Italy is known for producing movies that combine slapstick comedy with serious social themes, a combination found in all of the 5 best Italian comedy movies. Italian comedy is an acquired taste that more American audiences ought to sample.
- "Big Deal on Madonna Street" ("I Soliti Ignoti") This 1958 film–also released in the United States as "Persons Unknown"–is considered the first great film in the Italian comic tradition. It masterfully uses a crime-splattered plot to push its comedy to the extreme. It’s a heist movie and, of course, the heist obviously goes wrong … very wrong. Starring two of the greatest Italian film stars ever, Marcello Mastroianni and Toto (albeit in a minor role), the film is directed like a straightforward crime drama yet the continual missteps in the attempt to rob a government-type pawn shop full of treasure creates wonderful comedy. An American remake "Crackers" in 1984 went woefully wrong, but a Woody Allen remake "Small Time Crooks" (2000) fared a bit better. But forgot those flicks and see the original to understand the best of early Italian comedy.
- "Divorce–Italian Style" ("Divorzio all'italiana") Pietro Germi’s 1961 comedy was another like "Big Deal" that solidified Italy as a country with some great comic chops. The plot, which is full of funny twists, involves a man who has a mistress and wants to divorce his wife; however, divorce is not possible. Therefore, he decides to kill her, but finds her having her own affair. Comic craziness ensues. The screenplay won an Oscar and the witty wordplay and action justify it.
- "La Dolce Vita" Directed by legendary Federico Fellini, this 1960 movie is yet another star vehicle for Mastroianni. "La Dolce Vita" achieves some of its greatness from having an underlying comic sensibility during the dark journey Marcello Rubini takes through the decadent corridors of his life on a search for the title’s “sweet life.” Some might not call it one of the best Italian comic movies, but it is dead-on with its satire. Roger Ebert calls it “a cautionary tale of a man without a center,” which points to the film’s serious nature. Still, the religious imagery and the sense of Rubini descending into Dante’s inferno of nightlife decadence develops the comedy found in excesses—of sex especially (the orgy scenes were very controversial at the time, but tame by today’s standards).
- "Amarcord" ("I Remember") Widely considered to be Fellini’s best film, this 1973 memoir-comedy of characters in a small Italian village records small absurdities and lends a loving, comic eye to them all. Like a typical Flannery O’Connor short story, "Amarcord" shows a sincere regard for its characters, while making fun of their idiosyncrasies. Women stand out in this film. There is the lovely hairdresser Gradisca on whom whole town pins its hopes and desires and the barefoot and crazy prostitute Volpina whose laughter evokes our own, not pity. Lastly, no one can forget the shop owner whose huge bosom fascinates and “envelops” the young boy narrator in one of the movie’s classic scenes.
- "Life is Beautiful" ("La vita è bella"). Americans are probably familiar with this 1997 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. The star, writer and director Roberto Benigni also won an acting Oscar for the film, reminiscent of early Italian comedies in their stark realism. You can’t get more darkly realistic than having a comedy set in a Holocaust concentration camp and then proceeding to say life is beautiful at the same time. Guido is a clown—a hotel waiter who can’t help but be goofy, lovable and over-the-top. So, as Guido, Benigni wins over the audience and you want to take the journey with him through the beauty and joy of his life. You just might not think it would work to go with him to the death camp. The continual work of hiding reality from his son while there constitutes the tragicomic genius of the movie. While many found this mixture offensive, the integrity of the comedy and the movie itself lies in the exploration of Guido’s character: the only tool he has for his circumstances is comedy and you have to admire that.