Una vita difficile (1961)

8 02 2023

In my recent review of The Conformist, I reflected on the way aging has altered my perception of “selling out.” There’s a bit more ambivalence in the present day for me, as some of my ideals (both political and otherwise) have fallen out of balance with the simple everyday matter of fact issue of continuing to exist in comfort. Living is difficult, and fittingly, it’s this same tension that is at the heart of Dino Risi’s aptly titled Una vita difficile. Risi’s touch, while sometimes understanding the aching nature of everyday life, is buoyant and cheerful, even as we follow our unlucky protagonist down the rabbit hole of disappointment after disappointment. Strangely, the film celebrates the downward trajectory our lives often take as being of the whole chaotic and beautiful whole of living. The tone is remarkably different from Bertolucci’s film.

At the tail end of the Second World War, partisan Silvio is on the run from Nazi forces occupying near Lake Como. He is taken in by innkeeper’s daughter, Elena, after she manages to rescue him from a near-death confrontation with a Nazi. The two spend three months together in a shack located near the inn, and during that time develop a relationship of pseudo matrimony. When Silvio’s partisan comrades arrive, he abandons Elena. Years pass, Silvio is now a reporter for a fledging Roman leftwing rag Il Lavoratore. A story brings him back to Lake Como where he reunites with Elena, who he takes back to Rome to start a life of marital bliss. Silvio’s lack of income throws a wrench into these plans.

The face of Risi’s picture is Silvio, a hard luck idealist embodied by Alberto Sordi. Sordi himself was synonymous with Commedia all’italiana, the genre in which Una vita difficile can be classified. My understanding of the genre is limited – I’d experienced Sordi once before in Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso which made little to no impression on me at the time. I went into Risi’s film skeptical that I’d be in tune with his humor, expecting something more whimsical – but this about as sour and bitter as a comedy can be. Sordi manages to strike the perfect balance between tragic and pathetic, his Silvio is not a political martyr, but instead an idealistic schmuck whose vision of himself never quite lines up with actions. He is something of a scoundrel, but not an irredeemable one.

In a stroke of luck, my screening of Una vita difficile came a day after a viewing of Mauro Bolognini’s Senilità, released a year later. In that film, the protagonist falls hopeless in love with a woman until it consumes his personal life. Bolognini’s film is brilliantly shot but its protagonist, whose desperation bears some similarities to Silvio’s, is an insufferable bore. The film does not fail because its protagonist is unlikable but instead because it presents his vision of a world as a stifling one dictated only by a romantic interest. Silvio is similarly pathetic, but the anguish found in the film’s humor resonates because even as Silvio overcompensates for his ideals, he at least has those ideals to begin with. He is more than just a seduced target.

Silvio’s plight is accessible because it brilliantly showcases a fundamental flaw in many humans. He sees himself as a dedicated leftist. When he abandons Elena in the film’s first act, he explains it is because of a fighter, but it seems just as likely that he’s doing so for fear of commitment. When he is finally released from two years in prison, he berates his friend and coworker Franco for not standing by his side during the arrests. “The revolution was happening, and you were getting a cappuccino!” Meanwhile, an earlier sequence depicting the arrest shows Silvio himself abandoning his pregnant wife – a move of cowardice that is never referenced again. His vision of himself does not exactly line up with how he is depicted, but Silvio is also not overly self-conscious. As the film’s finale shows, despite his inconsistency, his decision-making is ultimately dictated by his pride.

Christmas in July (1940)

1 02 2023

As I’ve aged into adulthood, one thing I’ve become more secure about is my insecurity. It sounds strange I know, but I’m now more aware that I’m not alone in this insecurity and instead that most of people’s waking lives are dominated by doubt, anxiety, and a level of self-consciousness. Even in returning to writing this blog, I’ve endured some stress at my personal expectations involving the responses of my peers. I, like anyone else, desire some form of validation. Dick Powell’s Jimmy MacDonald synthesizes this desire in Christmas in July when he says “I always thought I had good ideas. Now, I know I have good ideas.” This line comes after he falsely believes to have won the Maxford House Coffee slogan contest. The chaos that follows is one of the most concise distillations of the American Dream and all the agony it false promises can bring. Positioned by some as a minor effort, Christmas in July presents Preston Sturges at both his funniest and most moving.

Jimmy MacDonald sits on the roof of his apartment with his girlfriend and coworker Betty Casey. The two dream of a better life, lamenting the life of struggle that was paved out by their parents. Jimmy has a treatment for their economic ailment: he plans to win a slogan contest for Maxford House Coffee. He believes he has an unbeatable motto: “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.” Betty is less impressed with the plan, and not at all on board with the slogan. The next day at work, Jimmy is stunned to find a telegram declaring him the winner of the contest, but the telegram is a prank from his coworkers. The ruse is never admitted, though, and Jimmy and Betty enjoy an afternoon planning their now prosperous future.

 Christmas in July clocks in at a brisk 67 minutes. Maybe the optics of the short run time has led to limited critical evaluation, it seems many of my peers consider this to be a “minor Sturges.” Much of the critical rhetoric suggests that it is a light and fluffy affair. I can understand how one might feel this way, especially in comparison to the far more socially pointed Sullivan’s Travels (which only came out a year later!) but I think more of a punch is packed here than in the longer, more celebrated film. It’s the sort of film where if one blinks, they might miss something that launches pages worth of discourse.

When Jimmy first strides into work, he is greeted by a workspace that resembles a machine. Rows of desk all in perfect symmetry, with the humans occupying them acting as automatons laboring away. Sturges quotes and evokes King Vidor’s The Crowd and in a few quick seconds manages to convey the same weight of that film within a fraction of the time. Like Vidor, Sturges captures the anxiety of the working class – the feeling of being replaceable, a cog in the machine. Yet, Sturges film supports this sensation with humor. When Jimmy’s (false) win leads to a promotion at work, his boss at work astutely states, “Now that you’re a capitalist, I don’t know how you feel about working for a living.”

Jimmy’s working-class ennui is not pointed at, like the self-pitying liberalism of Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels, but instead something in which Sturges manages to draw in the margins. That’s film very explicit message of the importance of making people laugh seems to register better in this earlier effort, strictly on the basis of (and this is of course a personal opinion) it being immensely funnier. But most impressively to me, is the fact that Sturges pulls his best punches in the film’s rare but completely earned moments of tender emotion. Upon discovering that the telegram declaring the victory is a hoax, Jimmy and Betty return to their place of employment. A painter is putting the finishing touches on Jimmy’s new desk. The promise of a better future is slipping away and taunting them. Jimmy’s boss enters to re-congratulate him on his recent success, his promotion, his new office. Jimmy feels the need to come clean, but he does so obliquely. He suggests that his ideas he had earlier are still great, no matter if he won the contest or not. Winning the contest should be irrelevant. His boss replies that it does matter, “It’s what you might call commercial insurance as when a horse wins the Derby, you back him for the Preakness.” In the film’s most emotionally stirring moment, Jimmy confesses. “Well, I didn’t win.” To which his boss replies, “The Preakness?” Only Sturges could pack such a humorous uppercut in the middle of an emotional gut punch.