Alberto Sordi: Italian Storyteller

Alberto Sordi: Italian Storyteller

The hugely popular and prolific Italian actor Alberto Sordi relished playing rogues, characters riddled with foibles and weaknesses. In an interview with Positif’s Jean A. Gili in 1999, he revealed that his aim was to depict in a comic register the flaws of his fellow Italians, everyone from the worker to the aristocrat. The goal was to entertain, but also to critique. “I had a clear ambition,” he said, “to travel at the same speed as society’s changing mores. Everything that took place in Italy I would reflect in my characters.” It’s an ambition that few actors of his generation ever articulated in such a self-assured and matter-of-fact way and, to underline the sociological aspect of his work, Sordi went on to devise and present a TV series for Italian state broadcaster Rai (Story of an Italian, 1979–86), in which he compiled excerpts from his films to recount the tumultuous changes in Italian society in the twentieth century.

Born in Rome in June 1920, the youngest of four children, Sordi began his artistic career while still in his teens, publishing sketches and songs. He later went on to record a selection of these for the Milan-based label Fonit. He studied at the city’s famed acting school Accademia dei filodrammatici, but his time there was short-lived. One of his teachers, after various attempts at softening his Roman accent, admitted defeat and told Sordi he could never be an actor with the accent he had. Sordi was defiant—quite astutely, as it turned out, given that the neorealist era, with its foregrounding of Italy’s linguistic diversity, was only a few years down the line. His deep, instantly recognizable romanesco would become his trademark, but it was his tongue-in-cheek riff on an American-accented Italian that truly ignited his career when, in 1937, he won a competition held by MGM to become the voice of Oliver Hardy in dubbed versions of Laurel and Hardy films for the Italian market. As a first major professional engagement it was a spectacular success, and Sordi made extensive use of his Hardy voice on stage in the late thirties and early forties. He also went on to provide the Italian voices for various Hollywood actors, including Vincent Price in Laura (1944) and Robert Mitchum in Pursued (1947).

Sordi became known as “Albertone” (“Big Alberto”) because of his broad face, but he never really liked this nickname as it suggested he was overweight. It may have been a more fitting epithet as he entered middle age, because by that time he had developed a more robust, albeit still trim, physique. In his twenties and thirties, however, he was lithe and baby-faced, as we can see in his first substantial screen role in Mario Mattoli’s 1942 air-force adventure The Three Pilots, where he played one of three friends training at a flying school in the southern Italian city of Caserta. Ironically, Sordi avoided active service partly because of his involvement in the picture (he had also enrolled in a military band to fulfill his wartime obligations). Alongside his film roles, dubbing work, and military service, Sordi spent the war years honing his craft in variety shows and got to know some important figures in the entertainment world, such as fellow Roman comic actor Aldo Fabrizi (best known to audiences outside of Italy for his dramatic performance as Don Pietro in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City). Sordi would draw on his experiences in wartime variety shows some three decades later with Stardust, a 1973 comedy-drama he cowrote, directed, and starred in opposite regular screen partner Monica Vitti. 

In the immediate postwar years, Sordi became a popular presence on Italian radio and presented his own prime-time show Alberto Sordi Speaking, which was on the air from 1948 to 1950. His characters included hapless agony uncle Mario Pio, and Conte Claro, an aristocrat fallen on hard times. He also recorded some self-penned comedy songs that often had a rare anarchic edge. “At a time [. . . ] when syrupy, rhetorical, and melodramatic songs were dominant,” notes music critic Gianni Bragna, “Sordi’s peerless talent was to invent songs that were surreal and full of nonsense. We can consider him a great innovator of the Italian pop song because he was able to reintroduce the element of irony.” 

