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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

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