He writes, acts and directs. He’s one of the most beloved comedians and personalities of his time. His name is Paolo Villaggio. Having achieved legendary status in Italy, he worked his way out of poverty to become a household name in his country.
Born in Genoa in 1932, Villaggio grew up poor as his family felt the financial strains of World War II. He held several odd jobs throughout his teenage years and into his 20’s, but it was a television talk show host who ended up changing the course of Villaggio’s life. In 1967, he was discovered by Maurizio Costanzo. Costanzo urged Villaggio to join a cabaret in Rome. Shortly thereafter, he moved on to the small screen and delighted television audiences across Italy with his part in the TV show, "Bonita Loro".
|Paolo Villaggio at the 2015 Festa del Cinema in Rome|
Villaggio has appeared in dozens of films and has worked with Italy’s top filmmakers including Federico Fellini, Roberto Begnini and Ermanno Olmi, just to name a few. Those familiar with his work obviously have favorites. My favorite, and one I highly recommend is Lina Wertmüller's 1994 “Ciao Professore.” I saw the film about 15 years ago and it was the first time I ever saw Paolo Villaggio. The strong emotion I felt while watching that film was one of my main motivations for beginning to write about Italian cinema. Villaggio stars as a Milanese elementary school teacher transferred to a school located in a rough district of Naples.
Villaggio’s character is forced to come to grips with the way of life in this Neapolitan town and how poverty keeps many of his students from attending class. Although his students are youngsters, many have to work to put food on their tables. Others lean towards a life of crime and the streets. Villaggio’s character has a hard time accepting the situation and physically goes out to find them and brings them to class. The children, although fighting him tooth and nail, become attached to him because it’s the first time in their lives that someone cares enough to actually go out and track them down. In the end, Villaggio’s character is transferred back up north and he has to say goodbye to the children. It is such a heart-wrenching story, perhaps because there is some truth to it, not just in the south of Italy, but all over the world. I see so many films and rarely does one stay with me the way that “Ciao Professore” has. I credit that to Paolo Villaggio’s performance. He succeeds in bringing humanity and empathy to his characters through the way he delivers his lines, through his sharp but subtle sense of humor and through his strong, sincere eyes. "Ciao Professore" is available on Amazon.