By the beginning of the 1950s, and despite his success in theater, radio, and music, Sordi was itching to make his definitive big-screen breakthrough. The decade turned out to be a golden one. Between 1950 and 1960, he appeared in over fifty features and became one of Italian cinema’s top box-office draws, working with directors such as Francesco Rosi, Antonio Pietrangeli, Mario Monicelli, and of course Federico Fellini. Sordi was just five months Fellini’s junior, and the pair had been close friends for many years. The two pictures they made together—The White Sheik (1952) and I vitelloni (1953)—remain two of the actor’s best known, certainly outside of Italy. In the former, Sordi plays a star of Italian fotoromanzi (photoserials) who’s tracked down by an impressionable female fan. In the latter, he plays one of a group of feckless young men living in a provincial seaside town. The louche indolence of both characters is rendered brilliantly by Sordi and is central to the films’ melancholy narratives. The actor felt that I vitelloni in particular was key to his development. “I achieved something I had been thinking about for a long time but which had until then been unacceptable for producers,” he told interviewer Maria Antonietta Schiavina in 1998. He explained that he wanted to carry on the neorealist legacy of filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini—that is, represent small-scale, quotidian stories, reflecting the “poetry of the everyday”—but shift the emphasis from characters just struggling for survival to those grappling with newfound prosperity in the period of the so-called Italian “economic miracle.”

Above: I vitelloni; top of post: Mafioso

In 1954, Sordi appeared in no less than thirteen features, a breathless run and the busiest twelve-month period of his long film career. It was the year of Steno’s An American in Rome, the story of Nando Mericoni, a young Roman whose obsession with the U.S. (Kansas City in particular) knows no bounds. Dressed in high-waisted jeans, cowboy belt, long sleeve T-shirt, and baseball cap, we find him swaggering around his neighborhood spouting mangled American English, much to the exasperation of his long-suffering parents. In a famous early scene, Sordi’s character returns home late to find his mother has left him a plate of spaghetti. He pushes it away in disgust and decides to eat what he thinks is a more American midnight snack—bread topped with jam, yogurt, mustard, and milk. When that combination turns out to be less than palatable, he gives in and dives into the plate of pasta. The shot of Nando and his giant forkful of spaghetti remains one of the most famous single images of Sordi, adorning the walls of Italian restaurants across the world for almost seventy years.

Offering Sordi a more dramatic and complex role, Luigi Zampa’s The Art of Getting Along spans several decades of Italian history—from the turn of the century, through the Fascist years, right up to the 1950s—and sees him play a Sicilian named Sasà Scimoni whose way of “getting by” involves strategically switching allegiances from one end of the political spectrum to the other. Sasà is one of the great early Sordian antiheroes, as Sight & Sound’s Lorenza Mazzetti (leading light of British Free Cinema) perceptively noted in a 1956 article on the actor: “Sasà Scimoni could easily have been one of the most repulsive heroes in cinema history: even [Vitaliano] Brancati (in the book from which the film was drawn) seems to have little affection for him. But somehow the impression he makes is entirely different; and this is Sordi’s contribution. His complete lack of self-consciousness gives this master of the triple-cross a paradoxical innocence. His realisation of the character is so vital, so utterly sincere, that he believes even in his own lies. Like an acrobat, he is so absorbed in the problem of keeping his balance that he has no time to examine his conscience.”

The year 1954 also marked the beginning of Sordi’s long collaboration with screenwriter Rodolfo Sonego, a partnership that included forty-four films in forty-six years. Sonego particularly admired Sordi’s willingness to take on unpleasant roles. “If he was asked to play a real monster, he would do it,” Sonego told Aurelio Forgione in 1980. “Even if he was offered the part of a political monster—which could have been dangerous in Italy, a country which has not always been liberal—he would have accepted. He was almost attracted by ‘evil,’ by danger.”

By the end of the 1950s, Sordi was firmly established as one of Italy’s top male actors, a mainstay of the so-called “commedia all’italiana” (comedy Italian style) together with the likes of Marcello Mastroianni, Nino Manfredi, Ugo Tognazzi, and Vittorio Gassman. He became more and more interested in projects that—while still essentially comic—were able to deal with serious, complex, even tragic issues. In 1959, he was paired with Gassman in Mario Monicelli’s The Great War, a blistering World War I satire. A year later, he made the World War II film Everybody Go Home opposite French actor Serge Reggiani. Set during Italy’s surrender to the Allies in 1943, Luigi Comencini’s film, like Monicelli’s, doesn’t shy away from depicting the shattering chaos and disorientation of wartime.

