Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A monstrous comedy of manners

"Netflix shares fell 3%, but if the Canadian dollar does not reverse its overvaluation, Blockbuster might be forced to slash 4th quarter forecasts by as much as 19%," or so might say Loris while trying to distract himself from the "obscene bombardment" being put on by his female roommate for some reason unknown to him.

Roberto Benigni, best known here in the States for Son of Pink Panther and more recently La Vita è Bella, worked with screenwriter Vincenzo Cerami, directing and starring in a trilogy of loosely-related films: Il Piccolo Diavolo (1988), Johnny Stecchino (1991) and the film we'll concern ourselves with here: Il Mostro (1994).

Like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), considered "the greatest film of all time" (Schlegel, 2007), Il Mostro also has at the beginning an opening animation in which a skeleton shows fear of a monster and has its bones scattered.

The title monster is a serial rapist and killer of women, emblematized by a small dog in the animation sequence. Opening animation sequence aside, the film begins quite seriously with a stark, static shot of the tenements at night, followed by an indoor shot of a woman's leg stopping a stubborn elevator door from closing. After the opening animation sequence, there is an aerial shot of the tenement where our protagonist lives, then, after a montage showing the crime scene investigators at work as the police chief tells the press what he knows about the monster, we cut to the police chief's press conference. The monster has claimed his 18th victim, and the police chief explains not only the heinousness of the crime but also the veil of normalcy which has enabled the criminal to elude the police so far. But soon the police chief and the police doctor, Paride Taccone, forget that the veil of normalcy excludes eccentric behavior in broad daylight, such as Loris exhibits. I'll leave it to you to guess who the monster really is: he's introduced early in the film.

A cut from this press conference to Loris (Benigni) looking crazy at a party would seem to want to plant the idea that Loris could be the title monster. But I don't think I'm spoiling it for anyone when I say Loris is not the title monster. This is not a comedy of unrelated twins, like Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator or Benigni's own Johnny Stecchino. But it is a comedy drawn from "the well of miscommunication" as the plots of so many Frasier episodes are. As with Johnny Stecchino, many jokes are set up in the first act and their punchlines (or payoffs) postponed to the third act.

Loris is a barely employed mannequin-carrier. He tells his boss he needs the work. Not surprisingly, he's months behind on his rent and the landlord wants to kick him out and get a paying tenant in as soon as possible. Loris is actually fairly inventive in figuring out ways to scare off potential replacement tenants so he doesn't get kicked out. Also, he has to avoid making eye contact with the building caretaker, so he walks past his office window crouching down (leading to one of the film's recurring jokes).

Because of his weird behavior, and an accusation by an older lady mistaken by Loris for a nymphomaniac, the police chief becomes convinced that Loris is the elusive serial killer who's perturbed the constable's sleep for several years now. Loris is secretly filmed and the footage is shown to several policewomen.

None want to take the case, save one, Jessica, and even she has her doubts after she sees Loris apparently having rough sex with a mannequin. Jessica tries to rent Loris's apartment but the landlord wants to sell it rather than rent it. Loris makes a secret deal with Jessica to be his roommate. The police chief and Paride, the police doctor, tell Jessica she must provoke Loris to try to rape her, and to be ready with her gun to arrest Loris. As she gets to know Loris, Jessica grows to doubt that Loris really could be the serial killer who's so far eluded the police. On at least two separate occasions Jessica goes to the police station to express her doubts about the identification of the killer. Also, she gradually falls in love with Loris; this we learn in the same way we learn in Chasing Amy that Holden is falling for his lesbian friend Alyssa: through a romantic montage.

After the first time Jessica goes back to the police station to tell Paride she doesn't think Loris is the killer, Paride invites himself to the apartment on the pretext of being a tailor there to fit him for a designer suit. He's really there to perform a whole battery of medical tests, and though Loris finds this weird, he remains perfectly unaware of what's really going on. Jessica puts a stop to this just as Paride is about to perform a prostate exam. Paride brings his wife, Jolanda, along, and by coincidence she sees Loris wielding a meat cleaver on two separate occasions. When Jolanda gets stuck in a window trying to escape, Loris tries to help her get unstuck, but from the terrace it looks like Jolanda is being raped. As soon as Jessica and Paride go into the room, Jessica understands exactly what has happened.

Now, Roger Ebert wonders how the female leads in certain romantic comedies could fall for Adam Sandler's character in movies such as The Water Boy, or Billy Crystal's in The Animal. Here in The Monster I find it slightly easier to believe that Jessica (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife in real life) could fall for Loris. But instead of seeing Jessica in the background smiling at Loris's antics, for the most part we see her quietly thinking things over: the best example of this is when she's out in the terrace and Paride goes away with Loris to try to give him a testicular exam.

