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.
"Il regista?" (The director?) I asked the cameraman next to me. He nodded. The doors shut, and I noticed a giant photograph of Mastroianni looking down from a picture window onto the gathering. Monicelli had favored Mastroianni with some of his first major roles. The renowned director, the bearded and jovial Paolo Virzì, emerged to praise Monicelli for the assembled cameramen and microphones, and disappeared back into the Casa.
So, I trod on. Two hours later, after visiting the Galleria, I was passing the Casa del Cinema on my way back to the metro. All around me stood gorgeous Italian women and handsome, fashionably disheveled Italian men—actors all, many with faces I found familiar, if I did not know their names. The doors of the Casa opened, and members of a security detail out front parted. I followed the crowd between them, inside and up the stairs, expecting to be stopped, but I wasn't. In the velvety dark of the movie theater on the second floor, I saw, beneath Monicelli's projected image on the screen, the coffin sprinkled modestly with flowers. He was giving the lens a coy look, from beneath a scarlet scarf, wrapped curiously around his head as a hijab might be. The camera ardente ("blazing room"), they call it in Italian, in reference to the torches or candles that once illuminated the casket of the departed with flickering gilt rays. The term still fits: a spotlight above lit the coffin alone, calling to mind a glowing phoenix set for a heavenward lift-off.