Goodbye, Furio Scarpelli

Furio Scarpelli, the prolific screenwriter of (raunchy, fearless) Italian comedies, died on Wednesday. He was 90.

Scarpelli had a hand in an unbelievable number of films (imdb counts 141), the best and most historically significant of which belonged to the “Commedia all’italiana” movement of the late fifties and early sixties. For director Pietro Germi, (arguably) the unofficial leader of the brigade, he wrote Seduced and Abandoned, which I am certain is one of the greatest film comedies ever made, Italian or otherwise. It tells the story of Don Vincenzo Ascalone (played with outrageous fervor by Saro Urzi), the patriarch of a fairly well off Italian family. He’s a simple man, a proud man, and wants only respectability for his family, so he facilitates the engagement of one of his daughters to a promising young man. Then that young man sleeps with Don Vincenzo’s other daughter (the pretty daughter), impregnates her, and skips town, thereby compromising not only the family honor, but the possibility that Vincenzo’s pretty daughter will ever marry again. So Vincenzo, who now hates this boy, goes off to find him and make him marry his daughter, who also hates him. That’s act I.

Because it is as ridiculous as it is emotionally plausible, this is a sensational premise for a comedy. The “Commedia all’italiana” filmmakers understood, quite profoundly, that an emotion pushed to it’s extreme can be very, very funny, but also deeply problematic. Without moralizing, Scarpelli’s story gets to the heart of this very Italian dilemma: hot-bloodedness, like honor, is both the making and undoing of modern Italy, as much an obsolete, feudal ethic as it is a noble tradition that must be upheld. Seduced and Abandoned plays with this paradox like a feral cat toying with a mouse.

It’s the best kind of satire. Excise the specifics of Italian politics and society, and you still have airtight motivations, fabulous set pieces, and the kind of tempestuous extravagance everyone finds amusing, whether they can relate to it or not (see the film’s trailer above – even without subtitles it’s funny). It’s no wonder that Furio Scarpelli began (like Fellini) as a cartoonist.

As much as I love Seduced and Abandoned, I shouldn’t close without mentioning two of Scarpelli’s other great creations, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (written with three others) and Mafioso, which also fits squarely in “Commedia all’italiana,” and by virtue of its title, needs no introduction. But I’ll say this: imagine The Godfather if Michael were more invested in keeping Kay in the dark about his family than inheriting the Corleone mantle. Again, it’s the best kind of satire. Take Mafioso out of Italy and the point still comes across: Every family is a mafia. Bring your fiancée home to dinner and pray the weapons stay in their holsters.

Furio Scarpelli.

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