It is proverbial that there is something universal about humor, yet, nothing translates with more difficulty from one culture to another than film comedy. Great exceptions, such as Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy, though they may have wound up making talkies, more or less depended on their genius for visual humor, and slapstick developed in an age when humor was silent. Once films started to speak, the rules changed, which is why highly verbal comics such as Groucho Marx are so difficult to render into another language. A pie in the face, a prat fall, or a piano falling downstairs cross cultural and language barriers much easier than trying to translate, "Bernstein is out in the corridor waxing wroth!" "Yeah? Well, tell him to get in here and let Roth wax himself for a while!"
The Neapolitan comic Antonio De Curtis, known as Totò, is another example of humor that can be appreciated across cultures. True, he is often full of the verbal dexterity that only native speakers of Italian can appreciate, yet his flights of outrageous language are so often combined with pure visual humor that he is easily one of the most accessible of all film comics, language and culture notwithstanding.
Nothing will start a marathon
session of tale-swapping quicker than Neapolitans
sitting around recalling scenes from their favorite
Totò films. If you want one where the pompous get
their comeuppance, there's the train scene where he
offers to help a windbag senator with his luggage,
taking each piece and carefully passing it out the
window of the moving train, and for sheer pantomimic
grace, only Chaplin at his best can compare with
Totò's version of a marionette puppet dancing his
way across the stage to the strains of the Parade
of the Wooden Soldiers.
This memorial is at
Totò's birthplace in the
Vergini section of Naples.
His early career started after WW I in vaudeville and expanded into films. He made 85 of them in all. Some of them, of course, are silly potboilers, fun but forgettable. Others are "art," the kind you wind up admiring, but still puzzling over and studying in History of Cinema classes, such as his brilliant work in Uccellacci ed uccellini (1966) (lit. "Ugly birds and little birds." English title is "The Hawks and the Sparrows."), produced by another genius, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Others, the most memorable ones, have him in the role of the true clown, the little man down on his luck, just trying to make it through another day. There is this poignancy in Guardie e Ladri (Cops and Robbers). Totò, as a petty thief, spends much of the film making a good-natured overweight policeman chase after him. They become friends and though Totò has to go off to jail, the policeman winds up promising to send postcards to his family from different places around Italy so they'll think Totò is just off on a business trip. Then, there is some of Everyman's would-be defiance of Authority in a film called i Due Marascialli, when a high-ranking Nazi officer in WW II Italy screams at Totò: "I can do what I want. I have a blank check!" "A blank check?" answers Totò, in a retort now proverbial in Italian, "Well, you can wipe your ass with it!"
A number of other Totòisms have found their way into the language. "Siamo uomini o caporali?!" ("Are we men or corporals?") and the immortal, but untranslatable line (because it contains a grammatical error which contradicts the spirit of the sentence): "Signore si nasce ed io lo nacqui!" (Maybe something like, "Gentlemen are born, not made, and I is one!") He was also the author of a number of well-loved poems and songs in Neapolitan dialect, most memorable of which are A' livella (a poem about death as the great equalizer) and "Malafemmina," a love song.
Like many comics, Totò did not
become appreciated as a "true clown" until after his
death. But most Italians knew right from the start
what it took critics decades to figure out, and now
through the pleasant little time-machine known as
television, we can all see why.
One of my favorite Totò films is "47, Morto che parla" (47, Dead Man Talking). The title has to do with the smorfia, the tradition of interpreting dreams, of associating numbers with certain things in dreams and then playing those numbers in the lottery. The presumption is that someone on "the other side" is giving you a hot tip. Number 47 in the Smorfia is Dead Man Talking, so if you have a dream in which you are conversing with, say, one of your dearly departed, 47 is one number you should play. Unfortunately, you need at least three "hits" to have any chance of making real money. That's three friends in very high places—perhaps too much to ask in any one week.
The film was made in 1950 and is a loose adaptation of a stage comedy of the same name by Roman playwright, Ettore Petrolini (1886-1936) with some of Moliere's The Miser thrown in. The whole plot revolves around getting a skinflint Baron, played by Totò, to reveal where he keeps a large stash of money. The conspirators figure that the best way to do this is to make Totò believe he is dead, have him wake up in the afterlife, and then get him to talk about what he did in life and where he hid things such as money. They drug him and cart him away to a Stygian landscape replete with fumaroles and other Dantean special effects; when he comes to his senses, those who were his friends in life are standing around in bed sheets and laurel wreaths, moaning and otherwise impersonating characters whom you might expect to meet in the doom and gloom antechamber of the hereafter.
