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VENICE 2021 Competition

Mario Martone • Director of The King of Laughter

“A film about a theatre genius written like a theatrical comedy”

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- VENICE 2021: We met with the director of the Eduardo Scarpetta film, which is competing in the festival

Mario Martone • Director of The King of Laughter
(© La Biennale di Venezia - Foto ASAC/Jacopo Salvi)

In competition at the 78th Venice International Film Festival and graced by a cast of exceptional actors led by Toni Servillo, The King of Laughter [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Mario Martone
film profile
]
speaks of the life and art of Eduardo Scarpetta, the great playwright who made the whole of Naples laugh and the progenitor of an impressive dynasty, continued by his illegitimate offspring, the De Filippo children. We spoke about the film with its director Mario Martone.

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Cineuropa: Had you been thinking about this film project on the subject of Scarpetta and starring Toni Servillo for a while?
Mario Martone: I thought the moment had come to attempt it. Scarpetta was a theatre genius and an amoral patriarch who was driven by an incredible hunger for social redemption. He was a primitive man who had children with his wife Rosa, but also with her sister and with his wife’s niece, and despite not recognising any of them as his, he taught all of them and they all either became actors within his theatre company or genius playwrights, like Eduardo De Filippo. Toni and I go back a long way, we made a huge amount of avant-garde theatre together in the early days. We depicted Naples for the first time in Enzo Moscato’s stage show Rasoi, which starred Iaia Forte, who’s also in our new film. Then there was Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician, and so on, Toni has played Eduardo De Filippo… Let’s just say that this film had been waiting to be made for forty years.

What research did you carry out in order to reproduce the many, varied aspects of his life?
We didn’t want to make a traditional biography; in fact, we wrote it as a comedy, all set indoors, honouring Eduardo De Filippo and his works, notably his ability to use comedy to tackle complexity, twists, the shadows of life… We arrived at a summary which bended certain historical facts; for example, Eduardo De Filippo and his siblings were quite young at the time of the trial, whereas we took the liberty of depicting them as older. The score, which is made up of Neapolitan songs, a soundscape which is intended to convey Naples at that time, doesn’t always fit with the era, either. Some areas of Scarpetta’s life were simply impenetrable. What all these female lovers and children of his were thinking was something we could only imagine. But there was ample documentation for all the rest; Scarpetta’s autobiography, for example, where he describes his meeting with Gabriele D’Annunzio and the business of the court case. Historical elements are intertwined with imagination and fiction. The film is written like a comedy; we’d just left the studio where we filmed The Mayor of Rione Sanità [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Mario Martone
film profile
]
by De Filippo, which I made in 2019.

In a conversation with philosopher Benedetto Croce, Eduardo Scarpetta tackles themes such as art, the populace, and the new avant-garde.
Croce comes into the film through the story of the trial, which pits Scarpetta against D’Annunzio, who enjoyed the favourable opinion of Salvatore Di Giacomo and Roberto Bracco. Croce’s intervention was a surprise; he defended the right to parody, which was no small thing at the time. Ultimately, the court case is about power. Scarpetta wants to have a pop at the great poet, even if he admires him; he’s animated by a rebellious spirit, seeing theatrical art as popular art. Given his stature, Croce put things in order: parody is a right, given that it is infinitely small compared to D’Annunzio, who is infinitely huge. This humiliates and wounds Scarpetta. Before that, he’d had a certain energy about him, a vitality when it came to entering and exiting the stage or life more generally. After the trial, a depressive phase sets in. There’s a political question at work here, in the sense that art is linked to life within the polis, within the community, within social groups, because theatre is ultimately an assembly. That’s why theatre is indispensable.

It’s a film about fatherhood in every sense.
Fatherhood in terms of works of art and in the wider sense of fathering children. And it’s also about the pain of fatherhood. But it also explores maternity, by way of female characters developed by Ippolita Di Majo, whose inner worlds would have been difficult for me to imagine. There’s a kind of divide: there’s this formidable patriarch, but there are also strong female figures with a capacity to react, a sorority who manage to deal with the situation with the steeliness required to effectively resist.

His meeting with D’Annunzio and parody itself are both part of a power trip.
Their meeting in the film is faithful to the autobiography: D'Annunzio’s ambiguity is recorded on paper by Scarpetta. In order to recreate it, we devised an atmosphere which fell somewhere between Guido Crepax and his femmes fatales, and films such as Toto in Hell. His view of himself as being beyond morality turns him into a legendary figure, and, in the end, he’s confronted with his own hubris, which comes in the form of Pulcinella’s ghost: all aging artists know that there will be new generations who will put them to death, just as they have to others. And similar to him with Pulcinella, certain young authors such as Di Giacomo and Bracco longed for a popular form of theatre which didn’t revolve solely around laughter.

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(Translated from Italian)

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