Italian auteur Mario Martone is a Venice aficionado. He was recently in competition on the Lido in 2018 with “Capri Revolution,” and then again in 2019 with “The Mayor of Rione Sanità,” a contemporary adaptation of the play about organized crime by late Neapolitan playwright Eduardo De Filippo. The Naples native is vying for the Golden Lion this time with “The King of Laughter,” a historical drama about Neapolitan theater luminary Eduardo Scarpetta — played by Toni Servillo (“The Great Beauty”) — who was De Filippo’s father.
In 1904, at the height of his popularity, Scarpetta took a great risk: He staged a parody of “La figlia di Iorio,” a tragedy written by the greatest Italian poet of the day, Gabriele D’Annunzio. After all hell broke loose, Scarpetta ended up being sued for plagiarism by D’Annunzio himself. It was the beginning of the first copyright lawsuit in Italy, and a draining experience for Scarpetta and his family. It was also a challenging time that he overcame with an act worthy of a great thespian.
Martone spoke to Variety about the moral issues he delved into in this story, but also the sensual side of the film in which traditional Neapolitan song is an integral part of the mise-en-scène “somewhat the same way it would have been if the film had been set in Little Italy,” and directed by Martin Scorsese. Excerpts.
Simply put, how did the project originate?
The film was born from making “The Mayor of Rione Sanità.” I came across the figure of Edoardo De Filippo’s father, which prompted the idea of bringing to the screen the story of Scarpetta and touching on this theme of paternity.
Yes, paternity of various types.
It’s a theme that looms large in the film. There is moral paternity and amoral paternity. He has children with his wife, with his wife’s sister and with his wife’s niece. But of course the film is also about artistic paternity given that it touches on the theme of parody.
I found it interesting that the protagonist is morally objectionable and yet his battle for freedom of expression is heroic.
Of course seen in today’s context there are lots of elements in his character that are not politically correct. Obviously you have a patriarchal and predatory figure, which of course has to be seen in its historical [late 19th and early 20th century] context. And also in the context of his being predatory but also very generous at the same time. What I mean by that is that he pushed for the education of both his male and female progeny. But he’s certainly an amoral figure. He’s a primordial, mythological figure. A sort of Father Chaos who generates this extraordinary progeny.
Then there is the artistic paternity theme.
His amoral drive is also what pushes him to want to stage a parody. What is parody? It’s when you lash out and say what can’t be said, when you transgress. Scarpetta lashed out in parody with the same ferocity with which he preyed on the women in his family. But when he parodied D’Annunzio, that was an act of hubris. He went too far and got punished. And then that becomes a matter involving [political] power and freedom of expression.
I loved the photography by Renato Berta with whom you also did “We Believed” and “Il giovane favoloso.”
This is the film on which Renato and I were the happiest working together. It was very precise in the writing and the type of direction. The screenplay reads almost like a theater piece. There is no Steadicam, no drones. It’s essential, basic film grammar. Which of course is also a way to represent a certain world. It’s a form of cinema that wants to be evocative. Renato obviously liked this. He likes precision in the way a film is conceived. We worked on the transition between theater and life where the idea is for the audience to glide from one to the other.
From the start, the film is steeped in Neapolitan song, I think it’s your most musical movie.
I call it musical mise-en-scène. In this film, which has few exteriors — you only get a glimpse of Naples — it’s the music that broadens the visual field. The Neapolitan songs represent a sentimental journey. They are the songs I heard with my parents as child. They convey a Neapolitan sentiment, a mood. It’s like Fado music in Portugal. So I wanted to steep the film in this sentiment. It’s also the type of sentiment that is associated with Naples outside of Italy. I would tell my actors: ‘Think that you are shooting a film in Little Italy [in New York] where all the cliches of being Neapolitan are played up. We know these cliches through Scorsese and Coppola movies. In depicting Scarpetta, we had to do something similar. We had to act like Neapolitans who have gone to another country and are preserving their identity.
You are about to start shooting another Naples-set project set in the present-day. Talk to me about it.
It’s called “Nostalgia” and it’s all set in the Sanità neighborhood in Naples. It’s the story of the return of a man who has been away for 40 years from Naples. He had been implicated in a criminal affair and had to abscond, sort of betraying his closest friend. He comes back after 40 years and he’s back in this labyrinth. And his friend, meanwhile, has become a [Camorra mob] boss. It’s a story that I’ve been totally taken by. The protagonist, who is an antihero of sorts, is played by Pierfrancesco Favino (“The Traitor”). He is very introverted, the polar opposite of Scarpetta.