Laurence Olivier once called him the greatest actor in the world. To his fellow Italians, he is a national institution, a man who not only makes them laugh and cry but who embodies all their fears and weaknesses.
If you want to understand what makes this most theatrical of countries work, forget the Berlusconis, Finis and Dinis of this world - politics being too confusing an arena of public life - and turn to the phenomenon of Alberto Sordi.
Yesterday the great comic actor, whose talents have never been given the showcase they deserve in Britain, turned 75, and it was no ordinary birthday. One of Italy's foremost cinema critics, Tullio Kezich, kicked off by proposing Sordi as an honorary senator for life. By lunchtime, half the Senate seemed to agree and by teatime one political grouping had promised to put the idea to President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro.
It was not only his acting talents that prompted the tributes. As the journalist Barbara Palombelli has written: "When Sordi speaks, it is as though we are hearing the ordinary Italian who is in us all." Mr Kezich described how Sordi's screen characters, an array of downtrodden buffoons, crooks and losers, always struggling against the establishment, reflected the history of postwar Italy.
In Fellini's first film The White Sheikh, he played a dreamer who fantasised about the exotic East; in I Vitelloni, he was an overgrown adolescent refusing to grow up. Perhaps his greatest role was in Dino Risi's Una Vita Difficile, in 1961, in which his depiction of a former resistance fighter struggling to keep his ideals in the corrupt world of postwar Italy was a withering critique of an entire generation.
It is a sign of the times that the media have interviewed Sordi not only about his career but about his politics. Having played so many common men on screen, he has become the voice of the common man in real life.
It turns out he has little in common with the rebellious characters he played in 200-odd films, but is conformist, polite and always well turned out. He admires Silvio Berlusconi for his energy, and one senses a sneaking support for the media tycoon's political programme.
But Sordi does not wear his politics on his sleeve. "I have never been on either the right or the left," he has said, preferring to keep his faith in the Italians' ability to live by their wits in any political situation.
One sees in him the contradictions of Italian society: an impulse to rebel held in check by innate conservatism, a reluctance to side definitively with anyone and a taste for criticism underpinned by optimism.
He embodies the Italian love of spectacle. "As a great actor, he would no doubt do much better in politics than the professionals," said Marco Preioni, a senator from the Northern League. "He knows the Italians because he has played them all."Reuse content