60-Year-Old Tale of Post-War Italy Finally Reaches American Shores

As ‘Una Vita Difficile’ winds its way through marriage, childbirth, love lost and love tentatively regained, the picture reveals its true subject: the compromises that are made in order to live a dignified life.

Via Film Forum
Lea Massari and Alberto Sordi in ‘Una Vita Difficile.’ Via Film Forum

“Una Vita Difficile,” a shambling picaresque from director Dino Risi (1916-2008), is having its U.S. premier some 60 years after its initial Italian release. What took so long for it to reach these shores? 

Italian comedies like “Divorce Italian Style,” “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” and Risi’s “Il Sorpasso” found enthusiastic audiences in art houses during the 1950s and ’60s. Surely, aficionados would have recognized the star of “Una Vita Difficile,” the rubbery-faced Alberto Sordi, from Fellini films like “The White Sheik” and “I Vitelloni.” Sordi’s co-star, Lea Massari, was among the chief players in “L’Avventura,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s break-out international hit. 

Given these selling points, “Una Vita Difficile” would have appeared to be a shoe-in for global distribution. My guess is that the film proved, if not too local in its themes, then overly specific in its historical backdrop. 

The 4K restoration of “La Vita Difficile,” which is beginning a run at Film Forum on February 3, is prefaced with a set of introductory notes outlining events dating from the 1943 surrender to Allied forces by General Pietro Badoglio. These include the brief reign of King Umberto II; the assassination of the leader of the Italian Communist Party,  Palmiro Togliatti; and the “The Dongo Treasure,” a bag purportedly full of gold, jewels, and cash that Mussolini had in his possession upon his capture by partisans.

All of which figure, to one extent or another, in the plot of “La Vita Difficile.” Actually, “plot” may be too stringent a word to describe the events that take place during the course of the film. Risi’s picture unfolds over a 17-year timespan, and centers on the relationship between Silvio Magnozzi (Sordi) and Elena Pavinoto (Massari). The back-and-forth of their ever-evolving and fractious entanglement mirrors the convolutions of post-war Italy.

Their “meet cute” is memorable. Silvio and a cadre of partisans are on the lam near Lake Como in northern Italy. Breaking away from the group, Silvio pleads his case to a local hotelier, seeking shelter from German troops in the vicinity. Soon enough, Silvio is captured by a soldier who sets out to execute him on the spot. Just as the trigger is about to be pulled, Elena, the landlady’s daughter, sneaks up behind the German and hits him upside the head with a hot iron. Murder, exquisitely timed, is the prelude to love.

Whereupon “La Vita Difficile” follows the travails of Silvio and Elena as they navigate life in post-war Italy. Silvio becomes a journalist, working for Il Lavoratore, a hardscrabble Communist paper. His commitment to the cause is paramount, so much so that when Elena joins him at Rome, the couple doesn’t have enough lira in their pockets to get a square meal.

The scene in which they finally do get that meal, among the most renowned in Italian cinema, flits between Chaplinesque whimsy and a mordant strain of satire worthy of Goya’s “Los Caprichos.” 

Through the offices of Marquis Capperoni (Daniele Vargas), Silvio and Elena are the guests of an aging princess and a buffoonish gathering of aristocrats. The young couple keeps mum about their political proclivities even as their hostess extols the virtues of the king on the night of a referendum that will determine whether Italy remains a monarchy or becomes a republic. When the results are announced in favor of the latter, the hostess and her retinue gloomily exit the dining room. Silvio and Elena, with no little triumph, are left alone with a sumptuous dinner.

As the picture winds its way through marriage, childbirth, love lost and love tentatively regained, “Una Vita Difficile” reveals its true subject: the compromises that are made in order to live a dignified life. Both Silvio and Elena make choices that leave them jaded or chastened, and Risi accentuates their dilemmas with a Neorealismo markedly denuded of cinematic bravura. “Technique,” Risi once stated, “is not my concern … that’s why my films can be debatable, even bad, but never boring.” 

“Una Vita Difficile” is, in point of fact, not boring, but it is somewhat shapeless, jumping, as it does, over months and even years without so much as a heads-up. In the end, the story of Silvio and Elena doesn’t resolve itself so much as amble to a standstill. A homely poetry does ultimately emerge, a ragged acknowledgment that fate isn’t altogether implacable. 

The belated arrival of Risi’s “debatable” film counts as a gift for cinephiles with a taste for comedy leavened by the bittersweet.

The New York Sun

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