I learned of the death of Dino Risi via the obituary published in the latest Cahiers du Cinema. Long time critic Luc Moullet devoted two pages to a eulogy on Risi and its career. It brought back some memories and made me ponder on just how many of Risi's films remain unseen.
Risi died on 7 June at 90 years of age and it seems to have passed unnoticed, at least in the mainstream English language press. His was a name that had largely fallen off the radar in recent years. Yet at his peak he directed a number of the most popular Italian films ever made, worked with some of Italy’s finest actors and had at least one of Hollywood’s accolades accorded to him, a remake of one of his greatest successes.
Risi was born in 1917 and trained as a psychologist. He got into the film industry as an assistant in the early forties and later took classes under Jacques Feyder while still interned in Switzerland during the war. He made documentaries and in the early fifties gave up his psychology practice and established himself as a feature film director. He specialized in the light comedies beloved of Italian audiences. The roots of these films trace back to neo-realism and the settings especially were always quite meticulous in their detail of everyday life. Few of them were exported for viewing by art house audiences around the world but in the 50s and 60s in Australia you could see them at the inner suburban cinemas which catered to the vast pool of recent Italian immigrants. Many, though not all, however were screened in copies without subtitles and it was hit or miss for the dedicated followers who lapped up the pleasures offered by Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni long before they achieved international success.
In the early 60s Risi became something of an art house treasure. His Il Sorpasso/The Easy Life (1961) was a huge hit with cinemagoers who appreciated its sly humour. Risi tapped into studies of that peculiarly Italian combination of traits - sophistication, street cunning, and a blithe disregard for the law. Few will ever forget the moment Vittorio Gassman blithely steals someone else’s parking ticket before placing it on his own car which in a flash establishes Gassman’s character. Gassman’s riotous sentimental education of the young and repressed Jean-Louis Trintignant in the ways of the world set the world laughing.
Risi’s other big critical success, and international hit, was Profumo di Donna/Scent of a Woman, made in 1973. Again it starred Gassman, one more of the sixteen very fruitful collaborations between the actor and director. The part of a blind man with a chip on his shoulder, a giant libido and an extraordinary nose for female scent was dangerous but riotous. Hollywood remade it with Al Pacino in 1992. Martin Brest’s film, incredibly long for a dramatic comedy at some 156 minutes, was also a critical and popular success. As usual however the original was a better movie.
As per usual with European films, the distribution of Risi’s work outside his home country was sporadic. Some of it popped up dubbed. Much of it was ignored. That hardly seems to have mattered to a director who kept working until well into his seventies. Today very little of his work is available. A check of the Time Out Film Guide doesn’t have a single Risi title listed as being available for TV or DVD in Britain and you suspect that the same would apply in Australia.
If his death causes anyone anywhere a tingle of nostalgia then it would be nice if someone got out a selection of his best and assembled them for an international tour. SBS could help with the subtitling for over the years the keen eyed viewer had the chance to see more than a little of his best work on that channel. (Alas no more those golden years have passed). One film especially would be welcome, the drama he made with Alberto Sordi in 1960, A Difficult Life. Whether it has ever been screened here is beyond me but in the European obituaries it is singled out for high praise. Otherwise I’d just be happy to see all sixteen of those films he made with the extraordinary Gassman, collectively probably the actor’s best work when his characteristic jauntiness, suavity, brilliant comic timing and unassailable ability to deliver dialogue at machine gun pace were on full display. Throw in the early Sophia Loren pictures as well and a bit of the cinema’s heaven would be there for all to see.
Risi’s two sons Marco and Claudio have followed him into the film business