When Loris goes take the Chinese oral exam is when Jessica gets a crucial piece of evidence that will enable her to crack the case wide open, though at the time she doesn't realize its importance. Both Jessica and the Chinese instructor wish Loris luck, but Loris can't even get the very first question right, the one question that should be a no-brainer to anyone taking Chinese lessons: 您的名字是什么?

Since Paride found a lawn ornament of one of the seven Dwarves in Loris's closet, he for some reason becomes convinced that the way to provoke Loris and catch him red-handed is by dressing Jessica up in a Little Red Riding Hood costume, not Snow White. By now Jessica doesn't want to go along with this, but Paride insists that the order comes straight from the police chief. Jessica acquiesces and performs as instructed: she makes sure Loris sees her with the costume and tells him she's leaving. Instead of trying to rape and kill Jessica, Loris just lets her go and records a message telling her their rental agreement is now cancelled.

Jessica is back at the police station to express her doubts on Loris being the killer when the 19th victim is announced and the police release Loris's likeness and identify him as the killer. Jessica goes to the crime scene and finds the clue which leads her to find the real killer. Practically the entire town chases Loris, though many of them have reasons other than Loris being a killer to chase him. Loris also goes to the real killer's apartment, leading to the film's climax in which Jessica confronts Loris and the real killer.

With that straightened out, Loris and Jessica can now express their love for each other, and the first real kiss in the film occurs fairly close to the end. Their weird crouching walk into the sunset mediates (puts a spin on) the final walk at the end of Modern Times, the only Charlie Chaplin comedy in which his Little Tramp character walks into the sunset with a woman and not by himself. Chaplin's Great Dictator concludes with the Jewish barber and his girlfriend (played by his real-life wife at the time, Paulette Goddard, who was also his love interest in Modern Times) spatially separated, together thanks to the radio broadcasting Adenoid Hynkel's unexpectedly pacifist radio address. Chaplin and Goddard divorced with less than a decade together, while Benigni and Braschi are still together. (Rabin, 2007)

Il Mostro did very well in Italy. Here in America, what little reaction there has been to it has been often negative and disappointed by comparison to La Vita è Bella. This film probably wouldn't have been introduced here if it hadn't been for the success of La Vita è Bella: the IMDb's Studio Briefing for 30 March 1999 reported that "Lions Gate wants to see whether an Oscar and critical and audience acclaim can rekindle interest in Roberto Benigni's 1996 movie Monster, The (1994) (Il Mostro). It plans to open the film exclusively in Los Angeles on April 2 and in New York on April 16." They go on to quote Kenneth Turan's review in the Los Angeles Times which calls Benigni "the funniest man on film today." As the film hasn't been theatrically screened in the Midwest, I can't find any reviews in the Detroit Free Press or Detroit News. To get the New York Times review, I'd have to subscribe to their online service, or look through the microfiche at the Detroit Public Library.

In the context of Benigni's oeuvre, one scholar finds Il Mostro a step backwards from the social relevance of Johnny Stecchino, and the later La Vita è Bella as a step forward from Il Mostro. Whereas the earlier film "was an effective deterrent against the fascination that the gangster image exerts on young men," Il Mostro shows "a regression to [Benigni's] earlier style of predominantly sexual jokes," while La Vita è Bella is a comedy which treats Holocaust survivors respectfully and "suggest[s] an outlook that tragedy is unequipped to convey." (Viano, 1999) Pinocchio (2002) is considered another flop in Benigni's oeuvre. (Rabin, 2007) While Benigni has been called "the Italian Buster Keaton," (Gehr, 1996) he is found to diverge from Keaton "primarily in terms of the artistic intent of his Chaplinesque sociopolitical ambitions." (Watson, 2008)

As Professoressa Past has said, it's good to have several people at the class viewing of the film. In the case of a comedy, it can be quite instructive to see what gets a laugh and what doesn't. In the case of our class, the following got the most laughs:

The scene in which Loris seems to be having sex with a mannequin;

Loris flunking the Chinese exam;

When Loris sees the severed human hand in his Chinese teacher's jacket and tells him: "I'd give you a hand but you already have one." (from the subtitles);

My classmates will let me know if I missed any big laughs at the moment I stepped out to get a little water.

