From 2012 Rome’s International Film Festival: L’insolito ignoto – Vita acrobatica di Tiberio Murgia (Sergio Naitza – 2012)

For my day 2 in Rome’s International Film Festival I picked a documentary film by Sergio Naitza, under the Documentary track out of the competition. We’re all too accustomed to be exposed to the lives of the A-stars like Marcello Mastroianni, and Sophia Loren, I figured the story behind an actor forever in a supporting role could be interesting too. I was not disappointed.

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Film’s trailer

The film is about the colorful character on and off camera of Tiberio Murgia. If you never heard the name, the title may help:  “The Person Unknown” is a direct reference to Murgia’s 1958’s debut film, considered the first film heralding the Italian comedy genre – I Soliti Ignoti – Big Deal in Madonna Street when he was discovered by Mario Monicelli.

Through myriad of interviews with fellow actors, film historians, family members, childhood friends and Murgia’s interviews – we learn a whole lot about his story and how sometimes all you need is luck that can turn things around in a big way.

The film’s poster with Tiberio Murgia’s signature gaze

Consider this play on fate, Murgia a Sardinian who left his wife and kids, to find work as dishwasher in a trattoria in Via Della Croce in Rome, which also happens to be a place where director Mario Monicelli dines. Monicelli sees Murgia and immediately invites him to do a screen test for I Soliti Ignoti along with several other Sicilians for the role of Michele Ferribotte – the crazy Sicilian. Murgia has no idea what is a screen test and ends up getting the role that will typecast his career with over hundred and forty films later as the bigot Sicilian, where as mentioned earlier – he’s in fact a Sardinian…

Murgia says when he was younger in his hometown Ortisano, a doctor offered to fix his eyes for free as he tended to raise his eyebrows with his head tilted up, so much that his friends nicknamed him “look ahead.” Murgia refused the operation and claimed, “that’s how my mother made me and I won’t change.”And in fact throughout the film and also in opening scene we see an interview with Murgia in his 80’s where the camera angle is positioned from bottom up onto his face to underscore his “tilted head” looking down at the audience.

This facial expression has become his lucky charm and earned him a long career in numerous film in secondary roles – always as a crazy jealous Sicilian. For his debut film in I Soiliti ignoti, he was dubbed by Renato Cominetti, an actor from Rai Theater who by origin was a Napolitan who knew how to make a Sicilian accent from Catania. Again, double contradictory that proves that in cinema the packaging is always more important than the truth.

The other aspect of the film describes Murgia’s womanizing nature and the various conquests and trouble he got into as a result. Beyond his known kids from 2 wives, there are over 10 other children he never knew about. Ironic moment is revealed when in TV game show one of his early lovers from Sardinia comes forward, but Murgia has no clue who she is and instead remembers another woman from his hometown to the roaring laugh of the audience.

Tiberio Murgia and Claudia Cardinale in their debut film – 1958’s I soliti ignoti by Mario Monicelli

All in all it’s what you may call a Cinderella story about an actor that came from nowhere, all he brought was his signature physique, repackaged by a prominent director to carry a whole new identity that changed him forever. The film also offers a rare study of how Italian films were made back in the 50’s and 60’s. I especially liked an interesting testimonial by Claudia Cardinale that I Soiliti Ignoti was also her first film, talking about the careful set dynamics with other much well noted actors like Toto, Marcello Mastroiani and Vittorio Gassman.

The film interestingly confirms the premise that genuine stories can also be found at the periphery outside the typical limelight.

By Shlomi Ron

Visual marketing guy with a penchant for fine Italian cinema.

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