Movie Reviews 271 – Johnny Stecchino (1991)

johnny-stecchinoItaly’s greatest frenetic export since Espresso coffee, auteur Roberto Benigni had a breakout with his 1997 feature Life is Beautiful which garnered him Oscar’s for both Best Actor for Best Foreign Feature among many other awards. But the multi-talented comedian, writer and director was already well known to Italian fans long before that.

Johnny Stecchino (Johnny Toothpick) is one of his earlier movies which appropriates the comic staple doppelganger plot. But instead of being a case of mistaken identity it has a hapless victim Dante (Benigni) who is a lookalike of a mob boss being setup to take his fall. Always on the lookout for love, the buffoon Dante is nearly run over by Maria  (played by Benigni’s real life wife and regular co-star, Nicoletta Braschi) who happens to be wife of Johnny Stecchino (again, Benigni). Mafioso don Stecchino, currently in hiding and on the run from all the other local mobsters after breaking omertà – the mafia code of silence – in exchange for his own freedom from prosecution. When Maria notices the similarity she befriends Dante and slowly maneuvers him to take the fall for her husband. The plan is that once Dante is knocked off and everyone believes that Johnny is dead, she and Johnny can escape to Argentina to live free of mob and police reprisal.

Using a complex and multi-layered plot, the oblivious Dante visits Maria in Palermo, Sicily and soon targeted by a barrage of bullets believes he is being persecuted for other crimes, his penchant for stealing bananas at the top of the list. But his resolve to defend himself fortuitously thwarts his manipulator’s moves as well as those of the police and the cross-hairs of the rival gang.

Combining comedic sequences built up throughout the film along with a few bits of slapstick thrown in for good measure, Benigni strays from convention in many ways such a positing his best friend Lillo, a kid with down syndrome, as the brains and level headed party in the relationship. The jokes that play out in earlier scenes become pivotal plot points later, all the while delivering anti-corruption, anti-mob, and anti-authoritarian indictments.

In the big scheme of things, Dante just wants to get laid. But as he juggles the dual realities at play, everything that Dante says and does has a different meaning to everyone else. Benigni shines at every moment, always believing he knows exactly what is going on, but never flinches at the challenges, and ready to defend his Maria. In the end, everyone gets what they deserve, but you will never look at a banana the same way.

Santa-Cleopatra, this is a movie you have to seek out!

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