In 1961 came Dino Risi’s A Difficult Life, which also begins during WWII and sees Sordi play Silvio Magnozzi, a left-wing journalist whose inflammatory articles put him on a collision course with the authorities in the postwar era and he ends up in jail. On his release, he is determined to have the novel of his life published and even made into a film. In a gleefully reflexive moment, Silvio goes to Rome’s film studios Cinecittà to pitch his project to Sordi’s real-life acting friends Gassman and Silvana Mangano.

A Difficult Life

Although he was still working on multiple projects, having signed a three-film-a-year contract with producer Dino De Laurentiis, Sordi’s pace slowed in the 1960s. The press became increasingly interested in why he hadn’t done more work in Hollywood and why—given his distinguished professional status and approaching middle age—he hadn’t yet married. These two questions dogged him for years, but he remained in Rome, a bachelor (and devout Catholic) all his life. In terms of his relationship with Hollywood, Sordi told Gili that he had heard Billy Wilder “would have given his arm to make a film with him” but that he himself did not feel comfortable playing an American and didn’t have the right to criticize American mores in the way he criticized those of his own country.

Sordi did make numerous films outside of Italy (Europe, but also Africa, Australia, and the U.S.) but he always played an Italian. The fact that he was a lifelong bachelor and did not have children was something that Sordi usually put down to the pace of his work. He bought a large villa in the center of Rome where he lived from 1958 until his death forty-five years later (it has been preserved and is now a house museum). He told Schiavina that after buying the villa, he got a phone call from De Sica saying he and his wife had been interested in the property but Sordi got there first. ‘‘‘If you liked it, why didn’t you buy it?’ I asked [De Sica]. He didn’t answer, but I knew the reason. He could never hold on to that kind of cash because as soon as he earned money, he would gamble it away.” The personal lives of De Sica and Sordi were certainly very different. While De Sica was an incorrigible gambler with two families to support, Sordi famously took great care of his money. The pair however, shared a fond friendship and De Sica had been a source of great inspiration to Sordi when the Roman actor was starting out in the business back in the 1930s and ’40s. They worked together as actors but they also got the chance to direct each other. With De Sica at the helm, 1963’s Il Boom featured Sordi as Giovanni Alberti, a Roman businessman up to his eyes in debt thanks to his champagne lifestyle. After the hustling of friends and colleagues comes to nothing, Giovanni is made a stark proposition by a millionaire businessman. In the same year, Sordi played another “victim” of the economic miracle in Elio Petri’s The Teacher from Vigevano, an adaptation of Lucio Mastronardi’s 1962 novel.

Given Sordi’s hands-on approach to the shaping of his characters, it was really only a matter of time before he turned to directing. His debut behind the camera was 1966’s Smoke over London, in which he played an Italian antiques dealer determined to become a refined English gentleman but who, on his arrival in Swinging London, finds an altogether different reality. The Italian-abroad theme continued with later self-directed efforts such as An Italian in America (1970) and As Long as There’s War There’s Hope (1974).

Sordi’s most serious project came in 1977 with Monicelli’s An Average Little Man. Based on the debut novel by screenwriter Vincenzo Cerami, it tells of a doting father in late middle age who does everything he can to find a suitable job for his only son. One day, father and son are caught up in a violent robbery, with tragic consequences. Sordi, who had always prided himself on addressing the key sociohistorical moments of the twentieth century, saw Monicelli’s film as an opportunity to explore the climate of the so-called “anni di piombo” (Years of Lead), a period stretching from the late 1960s to the early 1980s when Italy was plagued by terrorist activity, including bombings and kidnappings.

Sordi continued working right up until the late 1990s, directing and starring in his final film, Forbidden Encounters (1998), at the age of seventy-eight. He fulfilled his ambition of playing characters from across the social spectrum by taking on aristocratic roles in The Marquis of Grillo (Monicelli, 1981) and In the Name of the Sovereign People (Luigi Magni, 1990).

While other actors of his generation may have had more international success and loftier theatrical pedigrees, or starred in a greater number of canonical art films, none had the long-lasting rapport with Italian audiences that Sordi had, a rapport that began when he was a precocious teen and was sustained across six decades of gloriously bittersweet laughter.

0 Items

You have no items in your shopping cart