Sunday, October 20, 2013


Apart from my deep dislike of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, my reputation as a film scholar is more often called into question due to my disdain for Italian cinema. It’s especially difficult to be taken seriously as a zombie enthusiast if you find it impossible to embrace the ouevre of Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato or any of the other alphabet soup masters of flesh-eating mayhem. While I am proud to say that among my favorite films you will find Argento’s Deep Red, Suspiria and Tenebrae, my opinion of the maestro’s later work diminishes. I like the visuals of Mario Bava, but the pacing and stories of his masterpieces I’ve often found to be wanting.

This terminal case of “meh” extends beyond the horror genre as well, for I’m loathe to sit through another Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, or, for the love of god, de Sica. Indeed, upon my third class-required viewing of The Bicycle Thief, I began to sympathise with Mussolini.

And please, don’t even get me started with the likes of Leone, Corbucci or Chef Boy-ar-dee. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

As with any rule, I have an exception, and that exception is Maurizio Nichetti. A one-man embodiment of the three Marx Brothers, Nichetti is an Italian Jacques Tati; a pop-eyed, mustachioed clown whose default expression seems to be innocent bewilderment. Nichetti was put on this Earth as reassurance that Italy has something to offer me in terms of its cinema, and seems to have the same problems with The Bicycle Thief as I do, as evinced in his satirical love-letter to Neo-Realism, the hilarious The Icicle Thief.

Unfortunately, as far as America goes, he’s no Roberto Benigni. I see that as a good thing, since the latter wore out his welcome six seconds into the 1997 Academy Awards ceremony, following America’s identity crisis upon embracing Life is Beautiful (The Day the Clown Cried without the good taste). Nichetti is virtually unknown in the Land of the Free, Home of the Bacon and that, my friends, is a cultural tragedy.

Even hardcore film geeks might have a difficult time identifying Nichetti. If his name rings any bells, it’s due to his “starring” role in the live action sections of animator Bruno Bozzetto’s Fantasia parody, Allegro Non Troppo (1976, which Nichetti cowrote). Famous for its extended sequence celebrating evolution, with life springing from a discarded Coca-Cola bottle set to Ravel’s Bolero, Allegro Non Troppo achieved some minor success in the U.S., but when initially released to Home Video, the film’s live-action sequences were excised, rendering Nichetti anonymous again. The majority of his filmography, including movies he wrote, directed and starred in, have never been released in the United States. While this might be great for us more-with-it-than-thou movie geeks, it’s a bit of a tragedy for the rest of the country’s film-goer-to-ers who’ve thusly been robbed.

Nichetti created his own iconic persona, a goofy, bushy everyman prone to misadventure —evoking, for shorthand sake, Chaplin, Groucho, Keaton and Mr. Bean—for his directorial debut, Ratataplan (1979). Playing variations of this role in a half-dozen other movies, he took the idea of human cartoon to its absurdly literal conclusion in the surprising and playful Volere volare.

Co-directed with animator and past collaborator Guido Manuli, Volere volare begins with Martina (Angela Finocchiaro from My Brother is an Only Child) lamenting to her friend Loredana (Mariella Valentini) that she doesn’t need a man in her life to be happy. Marriage is what’s expected, and she refuses to marry only for money. Which is all well and good for her to say since she’s surrounded by rich men. You see, she sees her career as that of a very specialized “social worker”, her job to understand people with personal eccentricities. For instance, one of her best clients is an elderly man with the (disturbing) voice of a toddler, who she bathes and rocks to sleep after his bottle. Then there are the “Architechts”, espresso-drinking twins who silently hang out at her home to watch her sleep, shower, dress for work and then lock up after she leaves. There’s a chef who likes to turn her naked body into elaborate deserts (“including a vat of melted chocolate; soon she's dressed in her sundae best.” Harrington, Washington Post, 1993), but can settle for casually spilling things on her when time is limited. She gets a workout from a married couple who take turns being dead, requiring her to assist the mourning partner left behind, make sure the body gets to the ambulance, etc. Things get difficult on those nights when the couple can’t decide who survived that night. While she refers to these quirks as “fetishes”, she’s never depicted doing anything sexual with her clients. Even the guy who likes her to sit on his photocopier only enjoys admiring the lacework on her underwear. Sex seems to be the furthest thing from their minds. (Thus, I think it’s inaccurate to echo my fellow critics in describing her as a “prostitute”.)

