I SOLITI IGNOTI directed by Mario Monicelli (Italy, 1958)
Comedy is often culturally bound and this is why it doesn’t always travel well.
Slapstick or sight gags are an exception and it’s no coincidence that Benny Hill and Mr Bean are so popular in Italy while stuff like The Fast Show, Ali-G, Fresh Meat or Catherine Tate, to take some random examples, are not so easily translatable.
A lot of the pleasure of these shows derives from recognising personality types and enjoying nuances of accents or word play.
In general, I find to hard to appreciate Italian humour which I find too ‘obvious’, probably in the same way that Italians find English comedy too understated and impenetrable.
I Soliti Ignoti (The usual suspects) is an exception that proves the rule. This caper movie about a blundering gang of petty criminals has a lot in common with the classic Ealing comedies and The Ladykillers in particular. Like that movie, the cast is impressive and the plot is built around strong characterisation rather than contrived set pieces.
The stand out scenes are with Totò as the ‘maestro’ of safe cracking; a performance that illustrates how mocking the airs and graces of those with an exaggerated sense of their own self-worth is funny whatever the language.