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Humorous take on foibles of late 50s Italians
on July 19, 2011
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Rating: 3.5 out of 5, 7.0 out of 10.0
What's the 'big deal' about 'Big Deal on Madonna Street?" Well, it's a pretty amusing take on Italian Society in the late 50s. Strong suits include a bevy of neat character types, a plot that moves along at a saucy pace (except perhaps for a bit of a draggy denouement) and dialogue full of jokes, some of which are spot on and others that are probably lost in translation.
When a petty criminal, Cosimo, is locked up for breaking into a car, he soon gets wind inside the local jail, that there is safe full of jewels inside a pawnshop on Madonna Street in Rome, ripe for the taking. All he has to do is conscript his pals, gain entry into a vacant apartment next door and punch through a weak plaster wall, which leads directly to the safe in question. One problem remains: his sentence on the misdemeanor is keeping him locked up for months on end.
Cosimo calls upon an old geezer, ex-Jockey Capannelle, to find a 'scapegoat' who will confess to the crime and take his place in the lockup. Capannelle calls upon a motley group including Mario, a product of the Italian orphanage system, who is perennially unemployed, Michele Ferrite, a Sicilian hothead who keeps his sister under lock and key, ensuring that no man takes advantage of her and and Tiberio, an unemployed photographer who must take care of his infant son after his wife has been locked up for smuggling cigarettes. All these ne'er-do-wells refuse to accept Cosimo's cash offer of 100,000 lira as they all have records and will probably be given significant time despite pleading guilty to such a minor crime. They finally find a washed-up boxer, Peppe, who agrees to switch places with Cosimo. Both Cosimo and Peppe hit a snag when the sentencing Judge sees through the ruse and also sends Peppe to jail.
In one of the real neat scenes in the film, Peppe tricks Cosimo into revealing the location of the potential heist on Madonna Street. After returning from the sentencing Court, he acts as if he's been sentenced to three years and Cosimo suddenly takes pity on him, spilling the beans. Peppe then walks out laughing, indicating that in actuality, he's been sentenced to one year probation.
If there's one scene that doesn't work at all, it's when the crooks steal an old 8 millimeter movie camera from a flea market after Tiberio comes up with the lame brained idea of utilizing the camera's zoom lens to film the safe combination from a rooftop, as pawnshop employees can be seen periodically opening the safe through a window of the building across the street. The scheme is so ridiculous from the get go since it's obvious that no one could read the safe combination by using a cheap camera like that. I understand that the point is to show what a bumbling bunch this gang of crooks really is. Unfortunately, I believe, no one is THAT stupid and it reduces the characters to a bunch of buffoons.
Fortunately, that's only one scene and there are plenty of others that hit the mark. One very subtle jab at a certain 'character type' occurs after the group needs to raise money to hire a "professional" safe cracker to open the safe. Mario visits his "mother" and her friends, the other older women at the orphanage where he was raised. One very funny bit is when one of the women keeps insisting how ugly he is without any awareness of her lack of tact.
The story takes a darker turn during a short sequence when Cosimo, after his plan for the big heist has been stolen from him by his former pals, resorts to mugging women on the street and ends up being killed after being hit by a streetcar, following a chase by the police. The gang then gets together for his funeral and wax philosophical about the capriciousness of life. The unsophisticated Capannelle can only say something trite in front of his pals: "feast or famine".
Some judicious editing could have improved the final quarter of the film as the focus is on two long-winded subplots: Michele going after Mario who expresses his love for Michele's sister and Peppe's involvement with Nicoletta, who works for the two spinsters who inhabit the apartment which the gang must gain access to. I also felt the actual 'break-in' scene was much too long but after reading Wikipedia, I learned that it was designed to satirize "Rififi", a 1955 French heist film, which I have yet to see.
'Big Deal' ends nicely as there are no fatal consequences for any of the misguided group of thieves. After drilling through the wrong wall, they conclude that its best to abort the caper; but all's well that end's well, when they partake of leftovers in the refrigerator concocted by the endearing Nicoletta. Finally, Peppe gets his just desserts, when he's swept up in a crowd of men who are seeking work at a construction site--work, of course, is the last thing Peppe really wants to do but he has no choice to accept his fate.
'Big Deal on Madonna Street' perhaps suggests that the root of instability in society is tied to infidelity between men and women. Without a strong anchor (or shall we say, 'moral compass'), people are condemned to a lack of satisfaction precisely because of the lack of strong relationships between the sexes. Right after being locked up, Cosimo can only joke when he promises his girlfriend a fur coat if he and his confederates can pull off the big heist. His girlfriend replies she'd rather get married and Cosimo states he's only doing a few months and she wants to sentence him to life! It's a funny line, but indicative of something much more sad going on in 1958 Italy, and just as relevant to today's times as well.