Kudos to Rialto Pictures for their lovely restored version of The Passionate Thief (1960), which opens its U.S. theatrical run on Friday at the Film Forum in New York. It has never been released on DVD in the U.S., so this was for me a delightful first encounter with this movie. Please try to get past what I think is the highly misleading, stodgily melodramatic English-language title; this movie is an extraordinarily light-on-its feet comedy. The plot has to do with a couple of small-time crooks (played by a highly convincing Ben Gazzara and the famous Italian comic actor Totò) who are trying to get some pickpocketing done on New Year’s Eve in Rome, only to see their efforts complicated by the unwitting intrusions of an impoverished Cinecittà extra (Anna Magnani).
The movie’s virtues are many: Rome is beautiful even at night, and in black and white; the plot, while funny and briskly paced, has some moments of genuinely touching grace and forgiveness. But let me single out the earthy sexuality of Anna Magnani: There were not many like her on the silver screen even back in 1960, and there are even fewer now. Kate Winslet and Lena Dunham come to mind, offhand; but the former is a little too obviously polished, the latter a little too neurotic and self-consciously political, to really be analogous. They have a little bit of the physical element, but lack the explosiveness — what might be captured in the old phrase “pepper pot.” For the vast majority of readers, who will be too young to remember this phrase, “pepper pot” refers to a physically solid and substantial person, usually a woman, who is bursting with a combination of energy, savvy, and sexual potency. Perhaps there should be a picture of Anna Magnani next to the definition in dictionaries.
In short, a fast-paced comedy with a great setting and a great cast; recommended.