The 1960s were the decade of the '70s. Not counting a slightly disreputable American precursor in the form of 1958's Frankenstein 1970, the Sixties used the '70 suffix several times as an indicator of super-modernity for purported modernizations of classic tales and archetypes. The anthology film Boccaccio '70, for instance, offered itself as an update of the Decameron, while Manon 70 gave the modern treatment to the novel Manon Lascaut. The notion of ultramodernity wasn't exactly obscured if people believed that the magic number also denoted a widescreen presentation. Mario Monicelli, acknowledged as an expert in comedy all'Italiana, also deserves recognition as the master of comedy '70. His contribution to Boccaccio '70, a slice-of-life romantic comedy on a colossal scale, was edited out of the film's American release, and not restored until a 21st century DVD release, because it took the picture over the three-hour mark and Monicelli, despite Big Deal on Madonna Street, was the least well-known of the anthology's directors (the others being De Sica, Fellini and Visconti). His consolation prize was getting an entire '70 picture to himself, along with the services of Marcello Mastroianni, who may have seemed like the only cinematic asset missing from the Italian super-anthology.
The premise, of course, was to imagine a serial seducer on the semi-legendary model of Giacamo Casanova in the Swinging Sixties, or just afterward. But since this is a Monicelli picture, his Casanova has to be dysfunctional in some way that was perhaps characteristically Italian. Monicelli and his co-writers, the dream team including the late Tonino Guerra and Suso Cecchi d'Amico, along with the director's Organizer collaborators, Age and Scarpelli, came up with an appropriately mock-psychological explanation for their Casanova's compulsion. Mastroianni plays NATO Officer Rossi-Colombotti, who discovers to his dismay that seduction is too easy for him, so easy that he can't rise to the occasion, if you please, unless he increases the risk factor. Or so a dubious analyst (comedy director Marco Ferreri) with an Oriental gimmick and a latent streak of misogyny tells our hero. This sets up an episodic saga that could well have become a multi-director anthology under different circumstances, as Rossi-Colombotti struggles to find new ways to make love dangerously. He enters a lion cage on a dare from the sexy female lion tamer and gives her a kiss in front of his would-be fiancee. On a mission in Sicily, he makes it with a girl while her violent family waits outside, our hero having pretended to be a doctor in order to inspect her virginity, a matter of honor to her kin. In the last and longest episode, he renews an acquaintance with an oppressed countess whose husband pretends to be deaf and schemes like a villain from melodrama to use his collapsing property to kill our hero. And when things go the other way, Rossi-Colombotti ends up on trial for murder.
What's the difference between this scenario and so many Hollywood sex comedies of the same era? The simple answer is talent. Monicelli last appeared on this blog as the director of The Organizer, a gritty, downbeat period piece about a failed factory strike. There the comedy was subtle and somewhat dark, more a matter of empathy with human frailty than anything else. Casanova '70 is a big, broad comedy with sight gags and sometimes farcical action, and Monicelli handles that kind of comedy just as deftly as the more dramedic or tragicomic material of The Organizer. Mastroianni is his star in both pictures, and like the director the star toned down his stardom for the earlier film. As Monicelli's messed-up modern Casanova he goes all out, and the results remind us that Marcello Mastroianni should be ranked among the greatest comic actors in movies.
He has the rare combination of a clown's temperament and matinee-idol looks that made Cary Grant and currently makes George Clooney occasionally brilliant comedians, but in Mastroianni's case, from what I know of him, comedy was his primary mode. Stuff like Casanova '70 is his specialty. He's naturally convincing as a lover. He can do the physical comedy. He's not afraid to look or sound silly, as when he has to enunciate every syllable while addressing the allegedly deaf Count and comes across like he's addressing a primitive imbecile, or like one himself. But his special comedic gift may be the way he can make himself the center of a scene while doing nothing but watching other people. He would have fit in at Hal Roach's studio with such great reaction artists as Oliver Hardy. When a bridge collapses behind him as he's conveyed over water to the Count's castle, the payoff is his reaction -- not that he mugs or pulls a face. His reactions are more the perplexity of a man whose sense of decorum, dignity, complacency or superiority is under constant assault, yet doesn't want to give any of that away. His best such moment comes at the Sicilian restaurant as he waits with Hitchcockian patience for service as noises inside portend that all hell is about to break loose. Monicelli defuses the tension with a gag, as a pantsless toddler wanders onto the patio and crawls under Mastroianni's table. Mistaking the brat's babbling for the mewling of a cat, he dips some bread into tomato sauce and clucks at the creature under the table, inviting it to eat. At that moment a mob comes pouring out of the kitchen, seemingly determined to lynch a man attempting to escape them but finally carrying him, as he kicks and screams, back inside. Mastroianni simply watches. He even turns his back to the camera to follow the action, but his presence holds the entire scene and Monicelli's pictorial composition together. The comedy is only superficially grounded in the Sicilians' barbarism -- they're the equivalent of hillbillies in an American comedy -- but in Mastroianni's implicit questioning: "What am I doing in such a place? How did I get here? What is going on?" His character can be a priapic buffoon for us to mock elsewhere in the picture, but when it counts Mastroianni becomes a dismayed everyman and our point-of-view character, a would-be ringmaster who's lost control of the human circus.
The star is ably supported by a harem of temptresses led by Marisa Mell as the Countess, while the director is still more ably supported by vivid cinematography by Aldo Tonti -- the picture's a knockout in HD -- and expansive production design by Mario Garbuglia, who was coming off both The Organizer and Visconti's The Leopard. Casanova '70 is an exemplary film from the period of Italy's epic bid for global cinematic domination on both the arthouse and the grindhouse level, and it has an appropriate pictorial ambition, if not an outright swagger. A Casanova film from the actual 1970s would probably look and feel very different -- the closest thing I know of is Fellini's film with Donald Sutherland as the historical character -- but Monicelli's film wasn't meant as a prophecy. Think of it as Casanova 1965 and you have an attractive, amusing document of a moment in cinematic history and a highlight from the collaboration of a brilliant comic actor and a brilliant comedy director.
Here's the trailer from Fandorific's YouTube channel: