Funny how the simplest things are the hardest to translate. The literal English translation of the title of this iconic film, starring two of the world’s best comedians of all time, Anna Magnani and Toto’, is “Joyful Laughter” and yet that’s all wrong. It doesn’t capture the soaring, hysterical, belly laugh, jouissance of “Risate di Gioia,” nor the many levels of irony therein. “Joyful Laughter” just falls flat, yet this film is anything but flat. It’s brilliant fun start to finish. The official film title in English is “The Passionate Thief,” which gets a little at the irony but is still rather flat. The movie is perfect for our times, a glorious tribute to Italy, and as Manohla Dargis writes, it is “a blissful assertion of survival.”
(The version above is in Italian but it looks like you can screen it with subtitles here.)
Toto’ is Toto’ and there is no one like him. Born in Naples in 1898, Toto’ or Antonio Griffo Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno Porfirogenito Gagliardi De Curtis di Bisanzio was a genius known to Italians as “Il Principe della Risata” or “The Prince of Laughter.” He starred in 97 movies during his long career and was a fixture in Italian cultural life. I think it’s fair to say that you can’t really understand Italy until you have seen at least five Toto’ movies. As Umberto Eco wrote: “In this globalized world where it seems that everyone sees the same movies and eats the same food, there are still unbridgeable divisions between cultures. How can two peoples ever come to understand each other when one of them is ignorant of Totò?”
Anna Magnani is best known in the US for her role in the neorealist classic Rome, Open City and generally for her more dramatic roles, but she was an incredible comedienne as you will see here. Her notorious break up with Roberto Rossellini when he left her for Ingrid Bergman resulted in the rival films Stromboli and Vulcano, both shot in the Aeolian islands (one of my favorite places on earth). This extraordinary volcano-worthy love-triangle fiasco makes it into my novel A Man of No Moon.
Many compare the incomparable Toto’ to Buster Keaton but I would say his body of work is more akin to the Marx Brothers’ opus in style and message and sublime humor. A couple of days ago I heard raucous laughter coming from my son Leandro’s room. Usually, I hear the occasional dire “Call of Duty” outbursts such as: “Look out, someone’s in there!” Or, “Take him out! Now!” Or the groan of electronic death. This time I discovered he was watching “A Night in Casablanca.”
Wishing you “risate di gioia.”