“Una Vita Difficile” (“A Difficult Life”) slides and skitters over nearly two decades of Italian history, from the partisan battles with German occupiers after the fall of Mussolini to the economic boom of the 1960s. It’s a movie — released in Italy in 1961 and only now making its way to North American screens — about a great many wonderful and vexing things, including love, honor, money, cinema, politics and Alberto Sordi’s remarkable chin.
Most obviously and poignantly, it’s about the experience of time: how the months fly and the hours drag; how life changes all at once and not at all; how hope mutates into regret. Consider just two small, memorable moments, which can also stand as evidence of the wisdom and ingenuity of Dino Risi, the director.
At the end of an early scene in an old mill near Lake Como, the camera’s gaze comes to rest on an intact prosciutto suspended from a rafter over an unused bed. The image fades out, and in the next shot a picked-over bone — all that’s left of the ham — hangs over the bed, which is now occupied by Elena (Lea Massari), an innkeeper’s daughter, and Silvio (Sordi, his chin temporarily bearded), an antifascist fighter. A whole love story has unfolded in the slicing of the meat and the splicing of the film, a courtship and consummation in the blink of an eye.
A few years later, the war is over, Elena is pregnant and she and Silvio are scraping by in Rome, where he writes for a left-wing newspaper. They run into an aristocratic so-and-so from Elena’s hometown up North, and find themselves invited to a formal dinner hosted by stalwarts of the old royalist order. It happens to be the day of the referendum that would abolish the monarchy and establish Italy as a republic. As news of the voting result comes in over the radio, the assorted members of the hereditary elite lose their appetites and shuffle away from the table, leaving Silvio and Elena, the only anti-monarchists at the party, their plates heaped with pasta and meatballs. They toast a bright, democratic future.
Sometimes history breaks in their favor: love, valor and salumi in the mountains; democracy and pappardelle in the capital city. But the movie, a stellar specimen of commedia all’italiana by a true maestro of the form, is called “A Difficult Life” for a reason. Nothing goes quite as planned, and Silvio’s irrepressible jollity is no match for the tides and crosscurrents of postwar Italy. (The newly restored version opening at Film Forum this week comes with a helpful introductory note identifying important dates and events). The early years of the Republic bring hardship, disappointment and humiliation.
Silvio, like Sordi a native Roman with a big heart and a booming voice, does not exactly cut a tragic figure. This is a comedy, after all, and even at his bravest he isn’t hewed from heroic stock. Elena, a person of lofty dignity and weary tenderness, demonstrates finer courage when she brains a German soldier with an iron, and perhaps greater fortitude as she weathers the misfortunes of their life together.
Some of these are Silvio’s fault. Some can be blamed on Elena and her starchy mother (Lina Valonghi), who push Silvio away from journalism and politics toward a respectable career as an architect for which he is utterly unsuited. But the deeper source of his difficulty, and of the pathos that haunts the comedy, lies in a society seemingly determined to betray its own traditions and values. Political repression, mindless consumerism and the hardening of class divisions conspire to threaten Silvio’s happiness and rob him of Elena’s love.
Sordi was one of Italy’s biggest movie stars of the boom years — he starred in “Il Boom” (1963), Vittorio De Sica’s definitive satire of the era’s skewed values — though not as internationally celebrated as some of his compatriots. He was a marvelous paradox: an alienated Everyman, a dignified buffoon, an avatar of ordinary Italianness menaced on one side by modern materialism and on the other by the encrusted legacies of feudalism and fascism.
It’s a lot for one man — or one movie — to handle, and a smoother, sharper version of the same story could have been told with a different actor at the center, a more inward-turned, psychologically refined performer. But the disproportion that Sordi brings to the part is essential to Risi’s argument, which is precisely that Silvio doesn’t fit the scale of his times. He is at once too big and too modest, too simple in his needs and too unruly in the way he expresses them.
Right after “Una Vita Difficile,” Risi made “Il Sorpasso,” a road comedy starring Jean-Louis Trintignant and Vittorio Gassman that has long been regarded as a classic. The original English title of that film was “The Easy Life.” Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (“The Sweet Life”) dates from the same period. So much life! All of these movies pulsate with the breathlessness and disorientation of a country simultaneously grappling with the past and speeding toward a confusing future. “Una Vita Difficile” belongs in their company. It also stands by itself as an exuberant bad time, a pity party that has no business being so much fun.
Una Vita Difficile
Not rated. In Italian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. In theaters.