I won't spoil the rest of
the film for you, but I remember being taken with
the set for the scene where he wakes up: barren
hillside, lots of rocks, smoke and steam. It turns
out that it was filmed on location in Naples—right
outside of Naples, really, in the Solfatara, a very
active and bubbling sulfur pit. It is located in the
area known as the Campi
Flegrei. Indeed, Petronius, in The Satyricon
Est locus exciso penitus demersus hiatu
Parthenopen inter magnaeque Dicarchidos arva,
Cocyti perfusus aqua… (Satyr., CXX, 67-9)
…that between Neapolis and the vast fields of Dicearchia [modern–day Pozzuoli] there is a place at the bottom of a cavern washed by the waters of the Cocytus*...
[*One of the four mythological rivers of the netherworld, on the shores of which wandered the souls of those who had known no proper burial at death.]
Strabo (66 B.C. -24 A.D.) also mentions the Solfatara in his Strabonis geographica, calling it Forum Vulcani, the abode of the god, Vulcan, and the entrance to Hades.
The Solfatara is, at present, a protected nature reserve open to tourism. It is, indeed, at the "bottom of a cavern"—a large crater of volcanic origin and one that is still very active, geologically. In its long history, the Solfatara has suffered from benign neglect as well as commercial exploitation, having been mined for is alum and chalk as well as serving as a source for mineral water with reputed medicinal value. Its value as a scientific station for the study of the geologically very interesting activity in the area started in 1861 when the property was purchased by the De Luca family, which included Francesco De Luca, a physicist. His scientific descriptions of the area, the mineral content of the soil and waters, etc. are still informative reading. The area was officially opened to visitors in 1900 but had long been—bound as it is to Greek and Roman Mythology—a stop on the so-called "Grand Tour".
There have been a number
of recent documentaries on Italian national TV about
the Solfatara. They refer to the site as an "active
volcano" and have used it—with nearby Vesuvius, of
course—as a point of departure to discuss the geology of the entire Bay of
I have heard that the pazzariello still exists, but I have never seen one except in a period re-enactment of the Naples of days gone by. Indeed, in April 1997, RAI, the Italian state radio, ran a short program called "The Last Pazzariello of Naples" in which they went to a hospital in the Spanish Quarter and talked to Michele Lauri, born in 1920, the gentleman purported to be the last of his kind except, as I say, in re-enactments. "Don Michele" said he had plied his trade from the end of WWII until the late 1980s—50 years of being a pazzariello, then, eventually, the last one in Naples. For many centuries, before mass printing and then electronics made it so much easier to spread the word, there was a profession called "town crier" or some variation thereof—a person paid to walk around and shout out the news of the day and also get in a few ads for local merchants. The pazzariello was that person in Naples.
Typically, he dressed in mock military garb—a homemade uniform with bizarre medals, epaulets and a diagonal sash across the chest. He wore a fancy French Bourbon tricorner hat, usually with the points at front and back instead of on the side and carried a large baton. He looked perhaps more like a circus ringmaster than a general, but at least it was conspicuous. The pazzariello (from the Neapolitan verb pazziare—to joke) was usually accompanied by a small band of at least a flautist and a bass-drum. He paraded around the streets and announced that a new shop was opening, or that this or that shop was almost giving away merchandise, so hurry, hurry, hurry—or that so-and-so had lost a wedding ring and would the finder please have it in his heart to return it. He told a few jokes, rhymed a few couplets, and there were also the obligatory bits of gossip and anti-establishment comments. He and his small entourage picked up the few coins that people tossed their way.
If the pazzariello is familiar at all to those outside of Italy, it is probably through the 1954 film, L'oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples), directed by Vittorio De Sica (1901-74). The film consists of five episodes (six in the US release) based on those found in the 1947 book of the same name by Giuseppe Marotta (1902-1963). The first episode in the film (il guappo—the Racketeer) revolves around the character of a pazzariello, played by Totò (photo, above). (Don Michele, the real deal, had a bit part in the film and was a technical adviser.) Totò's performance is uncharacteristically dark and melancholy and the episode has been called by one critic the last bit of true "neorealism" to come from De Sica (the director of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D) before he started making more light-hearted fare.
from Miscellany pages:
—The Neapolitan comic,
Antonio De Curtis (in art known as “Totò”), was the
most popular Italian film comic of the 20th century.
(“No one is in second place,” as they say.) A number
of complaints in the paper have noted that the city
can’t seem to get its own unfunny act together
enough to buy the comic’s home on Via Santa Maria
Antesaecula, a site where they could open a decent
museum dedicated to Naples’ “favorite son.” The
house has been up for sale a number of times and the
city has done nothing.