Mario Martone • Director of Nostalgia
“Our past is a labyrinth”
by Marta Bałaga
- CANNES 2022: The Neapolitan director takes on his hometown in his new film, through another man who is trying to face his past, only to realise it never really went away
Felice (Pierfrancesco Favino) finally returns home, to Naples. He hasn’t been there for decades. His mother has got old, and his accent has changed. He lives in Cairo now, happily, but the past – as well as his childhood friend-turned-mobster – gets a hold of him once again. In Mario Martone’s Nostalgia [+see also:
interview: Mario Martone
film profile], presented in Cannes’ main competition, everything changes – except for Naples.
Cineuropa: This story surprised me a little. When people talk about nostalgia, it usually has a positive connotation – maybe too positive, even. You focus on its much darker side.
Mario Martone: Our past, or anybody’s past, is not a straight line. It veers off in all sorts of directions – so many things have happened. It’s a labyrinth where you’ve had your encounters, both good and bad, where you’ve said some things you shouldn’t have said. Or maybe you have taken the right path, one that has taken you far, far away? It doesn’t matter. If you look inside and think how everything is so intertwined, maybe it means that you’ve managed to move on from the past, to go beyond. But there are these little voices that still call you from time to time. You try to re-enter this labyrinth. But this attempt at understanding who you are and where it all started can be dangerous.
Yes, because this idea of “returning to one’s roots” can bring something good, but it can also be bad. Is that what you wanted to show here?
Every one of us has done things we are embarrassed of now – we have hurt someone or made mistakes. Sometimes, we tend not to think about it too much, convinced that everything can be erased. But it can’t. You have taken that road once. And this happens to Felice: he comes back to Naples because he wants to see his mother. He hasn’t seen her in 40 years! He left when she was still almost a girl, and he comes back to a frail, old woman. He had to see her, though – his wife was pushing him to do so. If he’d found her in her usual apartment upstairs, he would probably just have stayed for a while, cleansed his conscience and come back to Egypt.
But it doesn’t happen this way.
It doesn’t – his mother isn’t there. She is all the way down, in a ground-floor flat where [his childhood friend] Oreste put her. This way, Oreste makes his presence known right from the start. This is that push, that final straw that Felice needed in order to enter the labyrinth once again. So he does – and he gets lost.
The scene with his mother [played by Aurora Quattrocchi], when he decides to bathe her, is touching yet terrifying at the same time. She seems so exposed.
That scene was already there in the novel [written by Ermanno Rea]. I would say it was one of the reasons why I wanted to make this film, actually. I immediately felt its strength. It was difficult trying to figure out how to shoot it, however, and I opted for a radical approach. I found this place, which sometimes looks like a butcher’s – there is this kind of unforgiving light that shows everything. I wanted to show her hands, her body. I allowed myself to be guided by memories, feelings, by the memory of my own mother.
It's an important moment because that’s how you allow people to love him a little. Felice is so difficult to read. This idea of someone in between places, someone who is from somewhere but not really, not any more... Why was that appealing?
Pierfrancesco is an actor who is able to work with language. It was impressive, seeing what he has done here. He is a “beast” in that sense – I don’t know any other actor able to modify his own accent like that. He studied the Arabic language, then he looked into Egyptian Arabic, and the Neapolitan he speaks in the film reflects all of that.
Of course, that wasn’t the only reason why I wanted him in the film. His sensibility was fundamental in order to bring this character to life. You needed someone who would actually be able to touch his old mother this way, and take care of her. He has that capacity. You could say he is still a relatively new actor on the Italian scene, which used to favour performers who are masculine in an easily defined way. He is different; he is a modern man. I wanted Felice to be someone from our time, too. Someone who has a beautiful relationship with his wife, for example, even though she is a Muslim and there are so many prejudices that come along with that. I wanted to show a couple in love, in a partnership. So yes, he is a modern man, coming back to his old, violent roots.
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