There are some translation issues: the antique store owner, in recalling the telegraphic notification of Loris's death, calls him a "poveraccio;" this is not at all translated in the English subtitles. Credit is due to the subtitlers, however, for translating "hand in the marmalade" as "red-handed" or "hand in the cookie jar." There's also a word which is a swear word in Spanish and seems to have the same meaning in Italian, and also exhibits the same semantic drift towards generalization.

Technical notes

The Region 1 DVD has two sides: widescreen and fullscreen. To view widescreen, put the side labelled "WIDESCREEN" face up into the player. The fullscreen version has the opening animation sequence letterboxed. However, in some DVD players (such as those made by KLH), to get widescreen on the widescreen side, you might need to go into the set-up menu and select "4:3 Letterboxed" rather than "4:3 Pan Scan."

Also, English subtitles are not on by default on this DVD, you have to turn them on either in the Set Up menu or with your remote control's subtitle key; though in my case this led to the pleasant realization that I could understand a lot of the dialogue without the help of subtitles.

The class reading for this film, the Blackboard article, is a PDF photocopy and not PDF text (one of my pet peeves), but more noticeably for my classmates, it's not right side up. That's easily enough fixed in Adobe Reader 8 with the command View -> Rotate View -> Clockwise (keyboard shortcut Shift-Ctrl-+ on Windows, probably Shift-Apple-+ on Mac OS X).


Richard Gehr, "The Monster" The Village Voice 41.17 (1996): 69

Maurizio Viano, "Life Is Beautiful: Reception, Allegory, Holocaust Laughter." Film Quarterly 53.1 (1999): 29.

Nathan Rabin, "My Year of Flops Case File #78: Pinocchio (2002)" A. V. Club Blog, October 23, 2007. Accessed October 26, 2007.

Nicholas Schlegel, e-mail message to Pete Bublitz, June 27, 2007.

William Van Watson, "The Italian Buster Keaton? Benigni's The Monster and The Comic Machine" Beyond Life is Beautiful: Comedy and Tragedy in the Cinema of Roberto Benigni Ed. Grace Russo Bullaro. Leicester, England: Troubador (2005): 66

External links

IMDb's entry on Il Mostro. What more is there to say about this one, other than that this is the website of record for most matters pertaining to movies?

Netflix's entry on The Monster (1994). You can get some information on this film there, but you have to be logged in to read Netflix customer's reviews of this film. I rated this film 4 stars ("Really Liked It") while the average of 12,754 ratings as of today is 3.5 stars (3 stars is a plain "Liked It"). Another Netflix customer, (considered 58% similar in tastes to my own, though I don't know how they measure that) gave this film 5 stars ("Loved It") and even goes as far as saying that it is Benigni's best film second to Life Is Beautiful. Another customer, considered 68% similar in tastes to my own, gave this film 1 star ("Hated It") and wrote that "There are a few moments of inspired physical comedy by Benigni, and one excellent breathless monologue by Braschi, but the good bits are few and far between. Most of the film consists of painfully obvious gags, telegraphed long before the punchline, based on situations that don't even make sense within the context of the film."

Note that the plot summary given there as of today is incorrect: Loris does not meet "a woman (Nicoletta Braschi) whom he thinks is "easy" -- only to learn that she's a cop;" for "Wanda la ninfomana" is only seen briefly at the party and there is nothing to indicate that she's a cop, while Loris had never seen Jessica before when later in the film she comes into the apartment to inquire about renting. I would guess that the Netflix employee who wrote this mixed up the plot of this film with that of Tomcats (1999), in which Michael (Jerry O'Connell) is arrested by a policewoman (Shannon Elizabeth) with whom he falls in love. That policewoman also falls in love with the suspect and also visits his apartment, which is for some reason filled with "pleather."

One more thing: Netflix shares were at $24.94 each when I posted this blog entry.

Wikipedia's entry on The Monster (1994). I edited this entry this past Wednesday; that seems to have stirred editing activity on this article, which aside from one edit earlier this month and another back in June, had been fairly dormant since April and worked on only sporadically since the article's creation back in 2005.


SherrySantos said...

I thought the scene where the police doctor showing the footage of Loris was funny because the Loris's actions are put into a different, supposedly more serious, context. But Paride's over-exaggeration made it difficult for me the viewer to take it seriously.

Actually, I couldn't take the Paride seriously as a doctor because of his objectification of Jessica. Like Vittorio in Primo Amore, Paride makes Jessica into an object of desire, only this time it is sexual, so that Loris will be driven into madness. While he may not be wittling Jessica into weightless gold, Paride makes her prance around naked and wear ridiculous costumes designed for arousal. Like Sonia, Jessica becomes a victim of her circumstances except they are more external as she is the only one left to be the decoy.

