Johnny Stecchino
directed by Roberto Benigni
(Alliance, 1991)

The Monster/Il Mostro
directed by Roberto Benigni
& Michel Filippi
(Lion's Gate, 1996)

Italian comedian Roberto Benigni is best known for his Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful and for smaller roles in Jim Jarmusch films such as Night on Earth; he is best forgotten for trying in vain to revive the Pink Panther franchise (as Inspector Clouseau's illegitimate son) after Peter Sellers died.

However his two most thoroughly hilarious roles are in Johnny Stecchino and Il Mostro(The Monster).

Here are two films that share a number of similarities; both involve the old Shakespearean comic tricks of mistaken identities, coincidences and using seemingly unrelated events to set up a gag for later. They share a cast of actors including Benigni's real-life wife Nicoletta Braschi as the romantic interest in both films. Both allow Benigni to shine at his unique brand of physical comedy and set-up gags.

In both, he plays a petty scammer who is mistaken for something far worse, all in aid of a few much-needed laughs. Best, almost all of the humour in both films survives the language switch and the subtitles.

In Stecchino, Benigni is at his very best in creating and setting up comic opportunities. His character is a petty thief named Dante who drives a bus for mentally handicapped children. Dante, as fate would have it, is a dead ringer for Mafioso Johnnny Stecchino (also Benigni). The fun comes when he meets Maria. She's beautiful and appears to befalling in love with him. But she really wants to lure him to Palermo, where he'll certainly be mistaken for her husband, the real Johnny Stecchino. And most likely be killed.

But it's the viewer who almost dies -- laughing. Stecchino has several of the funniest scenes of all time (the return of the stolen banana, the opera scene) as Dante visits Maria (Braschi) in Palermo. Most of the humour comes out of the mistaken identity. As a bonus, there are some beautiful views of Palermo and some hilarious gags at the expense of Sicilian organized crime. Stecchino's coke-snorting lawyer "uncle" (Paolo Bonacelli) is played to perfection, as is the corrupt Cabinet Minister (Franco Volpi). Despite the theme, Stecchino is a relatively lighthearted movie with a feel-good ending, and with some hilarious sub-plots (the health insurance scam).

In Il Mostro, the mood (and theme music) is slightly more sombre. The scene is a suburban high-rise tract somewhere in Northern Italy. Benigni's petty scammer Loris is mistakenly thought to be a serial killer. Loris's antics include mistaking an elderly woman for a known "nymphomaniac," an elaborate scheme to rip off the local supermarket, picking up free coffee at a local restaurant (while leering at a woman from behind he executes the "cigarette down the pants" routine to perfection). Meantime, the police become convinced he is a dangerous criminal and move in to catch a serial killer in the act.

Jessica (Braschi) is assigned to entrap him, but is co-opted by Loris into being his secret tenant in a small-time apartment scam. There is a laugh a minute as Jessica attempts to entice Loris; Loris is advised by his friend to recite financial statistics in order to cool off. Finally, a police psychiatrist (Michel Blanc) and his whimpering, hypochondriac wife get involved. We know Benigni is, well, Benigni, but we wonder to the end if the bumbling cops just might be right that he is the "Monster."

Benigni is right at home in both films, which, more even than in Life is Beautiful, showcase his quirky comic talents. Stecchino is the better crafted of the two movies with plenty of great laughs, but Il Mostro, even without the smoothest plot line, has, minute-by-minute, the most laughs of any film ever made -- see it in the cinema if you can!

Both are worth a rental, even for those who found Life is Beautiful too set in horrific circumstances to be funny.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 26 June 2004

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