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Dino Risi

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The Life and Films of Dino Risi

Dino Risi was an Italian film director who died on June 7, 2008. He was a maestro of commedia all’italiana with Mario Monicelli, Luigi Comencini, Nanni Loy, and Ettore Scola.

Notable movies: Pane, amore e… , Poveri ma belli, Il sorpasso, Il successo, I mostri, Straziami, ma di baci saziami, In nome del popolo italiano, Sessomatto, Profumo di donna


Born in Milan in 1916, he was the second child, after his sister Mirella (1916-1977), of the physician Arnaldo Risi, who had assisted Gian Pietro Lucini, and Giulia Mazzocchi, herself the daughter of Luigi Mazzocchi (1842-1925), a Garibaldian and significant civil engineer. His cousin was Elda Mazzocchi Scarzella, the daughter of his uncle Cesare Mazzocchi (1876-1945), a renowned architect. Following him was his brother Nelo. In October of 1929, at the age of twelve, he lost his father.

Early Career

After studying at the Liceo Classico Giovanni Berchet in Milan and earning a degree in medicine and surgery from the University of Milan, he refused to become a psychiatrist as his mother had wished and began his film career working as an assistant director for Mario Soldati and Alberto Lattuada. His first work, a short film shot in 1946 titled “Barboni”, addressed unemployment in Milan. It was followed by others, including “Buio in sala” (1950), set in a war-torn Milan, which told the story of a clumsy and somewhat depressed traveling salesman who, after entering a cinema showing a western, emerges stronger and more resolved (Risi spoke of cinema as a “teacher of life”). This short film, which cost two hundred thousand lire, was sold to Carlo Ponti for two million, a success that reinforced Risi’s creative calling, leading him to move to Rome. His first job in the capital, recalling his hospital experience, was writing the subject for the film “Anna” (1951) by Alberto Lattuada.
In the same year, he directed his first feature film, “Vacanze col gangster”, which launched the then twelve-year-old Mario Girotti, who would later take the stage name Terence Hill, as a film actor.

Rise to Fame

His success came with “Pane, amore e…” (1955), a sequel to the successful “Pane, amore e fantasia” and “Pane, amore e gelosia” by Luigi Comencini, which told the comedic exploits of Marshal Carotenuto (played by Vittorio De Sica in all three films – as well as in the last “Pane, amore e Andalusia”, directed by Javier Setó). However, Risi made his mark with “Poveri ma belli” (1956), a comedy made with limited costs that garnered a great public consensus, leading to two sequels: “Belle ma povere” (1957) and “Poveri milionari” (1959).

That same year, he directed “Il vedovo”, a cynical social satire with Alberto Sordi and Franca Valeri; he then directed Vittorio Gassman in “Il mattatore” (1960), a film that solidified the Genoese actor’s status in comedic roles, after the success of Monicelli‘s “Soliti ignoti” two years earlier.

The 1960s: A Decade of Consolidation

The 1960s solidified Dino Risi’s place in cinema, with critics comparing him to Billy Wilder. He offered Sordi a dramatic role in “Una vita difficile” (1961) alongside Lea Massari and revolutionized the comedy genre by stripping away the happy ending in “Il sorpasso” (1962), a film closely associated with his name and a precursor to American road movies, featuring the story of a forty-year-old scoundrel (Vittorio Gassman) initiating a shy and awkward student (Jean-Louis Trintignant) into life against the backdrop of Italy’s economic boom. Gassman also starred in “La marcia su Roma” (1962) and “I mostri” (1963), both with Ugo Tognazzi as co-star, and “Il gaucho” (1964), a biting tale of the failed Argentine adventure of a group of bungling filmmakers.

Later Works and Themes

Risi depicted the Italian vacation culture in “L’ombrellone” (1965), worked with Nino Manfredi and Totò in “Operazione San Gennaro” (1966), and again with Gassman in “Il tigre” (1967) and “Il profeta” (1968). He managed to keep Tognazzi silent throughout the entire film “Straziami, ma di baci saziami” (1968), a commentary on the stereotypes of easy romanticism found in photo-romances and Sanremo’s songs, featuring Nino Manfredi and Pamela Tiffin.

In the episodic film “Vedo nudo” (1969), he addressed sexuality post-1968, with Manfredi

playing seven different roles. This motif continued with “Sessomatto” (1973) featuring Giancarlo Giannini and Laura Antonelli, and “Sesso e volentieri” (1982) with Johnny Dorelli, Antonelli, and Gloria Guida.

In 1971, he captured the vices and flaws of Italians in “In nome del popolo italiano”, featuring Tognazzi and Gassman, and “La moglie del prete”, starring Loren and Mastroianni.

He then shifted to psychological drama with “Profumo di donna” (1974) and “Anima persa” (1977), both films about the malaise of living, based on novels by Giovanni Arpino and starring a rejuvenated Gassman: “Profumo di donna” was later remade in Hollywood as “Scent of a Woman” (1992), earning Al Pacino an Academy Award for Best Actor the following year.

Reuniting with Mario Monicelli and Ettore Scola for “I nuovi mostri” (1977), he continued to explore the comedic vein directing Tognazzi and Gassman in “Telefoni bianchi” (1976), Renato Pozzetto in “Sono fotogenico” (1980), and Lino Banfi in “Il commissario Lo Gatto” (1986). His “serious” register includes “Caro papà” (1978), “Fantasma d’amore” (1981), and “Scemo di guerra” (1985), the latter based on Mario Tobino’s novel “Il deserto della Libia”, which would inspire Monicelli’s last film “Le rose del deserto” two decades later.

Final Years and Legacy

In the 1990s, he worked for the last time with Gassman in “Tolgo il disturbo” (1990) and produced “Giovani e belli” (1996), a remake of “Poveri ma belli”, featuring Ciccio Ingrassia: these were his final cinematic works.

In 2002, he received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.

In 2004, he published his autobiography “I miei mostri” and was a guest of honor at the first “Festival della mente” in Sarzana (SP).

For about thirty years, he lived in an apartment in the Aldrovandi residence in Rome, in the heart of the Parioli district, where he passed away on the morning of June 7, 2008, after a long illness that made him desire euthanasia. His body was cremated and the ashes scattered in Murren (Bern), Switzerland, where the director had met his first wife Claudia Mosca.

Personal Life

He was the brother of the poet and director Nelo Risi (husband of writer Edith Bruck), second cousin of writer Carla Porta Musa, and father of two directors, Claudio Risi and Marco Risi.

In his works, Dino Risi always used the surname “Pacilli” for characters portraying doctors, as a nod to his old university friend in Medicine, Nino Pacilli.

The book “Registi d’Italia” by Barbara Palombelli includes statements about his atheism: “As an atheist, I was exempted from religious education classes, I could come in later and skip the first hour, I was very envied”; “When I’m fading away, I want to be taken to end my days in Waterloo, Belgium. I’ve seen the dismal plain where the Emperor was defeated, it’s not much. But please imagine how I, an unrepentant atheist, would look: ‘Dino Risi, born in Milan, died in Waterloo’.”

Topics: Dino Risi’s contribution to Italian cinema, Analysis of Dino Risi’s filmmaking techniques, Profiles of iconic Italian film directors, The cultural impact of Dino Risi’s movies, The evolution of Italian comedy through Risi’s lens, Inside the career of director Dino Risi, The intersection of Italian history and cinema in Risi’s work

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