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VENICE 2021 Competition

Review: The King of Laughter


- VENICE 2021: Mario Martone’s comedy-biopic about the famous Neapolitan comedy playwright working in the early twentieth century, Eduardo Scarpetta, boasts a powerful performance from Toni Servillo

Review: The King of Laughter
Toni Servillo in The King of Laughter

Eduardo Scarpetta, the famous Neapolitan actor and comedy playwright who was active between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was a larger-than-life character. Incredible on stage, demanding and despotic vis-a-vis the actors in his theatre company, he moved seamlessly between performances to his overcrowded private life: he had lovers and illegitimate children scattered throughout Naples, and a super-sized family to boot. A tribe, to use the words of Mario Martone, the director of The King of Laughter [+see also:
interview: Mario Martone
film profile
which is competing in the Venice International Film Festival, consisting of a wife called Rosa (Maria Nazionale) and three children, one of whom was born out of a night spent with Rosa and even the King, and a whole other family, courtesy of Anna De Filippo (Chiara Baffi) - Rosa’s sister - who brought forth Eduardo (Alessandro Manna), Titina (Marzia Onorato) and Peppino (Salvatore Battista), whom Scarpetta never recognised as his.

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The real force of Scarpetta – played by Toni Servillo who treats the great procreator’s histrionics as a unique acting challenge – lies in his audience, who love him unconditionally and keep the box office coffers crammed. “The King of Laughter” is actually the inscription which appears at the entrance to the sumptuous summer house which Scarpetta had built in the Neapolitan liberty style on the Vomero hill, with the earnings of just one of his comedies: Na santarella. La Maschera di Don Felice Sciosciammocca is his most popular work, a legacy which Scarpetta wants to pass on. But his son Vincenzo (played by his real-life great-grandson and namesake Eduardo Scarpetta), who works in his company, doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps and seems to look down on his modern, vernacular brand of theatre. He’s quickly replaced by the very young Eduardo De Filippo, on whom Scarpetta pins his hopes, while Titina already forms part of the company.

Martone follows the trajectory of this unrivalled star, right up to its climax, when his career comes to a standstill, at which point the film turns into a proto-legal thriller, of sorts, against the backdrop of Belle Époque Naples. Scarpetta goes to the theatre to see The Daughter of Iorio, a tragedy by the biggest Italian poet of the time, Gabriele D’Annunzio (Paolo Pierobon), and decides to create a parody of the work. He seeks out The Poet himself and asks permission to ridicule the flowery rhetoric of his work. D’Annunzio is amused and says that he admires his initiative, but he refuses to give his written permission. The premiere of The Son of Iorio is received to whistles and yelling, an ambush organised by Scarpetta’s enemies who aren’t appreciative of his plays revolving solely around laughter, and who include the great poet Salvatore Di Giacomo (Roberto De Francesco). Shortly afterwards, the theatre director is taken to court by the Italian Society of Authors, accused of plagiarism. The first Italian copyright trial sends ripples throughout the world; even the philosopher and literary critic Benedetto Croce (Lino Musella) chooses to side with Scarpetta. And the deposition delivered by the latter during the court hearing turns out to be a hilarious piece of theatre.

Unsurprisingly, empathy for this excessively proud and confident patriarch doesn’t come naturally to the audience. But The King of Laughter is actually a film about the De Filippo children Eduardo, Peppino and Titina, their initiation into the world of theatre art and the origins of their great passion and utter dedication, a tribute which is all the more obvious for the photos displayed of them at the end of the film. Just like Martone’s earlier biopics, The King of Laughter avails itself of a classic set-up but benefits from the lightness of comedy. It won’t disappoint those expecting a paradigmatic story about art, power, betrayal and passion, not least for the high-quality actors in its cast, the musicality of the Neapolitan dialect (which sounds as if it were made to be recited), the sumptuous set design offered up by Giancarlo Muselli and Carlo Rescigno, the costumes created by Ursula Patzak, the amber hues applied by Swiss master Renato Berta and the beautiful songs of the era.

The King of Laughter is a Spanish-Italian production by Indigo Film alongside RAI Cinema and Tornasol. 01 Distribution are helming Italian distribution on 9 September, with international sale in the hands of True Colours.

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(Translated from Italian)

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