Dino Risi’s Una vita difficile

Alberto Sordi in Dino Risi’s Una vita difficile (1961)

A principled refusal to sell out exacts a steep price in the life of Silvio Magnozzi, the journalist and would-be novelist played by Alberto Sordi in Dino Risi’s Una vita difficile (A Difficult Life, 1961). Late in a story that stretches nearly two decades—from the end of the Second World War to the early years of Italy’s economic boom—Silvio has finally completed his autobiographical novel. It’s taken him ten years, and he’s spent six months trying to find a publisher.

A scene halfway into the second hour of Una vita difficile finds Silvio making one last desperate pitch to a publisher who’s already turned him down. The publisher has his attorney read out the reasons for his refusal to get anywhere near Silvio’s magnum opus: “There’s a call for desertion, insulting the military, offending the army—”

“The fascist army!” interjects Silvio.

“But the army nonetheless!” snaps back the attorney before returning to his list: “Offending the courts, criticizing the penal system, and finally, offending religion!”

It’s as if Risi is anticipating criticisms of the film we’re watching. The title of Silvio’s novel, after all, is Una vita difficile. Released one year before Risi broke through internationally with Il sorpasso (1962), Una vita difficile was a hit in Italy but never made it to theaters in the U.S.—until now. On Friday, a new 4K restoration from Rialto Pictures will open at New York’s Film Forum.

Mussolini’s fascist regime has collapsed and the Italian king has fled south when the film opens with Silvio, a bearded partisan fighter on the run from the Nazis near Lake Como, seeking shelter at a village inn. Silvio finds himself pinned against a wall by a German soldier—who is promptly knocked dead by the iron-wielding innkeeper’s daughter, Elena (Lea Massari, who had just achieved international fame playing the young woman who goes missing in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura).

The slapstick killing sets the tone for a film that Risi skillfully sends teetering between the goofy but winning comedy of Sordi’s nonstop mugging and the heart-rending tragedy of Silvio’s successive failures, both as a writer and as a family man. Throwing himself into his reporting for the Roman daily Il Lavoratore (The Worker), Silvio can’t earn enough to feed himself and his new wife, Elena, and the two young leftists find themselves cadging a free dinner in a lavish dining hall—surrounded by decrepit royalists on the very night that Italy votes to free itself from the monarchy.

Tectonic shifts in Italian politics send the couple reeling from one dire strait to the next. Elena is heroically patient and understanding, but alcohol turns Silvio into his own worst enemy, and at the end of an all-night bender, railing against his wife’s pleading with him to compromise his commitment to the cause just enough to make ends meet, he crosses a line. She leaves him, and he’ll spend the rest of the film trying to win her back. Una vita difficile is Italian social realism at its finest, funniest, and most heartbreaking.

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