And yet, as a woman, I am not as offended by Jessica's objectification as I was watching Primo Amore. This is due to the film being a comedy and I know I am not supposed to take the characters' actions seriously. In a more dramatic context (i.e. Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo although it is somewhat a bad example), I would be disturbed by a man making a woman dress and act a certain way to sexually arouse another man to make him commit a dangerous act.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about other meanings related to the word "Mostro" in Italian and I could not help thinking of the infamous "Mostro di Firenze". I think that the title of Benigni's movie has a lot to do with that. To the "Monster of Florence" were attributed several sexual delicts between 1968 and 1985. Benigni's movie came out in 1994 and Pietro Pacciani, supposedly the "Monster of Florence" was arrested in 1993. When its trial started, in 1994, I remember that the news would talk about it every day.

If you are curious about this news story, the incredible Wikipedia has an article on that even in the English version:

judith said...

thank you, alonsodelarte, for listing the scenes which got the most laughs in class! since I watched it at home, it was really interesting and the mentioned scenes were also for me the most amusing ones...
I am rather sad, that I did not attend the discussion about the film on Wednesday, because I would have loved to share my anger about this film with the class and see whether also you have been upset about several scenes.
I think, Roberto Benigni has a lot of potential, sometimes I was really cracking up (even watching it alone I had to laugh out loud), but still: I was so angry about several sexistic scenes, that were not at all humourously (?) deconstructed but rather reassured women to be sexual objects.
Since I think, that Roberto Benigni a) in some regards does a really good job in making Italians aware of so many things that are not going well in Italian society and b) indeed has a big influence in Italy, I am pretty disappointed that he obviously lacks seeing certain issues critically and therefore is not implementing these issues critically in his films...
too bad!!

JamieF said...

I can very easily see how the portrayal of Jessica in this film may offend women. Personally I cannot comment to that because I was not offended myself; rather I very much enjoyed the film. I am not familiar with Benigni's works, so this was a pleasant surprise for me. I am quite a fan of physical comedies and Buster Keaton in particular, so I quite enjoyed the film.

Eric said...

It was interesting to see a film about a sex killer played in such a comedic light, coming from a country that gave us the giallo film in the 1960's and '70s - it's interesting to see the situation played for laughs. I've really only seen Begnini in "Life is Beautiful" so it was fun to see him in another role.

CDAbrams said...

As John and I discussed in class, this film is very funny at surface level and perhaps can be seen as somewhat sexist. However, after analyzing several aspects of the film, we can see that Begnini comments on Italian society at the time. In terms of the way that women are portrayed, the only female characters we encountered were either sexy, old, or holding a baby. In my opinion this is a strong statement in itself.
Al, I liked your comment about Jessica's gaze upon Loris. She first observed him critically, and softened as she got to know him. However she really didn't smile at him! Not until the sugary sweet final scenes.

DMeador said...

After reading the main post, the one sentence about Fraiser and payoffs really caught my eye. I felt like the most notable payoffs happened towards the beginning of the film. There was the fire in the pants, the dead cat, and the part where Loris runs away from the store clerk. The way that the three circumstances were first played out seemed totally different when showed to the female officers. Each incident was planted one way and then paid off in a totally different way. The surveillance video twisted them and made them even funnier the second time around.

H Jennings said...

I don't understand what is so funny about a serial rapist that it needs to get a whole film. The film was so over the top that if there were something funny about rape I think I would have missed it. A whole movie dedicated to sexual assault and a comedy no less. Well that premise sounds like a winner to me. I also don't understand why anyone would expect this to somehow be funnier than Life is Beautiful. That movie wasn't very funny. I appreciate the idea that humor can help you survive almost any situation but somehow genocide seems a little too intense for knock knocks and hide and seek.

sficano said...

As a lover of Begnini, I truly enjoyed the comedy of “Il Mostruo.” I find it interesting how Begnini films use comedy to discuss real world issues, such as political affiliation (or perhaps even the sometimes infuriating blindness of law enforcement to decipher crimes), in his films. There is almost a moral lesson involved, although taught in a comical way, that things are not always as they seem and if we can be too quick to judge we can misinterpret things based solely on their face value. I found the reviews our blogger has pointed out in America to be quite interesting, as many American critics said this film is not as relevant. Perhaps it is not, or maybe it is just a little more subtle in its exploitation of issues. I do not think a film has to be as somber as “Life is Beautiful” to have relevancy!