. The first and second causes of death require - and cry out for - explanation. If a homicide, a perpetrator has to be found. If a suicide, the cause, the triggering factor, needs to be known, even if, in many cases, it never will.

When I heard the other evening that the wonderful Italian film director Mario Monicelli had apparently committed suicide by jumping from a hospital window, I was as much bewildered as I was saddened. At the age of ninety five, he was admitted to the hospital a few days earlier for treatment of prostate cancer. His suicide reminded me instantly of that of Primo Levi, who fell from a third-storey landing to his death. Levi's family tried to portray his death as an accident.

He was five years older than Fellini, and three years younger than Antonioni. Between those two giants of Italian film, he still managed to be noticed for three films, Big Deal on Madonna Street (I Soliti Ignoti - 1958), The Great War (La Grande Guerra - 1959), and The Organizer (I Compagni - 1963).

The Organizer is the best title that American distributors could come up with, since the Italian title, "Comrades," probably would not have attracted large audiences in the U.S. in the '60s. The script was written by Monicelli with the prolific duo of Age and Scarpelli and is about idealistic socialist Professor Sinigaglia's efforts to help organize textile workers in Turin at the turn of the century to fight for better wages and working conditions. Played by Marcello Mastroianni in one of his greatest roles, the professor's motives are misunderstood by just about everyone, including the people whose lives he is trying to improve.

It is a great but practically forgotten film. In one scene, in a posh restaurant, the Sinigaglia stands up and begins to play the Internationale on his piccolo. A waiter approaches him and says, "You can't play here. Please leave." As he is leaving, a woman, gaudily dressed, named Niobe (played by Annie Girardot), follows him into the street. She is a prostitute, but she has heard of this mad professor who is helping to organize one of the first strikes in the Piedmont.

When she catches up to him, she gives him two lira. He accepts them.

Niobe (Girardot): Are you from the factory?
Sinigaglia (Mastroianni): No. I'm a teacher.
Niobe: A music teacher?
Sinigaglia: No. A school teacher.
Niobe: Forgive me for . . .
Sinigaglia: The money? I played for that.
Niobe: You accept? Unlike that down and out!
Sinigaglia: Who? I know so many.
Niobe: He hates my money. Always going on about honest work.
Sinigaglia: Who?
Niobe: My father. He wanted to send me to the factory. 16 hours a day, my hands in water, to end up in a hospice like so many others. I changed trades. Have I done any harm? What have I done wrong?
Sinigaglia: You did right.
Niobe: Is that true?
Sinigaglia: Certainly. I've changed trades too, see.
Niobe: Why get involved?
Sinigaglia: I'm selfish.
Niobe: I don't understand.
Sinigaglia: I like it. Therefore, it's not a sacrifice. And maybe so that one day, girls like you . . .
Niobe: What?
Sinigaglia: . . . won't have to do what you did.

Niobe says nothing and goes back inside the restaurant. The professor puts his hat back on and walks away down the street.

Ciao, professore.

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