The voluptuary Roman god Bacchus probably started the party that continued at Nero’s orgies and kept going in the feverish blowouts by Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and, more recently, Paolo Sorrentino. The party goes all night in The Passionate Thief, a 1960 film from Mario Monicelli that tracks an accidental trio — played by the fantastic, weird combo of Anna Magnani, Ben Gazzara and Totò — who scramble and scheme through Rome on a New Year’s Eve filled with shrieks of laughter, desperate actions and consuming pleasures. Shot in black and white, the movie has been gorgeously restored.
The Passionate Thief opens with glittering images of Rome after dark, including a street panorama in which a motorcyclist, seen only in long shot, yells out, “Alfredo, Alfredo!” A slight camera movement reveals that he’s yelling up to a terrace where a woman materializes, waves and walks into a cramped apartment that shifts the story from the bustle of the city to the hum of family life. Alfredo (a funny Mac Ronay, warbling his lines) turns out to be her husband, a subway conductor on his way to work, who mournfully insists that she celebrate New Year’s without him. She assures him that they won’t, sees him to the door and immediately breaks out the party favors.
It’s a funny opener but also a somewhat curious one, because the story soon shifts elsewhere, never to return to this little apartment with its gently duplicitous wife who’s lied to spare her husband. (“What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” she says.) Alfredo does pop up later in the story, but his main function is to help set a comic tone and introduce an idea about human relations that runs through the film like a musical refrain. People lie in The Passionate Thief: Sometimes they lie for love, as the conductor’s wife appears to do, and occasionally they lie out of cruelty. At other times, they lie simply for expediency. (Cinema, Monicelli winks, tells its own lies.)
Magnani plays Tortorella, an actress first seen working as an extra on the set of a religious spectacle being shot at Cinecittà Studios. Wearing a formless, back-lot schmatte and a lopsided mass of curls that sits on her head like a drunken toy poodle, she is acting her heart and lungs out, yelling “Miracle, miracle” with upraised arms and tonsils almost showing. Soon, the director calls it a day, and she’s tearing the wig off and slipping into a fur, excitedly hurtling toward an evening that flickers with alternating currents of promise and disappointment.
There isn’t much of a story in The Passionate Thief, though much — including shimmering life, lust and comedy — happens. After being abandoned by some acquaintances, Tortorella meets up with an old friend, Umberto (Totò, blessed with one of cinema’s eternal mugs), who’s been enlisted to help a pickpocket, Lello (an alluring, brutish Gazzara, dubbed into Italian). There’s a comedy of errors at a lavish party, filled with revelers and balloons, and later, quieter moments in the deserted streets. There’s also a bit that plays like a spoof of the fountain scene in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and strips the romance off that watery interlude, and a long sequence with a mansion filled with polite Germans that carries a post-World War II sting. Monicelli’s humor and fluid visual style are joys.
Cast: Anna Magnani, Totò, Ben Gazzara, Fred Clark, Edy Vessel, Mac Ronay.
Director: Mario Monicelli.
Screenwriters: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli.
A Rialto Pictures release. Running time: 106 minutes. In Italian with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.