The most mature and accomplished
film by Mario Martone, The King of Laughter, in competition at
the Venice Film Festival, has been welcomed with a warm reception. The story,
in the form of a comedy, tells of Eduardo Scarpetta (1853-1925) and his tribe
of theatre actors, his legitimate and illegitimate sons (including Eduardo De
Filippo), the rich Neapolitan society of the time, the lawsuit brought by Gabriele
D’Annunzio for plagiarism when Scarpetta dared to make a parody of Iorio’s
Daughter. The interweaving of art and life, the dressing rooms as an
extension of the family house, the patriarchy with its ruthless immorality, but
also the transmission of knowledge that will give us the genius of Eduardo De
Filippo and his extraordinary poetics.
Toni Servillo impresses with a remarkable performance,
and his supported by a number of other actors including Maria Nazionale,
Cristiana Dell’Anna, Iaia Forte, Antonia Truppo, Eduardo Scarpetta (who is a
descendant of the Scarpetta dynasty), Roberto De Francesco, Lino Musella, Paolo
Pierobon, Gianfelice Imparato. The technical crew is impeccable too: cinematography
by Renato Berta, editing by Jacopo Quadri, costumes by Ursula Patzak, art direction
by Giancarlo Muselli and Carlo Rescigno. The film takes the viewer into a
vortex of vitality, energy, and contradictions. Behind the scenes of the
The film also gets close to the feelings
of little Eduardo, an illegitimate son of Scarpetta, born from a relationship
with his wife’s nephew. Martone states: “For all of his life, Eduardo De Filippo
didn’t want to talk about Scarpetta as his father, but only as a playwright.
When his brother Peppino wrote a ruthless portrait of him in an autobiographical
book, Eduardo never talked to him again. Just before dying, a friend asked him:
‘Now that we are old, it’s the moment to talk about it: was Scarpetta a strict father
or a bad father?’ The only answer was: he was a great actor.”
The idea for the film was born as
you were working on your previous The Mayor of Rione Sanità?
Yes. I was struck by the importance
of the theme of paternity denied in that theatre piece by De Filippo, as much
as in Filomena Marturano. Together with Ippolita di Majo, we started
thinking that there was a mystery there that was worth facing by talking of an
extraordinary tribe revolving around a theatre genius, an immoral father who
pushed himself to the limits.
What kind of man was Eduardo
A mythological and primordial
figure. He had sons from his wife, his wife’s sister, and his wife’s nephew. He
sent them all to school, both boys and girls, and they all became actors.
Eduardo De Filippo became the genius of Italian theatre as we now know.
Scarpetta was a devourer: he devoured Pulcinella, the Treatre San Carlino, and
his life, the sons who couldn’t bear his surname and enjoy his heritage, but to
whom he mysteriously transmits the powerful seed of creativity. This also comes
with a lot of pain. How did these women and kids live? We tried to imagine it.
For instance, all of his kids at some point in their life had to play the
character of Peppeniello in Miseria and nobiltà who, at the end of the
comedy, embraces the real father, played by Scarpetta himself. There’s
something unconsciously sadistic in this.
Naples is the core of the narration,
and the Neapolitan songs too.
By the end of the nineteenth
century, theatre in Naples was flourishing, cinema was just born, the Lumière
brothers filmed the city in 1985 and I show those images at the beginning of
the film. The King of Laughter is a choral novel with a city in the
background and many characters. It’s written like a comedy, like the theatre by
Eduardo De Filippo. Music is an integral part of the film like a sentimental
journey, because some of the songs have nothing to do with Scarpetta. Naples
uses the music as a mask to put oneself out there in the life.
A choral novel with a magnificent
actor like Toni Servillo at its core.
The character of Scarpetta gave me
the opportunity to work with Toni, whom I’ve known since forever. This film has
been waiting for us for 40 years. We started off together, with the avantgarde
theatre, with the plays by Enzo Moscato.
Who are the enemies of Scarpetta?
On the historical level, there’s a
new generation of authors like Salvatore Di Giacomo, Roberto Bracco and Libero
Bovio who all testify against him at the process. But the discourse is larger
that this, every ageing artist knows what it means to be outdone. Every
artistic gesture is destined to be overcome. And this is true for all of us.
His son Peppino is among his enemies,
Peppino De Filippo was abandoned for
5 years when he was only a kid. He also wrote a book about that, A Difficult
Family, which displeased Eduardo.
Why did Scarpetta want to challenge
He did it out of hybris. The
encounter with D’Annunzio was recounted by Scarpetta in his own autobiography
as we show it in the film. It’s an ambiguous meeting because it’s not clear
whether the poet authorizes the parody of Iorio’s Daughter, and in fact
he didn’t. When the piece is staged, the audience revolt against Scarpetta, and
his downfall starts from there. We were interested in that melancholy, until
the scene of the process, the last great performance that makes him win the
battle, but it’s there that his depression starts. The assessment of Benedetto
Croce stated that Scarpetta’s was in fact just a parody, thus something small
and useless. This helped with the process, but humiliated him nonetheless.
The contrast between comedy and
tragedy has always been present in our culture.
We are living a very different
historical moment, but this dialectic still exists today. Which topics one can
make fun of, which one can’t. Things always change, theatre is always transforming.
In the future, when some social issues will be solved, it will be different
The women in the film are much more
than simple supporting characters.
Those were atypical women – states
Ippolita Di Majo – living within a patriarchal context, but they studied and
worked. His daughter Maria becomes a dramaturgist, Titina a great actress. His
wife Rosa confronts him.
We talk about paternity – adds Martone
– but also about maternity. Patriarchy is terrifying and implacable, but there’s
also the power of female figures, a solidarity among women which is triggered
to handle the situation.