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Monicelli's films captured Italy's flaws, sins

Deftly mixing comedy with tragedy, director Mario Monicelli laid bare Italy's flaws and sins for a half-century on the screen.

In his final script of his own life, he chose a dramatic ending: Plunging off the fifth-floor balcony of a Rome hospital Monday night where he had been admitted several days earlier.

Monicelli, 95, is being mourned as the last great master in a generation of Italian comic film directors who satirized society, along with Dino Risi and Pietro Germi.

"He will be remembered by millions of Italians for the way he moved them, for how he made them laugh and reflect," President Giorgio Napolitano said Tuesday in one of many messages of condolences mourning the Oscar-nominated director.

Monicelli was being treated for prostate cancer at the San Giovanni hospital when he leapt to his death, landing near its emergency room entrance to the shock of many patients and relatives waiting at one of Rome's busiest hospitals.

Carlo Verdone, one of Italy's most popular comic actors, told Corriere della Sera that Monicelli recently was quite depressed and increasingly closed into himself.

"He recounted our country with elegance, delicateness, irony," Verdone said in an interview published Tuesday. "Perhaps he couldn't stand old age any more."

Monicelli helped make Italian comedy famous worldwide with such movies as "Big Deal on Madonna Street" and "The Great War."

In his most accomplished works, Monicelli could effortlessly elicit laughs while touching on serious, even dramatic themes. He directed some of the finest Italian actors, from Marcello Mastroianni to Alberto Sordi.

"A comedy that is ironic, sometimes bitter, in some cases even dramatic, tragic: This is what Italian comedy is," Monicelli once said.

"Big Deal on Madonna Street," the black-and-white classic released in 1958, describes the adventures of a few poor devils organizing a big-time heist that ends up going awry. The movie stars Vittorio Gassman, Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale and Italian comic icon Toto. A remake of the movie, "Welcome to Collinwood," starring William H. Macy and George Clooney, was made in 2002.

Monicelli's 1959 movie "The Great War" tells the tragicomical story of two young Italians — played by Gassman and Sordi — who try to avoid going to the front during World War I.

The film, by some considered Monicelli's finest work and the best Italian comedy of all, was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language movie and won Monicelli a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

"This movie contaminates historical tragedy with the classic motifs of Italian comedy, thus desecrating a topic — World War I massacres — that was still taboo for national cinema," said Italian critic Paolo Mereghetti.

Whether set in the Middle Ages, World Wars or modern times, Monicelli's characters captured the best and the worst of Italians, embodying ignorance, cowardice, generosity and courage in unequal doses.

"We (Italians) have remained the same after all," Monicelli, then 91, said in 2006 upon release of his last movie, "Le Rose nel Deserto" ("Desert Roses"). "We don't want to be heroes, but if we must die, we do so without making too big a deal of it."

The movie — depicting the lives of Italian soldiers stationed in Libya during World War II — marked a return to the theme of conflict almost 50 years after "The Great War."

Monicelli was born in Viareggio, a seaside town in Tuscany, on May 15, 1915.

His first notable work came in the late 1940s when he co-directed Toto in a number of successful movies, including the bittersweet "Guardie e Ladri" (known as "Cops and Robbers") in 1951.

The 1963 movie "I Compagni" ("The Organizer"), starring Mastroianni as a professor stirring up unionism in industrial northern Italy, won Monicelli, who also co-wrote the film, an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.

Another Academy Award nomination for best foreign language movie came for "La Ragazza con la Pistola" (known as "Girl with a Pistol"), released five years later and starring Monica Vitti as a Sicilian girl traveling to swinging London to kill her unfaithful lover.

Over the course of a career that spanned five decades and over 60 films, Monicelli collected some huge hits.

"L'Armata Brancaleone" ("For Love and Gold"), released in 1966, follows the adventures of an unlikely group of men in the Middle Ages led by a pompous knight played by Gassman in one of his most famous roles.

In the mid-1970s, "Amici Miei" (known as "My Friends") again highlights Monicelli's skills in mixing humor and bitterness in a tale of middle-aged friends who spend their lives organizing sophisticated pranks as a way to deal with failure, loneliness and the prospect of death.

A decade later, Monicelli looked at female friendship in a movie about the role of women in today's family and society, "Speriamo Che Sia Femmina" ("Let's Hope It's a Girl"), with an all-star cast including Catherine Deneuve, Liv Ullman and Stefania Sandrelli.

Referring to the director's suicide, Sandrelli told the Italian news agency ANSA that "knowing Mario, this was for him an extreme gesture of freedom, of anti-conformism."

Over his career, Monicelli also worked in TV and wrote countless scripts.

Relatives said Tuesday a wake was planned for the neighborhood in Rome's historic center where Monicelli lived so residents could pay their respects but there would be no funeral.