Now Playing! The Serious Comedy of Ugo Tognazzi at the Castro

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Still from 'Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man,' featuring Ugo Tognazzi.  (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

As the straight-arrow prosecutor nipping at the Ferragamo heels of Vittorio Gassman’s amoral industrialist in the 1971 satire In the Name of the Italian People, Ugo Tognazzi necessarily defers the comic overplaying to his slick costar. But Tognazzi’s flawless timing—he deploys a devastating arsenal of pauses and reactions amid a nonstop flow of rat-a-tat dialogue—evokes his roots in comedy. It’s a measure of the actor’s skill that he can anchor the moral center of Dino Risi’s skewering movie and also suggest (and suppress) an anarchic impulse.

Drawn from Luce Cinecittá’s extensive 25-film retrospective last December at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—which encompassed a mere sixth of Tognazzi’s mammoth body of screen work—In the Name of the Italian People is more relevant and resonant for contemporary U.S. audiences steeped in corruption than the pre-Watergate viewers of its initial release. In fact, its basic assertion that the masters of the universe can be brought to heel by one incorruptible member of the justice system feels almost naïve today (say what you will of the efforts of one Robert Mueller).

Still from 'In Nome del Popolo Italiano,' featuring Vittorio Gassman and Ugo Tognazzi.
Still from 'In Nome del Popolo Italiano,' featuring Vittorio Gassman and Ugo Tognazzi. (Courtesy of Rialto Pictures)

Risi’s savagely civilized work screens Saturday, April 27 as part of Ugo Tognazzi: A Film Series. The all-day marathon, curated and organized by Cinema Italia San Francisco under the patronage of the Italian Consul General and presented by Luce Cinecittá and The Italian Cultural Institute San Francisco, features his breakthrough international hits, La Grande Bouffe (1973) and La Cage aux Folles (1978), as well as the lesser-known Property Is No Longer a Theft (1973) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981).

Tognazzi’s stardom beyond Italy has faded, especially compared to his colleague Marcello Mastroianni, in the nearly three decades since his death. Ugo Tognazzi: A Film Series invites us to discover—or discover anew—the actor’s unique mixture of dignity, intelligence and joyous abandon.