Rarely, if ever, an actor can be so strongly identified with a city, so one can say: Alberto Sordi is Rome and Rome is Alberto Sordi. Alberto Sordi is the Roman par excellence, and perhaps more: he represents the “average” Italian, the Italian character in all its aspects, in all its facets, both positives and negatives but, allegedly, for the sake of the comedy, in the scripts of his films a greater emphasis was put on depicting the defects of the Italian character. In over 150 films spanning 61 years of Italian history, from 1937, the year in which he appeared for the first time on the big screen with a small part in the costume drama “Scipio Africanus“, to 1998, when he turned his latest film, “Incontri proibiti“, Italy has been radically transformed, often going through dramatic changes. In 1937 already blew the winds of war in Europe, but Fascist Italy seemed relatively sheltered, Mussolini was carrying on an imperialist policy for the first time in modern Italian history and the consequences will be dire. In 1998 we are at the eve of the third millennium, Italy has already experienced periods of powerful economic growth as well as economic downturns, the habits and customs are radically changed, we have already entered the era of the Internet and, soon, another dramatic event will ensure that nothing more will be as before.
You cannot say that you’re a real Roman if you are not born in Trastevere and Alberto Sordi, in fact, was born in an apartment in the heart of Trastevere, Via San Cosimato, under the sign of Gemini, June 15, 1920, by Pietro Sordi, musician and by Maria Righetti, teacher. He had therefore already in the DNA art and culture, which then he will use in a sublime way in front of the camera. But we are not now interested on retracing his biography, but rather to see how, through his most significant films, he has represented on the scenes the Italian character and all the changes Italy has gone through in these 60 years.
THE POST-WAR YEARS. After playing Risk on the shores of the Black Sea, USA and USSR, top players in the New World Order, face off in a new fight made of low blows. Britain feels as a third wheel and the Suez crisis in 1956 will establish, once and for all, the loss of its main actor role on the World stage. In France, de Gaulle speaks of Grandeur, but as it often happens with Latins, the words do not match the facts. In the British protectorate of Palestine the State of Israel is created. In Italy lots of folks are traveling by: nazi criminals escaping to South America, often aided by the Vatican, as well as Eastern European Jews heading to Palestine. The Japanese pride has committed harakiri but, only one among the defeated countries, it maintains its supreme head. China is bent on itself and 1949 greets the arrival of Mao to power.
At the end of the 40ies, Italy is still licking its wounds left by war, divided by a civil war that has never been officially recognized, the Marshall Plan has not yet produced its effects on the economy, the king is freezed out by the Italians, the soul of the country split into two colors: red (communists) and white (Catholics), women are classified into two categories: whores or saints, men are initiated to sex in the brothels supervised by the state, and Italians, to escape the miseries of the daily life, are daydreaming by reading the photo romance kiss & darling magazines (the ancestor of the soap operas).
Two young guns of the new Italian cinema, Federico Fellini and Alberto Sordi, meet and “TheWhite Sheik” (1951), a merciless portrait of a poor and moralist Italy, comes as a result. A pair of newlyweds, Ivan and Vanda, are on their honeymoon in Rome, where they have rented an apartment, and where they have also organized a group visit to the pope, to bless their union. But Vanda, a naive small-town girl, has more in mind: she wants to take advantage of this trip to Rome to meet The White Sheik (Alberto Sordi), the protagonist of her favorite kiss and darling magazine: “The White Sheik” in fact. Therefore she sneaks off her Roman apartment to find her hero on the beach of Fregene (click here),near Rome. The actor, though married, is immediately attracted to this fresh and naïve and adoring girl. For him, a star of the showbiz, it’s easy to tease Vanda, dazzling with a thousand promises aimed at just one goal, the thing that men want from women when it’s not a matter of romance. So Vanda participates as an odalisque in the filming of an episode of the soap-opera. She can’t believe that her favorite star is flirting with her. She can’t believe she’s acting in a soap opera. He wildest dreams are coming true, but soon reality will show its face: behind the façade of the “glamorous” White Sheik hides a mean man, uncouth, vulgar, clearly interested in only one thing, and ready to do anything to get it. Deeply disappointed, Vanda attempts a clumsy suicide, which fortunately will not be successful. But her husband is desperate, terrified of being
abandoned by his wife, but above all he is desperate because he does not know what to say to his relatives who want to meet his wife. In Italy, in the early 50′s, there was no divorce and, in such a traditionalist culture, being abandoned by his wife, additionally on a honeymoon, would have resulted in an indelible social disgrace. But in the end everything turns out for the best: the disappointed ambitions of Vanda are covered-up and the couple is finally blessed by the pope. The double face of the hero, a devious and vulgar soul, is rendered perfectly by Alberto Sordi.
Back then the American “liberation” army was staying permanently in Italy . They had liberated Italy from the Nazis and brought back freedom and, in addition, they had brought a “revolution” in the Italian habits, I would say many “revolutions”: the chewing-gum, until then unknown in Italy, the baseball caps, filter cigarettes, notably Camels, Coke, and, above all, the blue jeans! The Yankee way of life conquers Italy and Alberto Sordi plays “An American in Rome” (Movie 1954), a fake Kansas City native speaking a maccaroni English, who dreams of going to live in the States; to obtain an entry visa he is willing to do anything, so he climbs up on the Coliseum and he is threatening to jump off if the permission to live in the States is not granted. Jeans and Camel are American, but the soul of the character is Italian, I would say Roman. The synthesis of the character is perfectly rendered by the lyrics of Renato Carosone ” Tu vuò fa l’americano.” (click here to listen to the song):
“tu vuoi vivere alla moda “You want to be trendy
ma se bevi whisky and soda but if you sip whisky and soda
poi te senti disturbà then you feel ill
Tu abballe ‘o roccorol You dance rock ‘n roll
tu giochi al basebal ‘ you play baseball
ma ‘e solde pe’ Camel but the money to buy the Camel
chi te li dà? … where do you get it from?
La borsetta di mammà!” The handbag of your mom!”
Nando Moriconi, Sordi’s character in the film is precisely this: he imitates the Americans, but remains deeply Italian in character. Like many
Italians of the time he is drawn from the American way of life, without really knowing what it means. A must see (click here) is the scene where, in the kitchen of his mother’s apartment, after trying to eat milk and mustard, “as the Americans do” he believes, he is disgusted and starts devouring mama’s spaghetti, because “la mamma è sempre la mamma” and every Italian knows that the spaghetti cooked by Mamma are the best in the world.
The posts-war years end with the economic boom, the “Italian miracle”, that will change Italy forever, Phoenix rising from its own ashes, and Alberto Sordi will recount those changes in his own way, as we will see soon on this blog. Click here to read the second part of this story.