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Non ci resta che piangere: Film Review

Writing a letter to Girolamo Savonarola

Nothing Left to Do But Cry’ in its English translation is without question an Italian cult classic and perhaps even my favorite Italian film thanks to the comedic genius of Roberto Benigni and Massimo Troisi. Despite the passage of 40 years, the humor here does not seem dated or stale as comedy from a bygone era often does and in this regard the film has much in common with some of the classic American comedies made during the same period in the late 1970s and early 1980s that have also retained their appeal to subsequent generations.

In fact Benigni and Troisi would have felt right at home with the Second City alumni who were making movies around the same time like Animal House, Caddyshack and Blues Brothers because their brand of humor was based on the same improvisation style as practiced by John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray, John Candy and others. Troisi in particular with his natural but exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions is very reminiscent of Belushi though he doesn’t often stray into slapstick as Belushi was prone to do.

Non ci resta che piangere

The film’s plot, in which the two characters played by Benigni and Troisi are transported back to 1492, provides the perfect vehicle for them to poke fun at historical events and people including the mad monk Savonarola, Leonardo da Vinci and the discovery of America.

It’s a clever script, written also by these two actors, which gave them full license to improvise because it would have been impossible for Troisi to actually learn and repeat all of his many trademark mumblings, stutterings, nervous ticks and stumblings over half sentences.

You begin to wonder if there was in fact a finished formal script, rather than just an outline, such is the level of the apparent ad libbing and I’m sure every take was probably slightly different but such was the obvious chemistry between the two of them that I doubt many takes were necessary.

However, according to film lore, the classic ‘customs toll booth’ scene had to be shot many times, eating up precious location filming time, but only because Benigni and Troisi couldn’t stop laughing on every single take and when you watch the film you’ll understand why.

There are so many comedic highlights in the film like the Savonarola letter or Troisi trying to impress his new 15th century girlfriend with a Beatles song or Benigni trying to explain modern inventions to a perplexed Leonardo da Vinci. Everyone has their own favorite scenes and there are plenty to choose from like the three below that are on youtube.

Troisi made other films which have become acknowledged as comedic masterpieces but ‘Non ci resta che piangere’ unfortunately was his only collaboration with Benigni and we are left to wonder what other magic they could have produced together.

Like other low budget films that have become unexpected classics over time there’s no slick direction or impressive sets here. It could almost be a stage play where the audience is so spellbound by the interplay between the protagonists that everything else becomes peripheral and unimportant.

Many people in the English speaking world don’t like to watch foreign films because they hate subtitles. I’ve never had any problem with subtitles, always preferring them to dubbing, and with this particular film probably half of Italy also required subtitles because Troisi spoke in his native Neapolitan dialect, a language completely unintelligible to most northern Italians and also to me. But Troisi was Neapolitan to his fingertips and was much more comfortable speaking in dialect than he was speaking Italian as it allowed him to be completely natural.

The famous 'customs toll booth' scene

Benigni is much better known outside Italy than Troisi because he went on to win an Oscar in 1998 for his hugely successful film ‘Life is Beautiful’ whereas Troisi died prematurely at only 41 years old in 1994 just after filming the final scenes of Il Postino, probably his most well-known film internationally. There are many sad similarities between Troisi and John Candy - both were brilliant at their craft of quick witted intelligent comedy and both died in their early 40s from heart problems.

Watching old movies in any country is often a good way to understand certain famous phrases that have become part of the culture and in this movie the fictitious Tuscan town of Frittole where Benigni and Troisi find themselves lost in 1492 has become a byword for being lost or not knowing where you are in Italy.

Marina di Albarese beach
The spectacular unspoiled beach between Marina di Albarese and Cala di Forno

The film was ostensibly set in Tuscany but most of the locations used were just to the south in the Province of Viterbo in Lazio and around Rome. One location, used for the beach in Spain where they watched Columbus depart for America, piqued my interest.

It is Cala di Forno in the Maremma Regional Park, a beautiful wild beach that is difficult to reach requiring a walk of almost 4 miles from the Marina di Albarese car park, but you don’t have to go the whole way because the entire bay is just one long beach.

Proving once again the enduring popularity of this film and the extent to which it remains in the national consciousness, a Fiat Fiorino car was spotted recently with the toll booth dialogue cleverly fitted around the car nameplate


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