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Force Majeure

Little fights turn into big fights when couples use their emotions as weapons —Marty Mapes (review...)

An avalanche is a Force Majeure

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Big Deal on Madonna Street, like any movie in the Criterion collection, is worth a look. Unlike most Criterion movies, this one is a comedy.

The Movie

Criterion releases Italian comic caperBig Deal on Madonna Street is an Italian caper that riffs on the film noir (think Asphalt Jungle made as a comedy) and that, according to the liner notes, started a whole genre of comedic capers, like Topkapi and The Italian Job.

Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) goes to jail for trying to steal a car. There he learns about the perfect crime from a fellow inmate, a bricklayer, who deliberately made a weak wall between a private apartment and a pawn shop. But Cosimo can’t keep his mouth shut and soon his “friends” learn about the job and plan it without him.

The cast of characters is distinctive and likeable. The safecracker is Dante Cruciani (Totó), who’s been busted so many times, the neighborhood children tease him by pretending to be parole officers. The man who steals the idea from Cosimo is Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), a big, dumb lug. He’s a boxer with a clean police record, until his career fails miserably in a single punch. After that, he accepts a short stint in jail for a cash payment.

Even the great Italian actor Marcello Mastroiani has a part, as the reconnaissance man, a photographer who has no camera (he had to sell it to pay the bills). In contrast to his usual macho screen persona, Mastroiani plays a single father whose more interested in getting his son to sleep than hanging out with the boys.

The film has a catchy, pre-Charlie Parker jazz score that plays throughout the film. The tempo and tone change based on the needs of the film, but the melody stays the same, giving the film a cohesion and sense of identity.

The movie is funny and well-paced, and the characters are a joy to watch. And yet I get the distinct feeling that some of the humor is lost in the translation. Oftentimes, the subtitles don’t catch the subtleties of the spoken dialogue (not that I speak Italian). For example, Peppe stutters, which I didn’t pick up on until the second viewing. Glancing away from the faces to read the subtitles means you miss some of the characters’ comic expressions. However, if you’re up for repeated viewings, you’re sure to enjoy Big Deal on Madonna Street

Picture and Sound

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio, 1.33:1. The black and white photography shows an amazing range and depth. The DVD picture is beautiful, even on my old laptop. As usual, Criterion’s quality is outstanding.

The sound is hard to feel strongly about. It’s presented in the original monaural, and the disc encodes it in Dolby digital one-channel, which is the correct choice. But as I said, it’s hard to be impressed by a 40-year old monaural recording.

DVD Features

There aren’t many extra features on this disc. There is a trailer for the film that looks like it was aimed at U.S. audiences (quoting various New York newspapers). The trailer adds little except some camp value. There is also a four-paragraph essay from film historian and Criterion collaborator Bruce Eder in the liner notes.

The disc offers only the original Italian soundtrack and optional English subtitles, plus the usual assortment of chapter stops.

To sum up: the extras are a little thin and the audio is nothing to tell your friends about. The choice of movie is certainly unique — Big Deal on Madonna Street is a film I had never heard of until Criterion released it — and the picture, as always with Criterion, is impeccable. I would recommend this as a rental without hesitation. But if you only buy one or two discs this year, hold out for something with more features.