The Icicle Thief

December 21, 2011

The myriad complexities of the new Italian film The Icicle Thief manifest themselves right away: As the movie opens, a film director named Maurizio Nichetti is ushered into a TV studio, where his film called The Icicle Thief is about to be broadcast.

Now, this director is also played by the real Maurizio Nichetti, who is also the director of this Icicle Thief—the one we’re watching, not the TV-broadcast one. Well, both, actually. (Never mind.)

So the black-and-white movie starts playing on TV, where it is frequently interrupted by insipid commercials. After a power outage at the television station, the commercials merge with the movie, to the point where Nichetti himself has to enter his film and set things right. Furthermore, the whole episode is being watched (or half-watched, as with most TV) by a middle-class Italian family in their living room.

Does this sound complicated? It doesn’t really play that way. Nichetti has mapped out the various levels of reality very carefully, so we almost always know which patch of ground we’re standing on. He lets the film-within-a-film, a working-class drama based on the Italian neorealist films of the late 1940s, run on just long enough to suck you into the storyline; then he yanks the string and plops a garish commercial in your lap.

And, in the movie’s crowning moment, a tall blond model from one of the commercials invades the stark neorealist film, in all her Technicolor, aerobicized glory. She’s like one of the ‘toons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit walking around the live-action people. (Or vice versa.)

Maurizio Nichetti is a popular Italian moviemaker who carries the look of a slapstick clown, with doleful eyes, short limbs, and electrified hair and mustache. His style fuses the traditions of film comedy, from the silent mime of Chaplin and Buster Keaton to Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo.

Nichetti visited Seattle recently and explained that The Icicle Thief took a long time to create.

“It was very complicated to make a film about this connection between reality and not-reality,” he said, in his heavily-accented, appealingly fractured English, “between neorealism and the hyper-realism of advertising. The film is fantastic, but the connections inside the film are very real, very credible. If children see the film, they understand all, because all is very simple.”

Nichetti’s inspiration for the movie came out of two things: his love of the Italian neorealist tradition (Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief is the source of the film’s punning title), and the manhandling of movies on TV.

“In reality, you don’t see a film on television,” he said, “you see a lot of pieces of other shows. When you stay in front of TV with remote in your hand, and can choose your channel, you are the author of your own show. So you write your show; you decide the beginning, and the changes, you go out when you want, see a little news, and then you decide that this is my end for tonight.”

Nichetti has worked in television, and he doesn’t knock the medium. “I like television as audience. Not as director of film. A film is completely different in theater than on TV. The real life of a film is in a theater. You see the ghost of the film on television, not the real emotion of a film.”

Thus Nichetti’s film deals, in “a laughing way,” with a serious subject. “People see the world only on television. And this is a social problem, is not only a problem of show business, no? If you change the channel quickly, you pass from fiction to reality, from reality to fiction. From advertising to news, from news to sports. And you have a great confusion in your mind.” And so his movie is “a real situation—is not so fantastic, no?”

First published in the Herald, September 7, 1990

Only a smattering of Nichetti’s work has made it to the U.S., and this 1989 film remains his main release here, along with 1991’s Volere Volare. But the world of Italian comedy is an unknown territory for most of us in the West, as we are assured its slapstick and local references would leave us mystified as to the source of an audiences’ hilarity. Based on what I’ve seen, I would agree.