Nino Manfredi

Subversive comic actor and director

The Italians adored the actor Nino Manfredi for his antisocial antics and irreverent clowning in devastating and often surrealist attacks on conventional family life, the brutishness of the proletariat, the farce of international politics and the domination of the Catholic religion in Italian daily life.

Saturnino Manfredi, actor and director: born Castro dei Volsci, Italy 22 March 1921; married Erminia Ferrari (one son, two daughters); died Rome 4 June 2004.

The Italians adored the actor Nino Manfredi for his antisocial antics and irreverent clowning in devastating and often surrealist attacks on conventional family life, the brutishness of the proletariat, the farce of international politics and the domination of the Catholic religion in Italian daily life.

Manfredi had been a long-time fan of the Chaplinesque actor-mime Toto who, from the Fifties, starred in a series of farcical movies that often ridiculed the Italians, to their great delight. His subversive talents sometimes got him into trouble with papal and political censors, but he was always the darling of children and the working classes. Manfredi may be said to have taken Toto's place in the hearts and minds of hosts of fans.

"Nino" was short for Saturnino, a name that did not suit him at all, for he was anything but sullen and gloomy. From boyhood, he had been fascinated by cinema and theatre. But his father, a hard-headed working man who disapproved of his son's histrionic ambitions, persuaded him to study law at university. At the same time, Nino enrolled himself in the Accademia Nazionale d'Arte Drammatica in Rome. He successfully passed his final examinations in both establishments, thus satisfying his devoted father's desire that he should have a profession to fall back on if his career in the theatre came to nothing.

Nino Manfredi began his professional career at the celebrated Piccolo Theatre in Milan, a small disused cinema converted by Giorgio Strehler in 1947. It was a venture that became part of the history of avant-garde theatre. Manfredi's art was therefore grounded in intensive study of texts and in performances directed by Strehler or Vittorio Gassman of dramatists like Pirandello, Chekhov, Ibsen and Shakespeare. But it was not the right environment for the development of Manfredi's peculiar comic talent. He left, declaring, "You're not allowed to laugh in that place!"

For the time being, he made a modest living acting in radio dramas and in dubbing foreign films: he was the Italian voice of Gérard Philipe among many others. It was not until 1959 that he got his first fairly substantial role in Gianni Puccini's L'Impiegato ("The Employee"), a movie based on Manfredi's first script.

It was the first real step forward in a career of over a hundred films, among them triumphs like Franco Brusati's Pane e cioccolata ( Bread and Chocolate, 1974) - a bitter yet endearing evocation of the tragicomic existence of immigrant workers. He portrays a helpless waiter in Switzerland who is mistakenly and absurdly accused of murder and "indecent exposure" - he was just taking a very human and inoffensive leak in public. The comic tone of the confrontations between exaggeratedly starchy Swiss nobodies and the beleaguered, uncomprehending Italian youth is irresistibly comical yet it keeps appealing to our better feelings. The audience - even in Zurich, where I first saw this film - is on the poor Italian's side all the way, such is the art of Manfredi's subtle performance. It is a profound lesson in humanity and tolerance.

In the same year the great director Ettore Scola starred Manfredi in C'eravamo tanto amati ( We All Loved Each Other So Much), and in 1975 in the inimitable comic horrors of Brutti sporchi e cattivi ( Ugly, Dirty and Bad). He became one of Scola's favourite actors.

In 1961, Manfredi had appeared in Luigi Comencini's A cavallo della tigre ( On the Tiger's Back). In 1972, Comencini starred him with Gina Lollobrigida in the director's very personal, anti-Disney television and movie version of Pinocchio. Manfredi plays Geppetto, the workman who carves the puppet figure of Pinocchio so realistically that it comes alive and becomes his son. Manfredi gives a wonderfully strong portrayal of the peasant carver.

Manfredi was himself a cinematographer. His first attempt was a short anthology piece, L'Amore difficile ( Of Wayward Love, 1962). The second, in 1971, was all his own, the full-length Per grazia ricevuta ( Between Miracles), which has a very original tone. It is an anti-clerical satire, and is Manfredi's most intimately personal film, a reflection on the dubious relationships between sex and religion. It was an obsessive search to discover and comprehend his own most ingrained inhibitions, and won first prize as the best first movie at the 1971 Cannes Festival.

His third movie as cinematographer was the 1981 Nudo di donna ( Portrait of a Nude Woman), which surprisingly was banned in France, and never made it to Britain.

Nino Manfredi's last film appearance was in La Luz prodigiosa ( The End of a Mystery), shot in Spain in 2002 by the Spanish director Miguel Hermoso. At first Manfredi was reluctant to take the part because a previous film he had made, with Luis García Berlanga, had caused political scandal and public outrage in Franco's Spain. It was called El Verdugo ( Not on Your Life, 1962) and was set in a funeral parlour, and the clergy found it deeply offensive. However, by 2002, Hermoso's film was under no threat of Fascist repression.

In this remarkable film, Manfredi portrayed the great Spanish poet Federico Lorca, who died a macabre and untimely death at the hands of Franco's thugs. It is a touching fantasy in which Lorca is supposed to have survived his assassination and to be still alive at the age of 75. The film humorously describes his survival in the contentious and spiteful world of contemporary Spain's literary giants. But, with Manfredi's great artistry, it cannot help becoming a bitter-sweet comedy a la italiana.

Hermoso said of his star:

Actors like Nino are very rare. In front of the camera he played like a happy child. He had seen every movie ever made, and worked with all the great directors, but, whenever I had finished a shot, he would run like a child to see how it had turned out. He gave the illusion of playing in his very first film.

In September 2003, at the Venice Film Festival, the jury paid generous homage to Nino Manfredi. As he was already gravely ill with cerebral vascular contusion, and had long been hospitalised, such a tribute had something of the air of a premature funeral eulogy. It was followed by a screening, not of one of his typical Italian comedies, but of La Luz prodigiosa. He was also awarded the supreme distinction of the Bianchi Prize for the ensemble of his life's work. Manfredi was recognised as the last of a company of great Italian classic comedians - with Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Vittorio Gassman and Alberto Sordi - from the days when films were truly films.

James Kirkup

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