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.