This is one of those films which simultaneously confirms Lucio Fulci's abilities as a film-maker and indicates the problems he had in having these be recognised by mainstream critics.
Done with mirrors
For while a thoroughly competent piece of work from the writer-director, it again sees Fulci largely subordinating his own interests to showcasing the talents of the stars, Franco and Ciccio, popular comedians whose act, no matter how accomplished in its own right - and make no mistake they were damn good at what they did - was never going to appeal to the elite tastemakers.
Franco and Ciccio essentially play themselves as per usual, but are here cast as brothers, representing two-thirds of the current generation of a family with a long and illustrious history in crime.
Yet another bungle
Indeed, the black sheep of the family is the one who became a priest. Tellingly, however, this amounts to nothing more than a gag rather than being used as the springboard for a more thoroughly developed anti-clerical critique as in Fulci's more personal films.
The inversion of conventional morality?
Franco and Ciccio are also, however, thoroughly hopeless as criminals, such that their older and considerably more successful brother Paolo would rather have them stay at home, out of trouble.
To this end, he keeps his brothers supplied with a steady stream of female company, not so much because they are playboy types, instead being content to settle down with one woman apiece in a more traditional, conventional and respectable manner, and more because it has proven exceedingly difficult for Paolo to find women able to tolerate his brothers' idiocy for more than a few days or weeks at the most.
Until now, that is, as a visit to the nightclub reveals two women, Maralina and Rosalina, who are even dumber than Franco and Ciccio and thus look to be the perfect paid companions for them.
The problem is that Maralina and Rosalina also fantasise about being with tough-guy gangsters, giving Franco and Ciccio a further impetus to prove themselves. (In an ironic turn of fate, the Finnish-born Lena von Martens, who plays Maralina, apparently turned to escorting after her film career came to an end.)
Another botched job leads Paolo to take a different tack. He tells Ciccio his long-planned scheme for one last big score, namely robbing the bank of Italy, in the hope that his younger brother - the slightly more intelligent one of the pair - will realise that a life of crime is just not for him. Unfortunately Ciccio is also smart enough to secretly steal his over-confident brother's plans and resolves to carry out the robbery of the century with the help of Franco and some of their still more inept friends...
While thoroughly predictable in its Big Deal on Madonna Street styled antics from herein on, How We Robbed the Bank of Italy is never less than entertaining and manages to raise more than a few laughs and smiles along the way through the antics of its stars.
It also showcases Franco and Ciccio's versatility as comedians, with a combination of the verbal and the physical, the former relying on language and dialect and thus less accessible to non-Italian or indeed Northern Italians, though another recurring source of humour is the brothers' attempts to learn and use English. ("Frank, please," as Ciccio exasperatedly remarks in nearly every scene.)
The duo also perform a musical number that represents the reduction ad absurdum of the then-popular French Ye-Ye style, with Franco's lyrics comprising nothing more than "Yeah-Yeah" and Ciccio providing the occasional scream. This sequence, which results from the men being mistaken for members of the group on account of their costumes also highlights a connection with fumetti culture, with Franco and Ciccio's outfits being in the Diabolik and Kriminal vein.
An ironic critique of mass / popular culture; a defence of traditional cunning, both or neither?
Such moments again however highlight one of the basic issues in appreciating the film, that it helps to know the background context, one rather removed from the international art cinema.