For days the skies above Rome had churned out batterings of rain and merciless gusts of wind, rendering umbrellas almost useless, notions of sightseeing ridiculous, and, amazingly, not deterring the occasionally rowdy student demonstrations underway over proposed reforms to the state educational system. Then, on the evening of November 29, at the height of the storm, I listened as Italian television announced the initially shocking news: Mario Monicelli, one of the most popular, talented, and prolific of the country's old-guard comic-satiric film directors and screenwriters, the man behind such Oscar-nominated films as La Grande Guerra and I Compagni, had just hurled himself to his death from the balcony of his fifth-floor room at Rome's San Giovanni Hospital. He was 95, and he'd been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer.
Monicelli left no suicide note, but the volitional power and intent of his final gesture was clear and cogent: he would not complain, he would not waste away, he would not submit himself or his loved ones to the pointless, hopeless torture of a protracted demise. Monicelli was not entirely a stranger to me. While studying at university in Florence 28 years ago, I had seen and enjoyed a couple of his films. Just which ones—I Soliti Ignoti? Un Borghese Piccolo Piccolo?—I can no longer say. But I do remember their spirit—funny, farcical, and sad all at once—accorded with so much in Italian life that was new to me then.
Monicelli had worked with, and even launched, the careers of many cinematic legends, including Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman. He had turned 70 flicks in a career that began in the 1930s. But his death gave me personal reason to pause. I had just undergone successful treatment in Italy for a relatively minor form of skin cancer, and had, thus, slipped the executioner's grip, in my own small way. (There was a chance my cancer was of a more lethal variety, but a biopsy ruled this out.) So I pondered his courage and approved his act, hoping that I would have the fortitude to do as he had, should the occasion ever arise, which no longer seemed remote or unfathomable.
I mentally filed away the news and got on with my chores in Rome. At about ten in the morning two days later, my duties were done, and the sky granted the city a brief respite from rain-laden winds, without threatening to bathe it excessively in the solar radiation I and all skin-cancer survivors have to be wary of. I decided to visit the Galleria Borghese, one of Rome's most acclaimed art galleries.
A brief metro ride left me at the Flaminio station. I walked off Piazzale Flaminio through stone arches into the exquisite park and gardens of Villa Borghese. Beneath the high-canopied umbrella palms surrounding Largo Marcello Mastroianni, I caught sight of Rome's Casa del Cinema. I asked a policewoman there where the museum was, but she couldn't tell me, and turned to focus her attention on the flashy blue and black cars pulling up, the last one of which turned out to be a hearse. Men with cameras on their shoulders rushed past me, along with journalists I recognized from various RAI newscasts I have watched for years. Six pall-bearers hauled a diminutive glistening oaken casket from the hearse's back doors, heaved it to their shoulders, and, to a burst of applause, marched into a side entrance.