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The Passionate Thief (1960) | Review

Miracolo!: Monicelli’s Exuberant, Digitally Restored Classic

The Passionate Thief PosterThere hasn’t been a performer that’s come close to equaling the vibrant energy of Italian actress Anna Magnani, that furious powerhouse that graced some of the best works of Rossellini, Visconti, Pasolini, and Renoir and swept her way through English language cinema, winning an Oscar for 1955’s The Rose Tattoo. It’s with great pleasure to discover that Mario Monicelli’s forgotten classic The Passionate Thief was digitally restored last year, playing at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival before being treated to a limited theatrical run this Spring at select theaters. Starring Magnani with her frequent stage collaborator, famed comedian Toto, and a nubile Ben Gazzara, the trio wanders through Rome’s streets one lackluster New Year’s Eve as they stumble through a series of escapades.

Based on short stories by famed author Alberto Moravia (The Conformist; Two Women; Contempt) and adapted by Suso Cecchi D’amico (Visconti’s regular screenwriter) along with Monicelli’s regular scribes Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, The Passionate Thief plays like a situational screwball comedy of the 30s and 40s. Charting one crazy night of filled with comedy and error as its trio of revelers throw themselves into the pursuit of some greater glory.

We meet Magnani as Tortorella Fabbricotti (Gioia to those that know her), a film extra on an elaborate set, her hearty laugh grabbing our attention, along with the irritation of several colleagues. She may be background in this realm, but to us, she’s clearly the star. As the extras rush off set once filming is completed, Magnani’s Gioia is reluctantly invited out with a group (little does she know that it’s because they simply want an even number of people). Due to an electrical snafu at home, she’s late to the meeting point, and her crew has left without her. Dolled up in a platinum blonde wig and a white mink stole, Gioia is accosted by a drunk American (Fred Clark) looking for the Trevi Fountain (Fellini’s La Dolce Vita having already bled into international cinematic fabric as a cultural focal point just months prior).

Luckily, she runs into an old friend, fellow entertainer Umberto (Toto), known by the locals as Infortunio, because he basically supports himself on insurance scams. But little does Gioia know, Umberto has been bamboozled into helping young con artist Lello (Gazarra) fleece the New Year’s Eve revelers, and the young man is in desperate need of securing a large sum that very night. Gioia is immediately drawn to the Lello and the two men (mostly) let her tag along as they move through the city, eventually ending up at a party of hospitable Germans owning lots of removable valuables, and finally, a church.

Mario Monicelli, twice Oscar nominated for Best Screenplay (Casanova ’70; The Organizer) is still probably best known for his 1958 crime comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street. Gazarra, dubbed in Italian, was fresh off Anatomy of a Murder, and it’s fascinating to see him so young, handsome, and undoubtedly prurient between the comedic banter of Toto and Magnani. While Toto was widely renowned for his comedic skills, Magnani is best remembered for her magnetic dramatic turns, so outside of Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach, it’s a magnificent delight to see her decked out in fur with a blonde Monroe wig as she oscillates between disappointment, giddiness, infatuation, and martyrdom in an intoxicating whirlwind like no other performer before or after. Leonida Barboni’s (Divorce Italian Style) glistening cinematograpy helps make The Passionate Thief an exciting priceless, restoration.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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