Nearby, Maurizio owns a film dubbing company with his brother. They split the work evenly: Maurizio provides the sound effects for old cartoons; Patrizio employs a lingerie-clad stable of mono-lingual actresses for the “specialty” audio of “art” movies. Spending his day either recording sound or searching for interesting noisemakers in hardware stores, Maurizio (called “Little Mustache” by his brother—“Ever since he grew one when he was three.”) manages to just miss meeting Martina on a number of occasions. But fortune won’t stay elusive for long.

One night, Maurizio frequently finds himself in the right place. When both of her “Necrophyles” decide to be dead, Martina finds herself needing an extra pair of hands to wrestle the loving bodies onto a parking lot gurney. Later that evening, he stumbles upon her again and accompanies her on another job, this time with a crazed cab driver who gets off on terrorizing her with his auto-acrobatics. Maurizio does panic better than she does. Finding himself stuck at her apartment—“Where do you live?” she asked. “Where you picked me up.”—he is assaulted by another of her clients who is contientious about stalking her and doesn’t like the competition. In a single night, Martina’s job has him strained, terrorized and assaulted. 

Much to her chagrin, she realizes later that her clients enjoyed the extra company. The thrill waning, Maurizio was just the extra shot in the arm their needs needed. Not wanting to risk losing her income, Martina attempts to hunt him down. The only trouble is, because of the multiple bicycle horns he keeps in his pockets in case of dubbing emergency, she only knows Maurizo by the nickname she’s given him: “Trumpetto”.

Meanwhile, Maurizo is experiencing his own job-related phenomenons. Each time he steps in front of his projector, one or more of the animated co-stars find their way into his pocket. At first, it’s just a simple turtle from a Fleischer Brothers cartoon, which manages to knock over stacks of film cans in its escape. Later, a flock of ducks defect from a Popeye short into the real world to cavort in the rain and get squished flat by cars. This condition becomes contagious, as he discovers on his first “date” with Martina at a swanky restaurant. A persistent itch on his hand reveals yellow cartoon gloves growing beneath his skin. Worse: the hands take on a life of their own—“animated” in all senses of the word—and fly off without him! Fortunately for him, Martina is too distracted by her spill-prone chef and his “accidents” that leave her covered with spaghetti.
The rest of the film follows this comedy of surreal errors to its logical absurdist conclusion: Martina finally finds the love of her life, just as he completes his transformation into a living—and very naked—cartoon character. (Which wasn’t that much of a stretch for Nichetti, being 75% cartoon anyway.) 
Gentle and uncomplicated, Volere volare makes no attept to explain Maurizio’s transformation, just as it sees no reason to explain Martina’s growing attraction to the odd little man. Just like love, human-to-cartoon evolution requires no deconstruction. And if you can allow that to satisfy your left-brain’s needs, that’s all that Volere volare asks of you. Without turning this into a discourse on economical-cultural dichotomy of comedy, the movie should seem unique to those raised on American sex comedies. The American-view blend of Night Shift with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? resulted in Ralph Bakshi’s raunchier Cool World, released just a year later. In contrast, once you become comfortable with the “non-exploitative European-style nudity” (to quote Richard Harrington’s Washington Post review), Volere volare is charming and utterly inoffensive. Even Patrizio’s stable of “actresses” and his blue movies are played for laughs, not titilation. Nichetti keeps the film’s heart in the clouds, rather than the gutter and avoids the cheap laugh in favor of the corny one. (Even more surprising considering that one of the film’s producers was Italy’s infamous prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, whose political career was overshadowed by his notorious “bunga-bunga parties”!)

The usual unfortunate caveat exists here, however. Unlike the better-distributed Allegro Non Troppo, Volere volare is difficult to come by and doesn’t seem to have gotten an international DVD release. The VHS image is dark and grainy, working against the movie’s intrinsic breezy charm. But perhaps, if we all get together and clap our goofy gloved hands together, maybe we can all will a DVD into existence. Or, at least, keep Tinkerbell alive long enough to make us one out of fairy dust. (Sorry, it’s a sexy cartoon fairy tale; I couldn’t resist.)
For added pleasure, please visit Nichetti’s website.

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