‘The King of Laughter’ (‘Qui rido io’): Film Review | Venice 2021

The King of Laughter is a feast of a film in which overindulgence seems unavoidable. The languorous biopic by Italian director Mario Martone attempts to cover — with varying degrees of success — the personal and professional life of celebrated Neapolitan playwright Eduardo Scarpetta. It’s a dazzling and technically brilliant feat, the work of an ambitious, experienced and passionate director. But running more than two hours long, it will leave viewers satiated but slightly fatigued and perhaps even a little confused.

Before we begin, a brief introduction to Scarpetta for those unfamiliar: He was born in Naples in 1853 to middle-class parents, who both died when the artist was just 14. Forced to leave school and work, Scarpetta’s first job was in the theater. There, he found success and would go on to be one of Neapolitan theater’s most influential architects. His plays, which were usually adaptations or parodies, drew large crowds who enjoyed his refreshing comedy.

The King of Laughter

The Bottom Line

Technically brilliant and narratively bloated.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Toni Servillo, Maria Nazionale, Christiana Dell’Anna, Antonio Truppo, Eduardo Scarpetta
Director: Mario Martone
Screenwriters: Mario Martone, Ippolita Di Majo

2 hours 12 minutes

The King of Laughter focuses on the personal life of this larger-than-life figure, who had many affairs and fathered several children (including Eduardo De Filippo, another famous Italian actor and playwright), and the historic copyright lawsuit that was brought against him by a group of Neapolitan artisans. Scarpetta won the case but retired from the theater soon after. He died in 1925 in Naples.

The film starts by introducing Scarpetta (played by Toni Servillo), the man. Sitting in front of a vanity mirror, he carefully darkens his waterline in preparation for that evening’s show. Tonight, like every night, he will perform for a full house; in the next scene two men scrupulously count the money the company has raked in. Scarpetta is the star of the evening and of the company, which is made up of his wife, children and lovers. The tedious setup establishes Scarpetta as a man with an ego, an artist whose greatest pleasure and sense of self comes from the approval of his audience. The character he plays onstage, Felice Sciosciammocca, is an extension of himself, and when the viewers applaud — fervently, often accompanied by whistles and laughs — his soul is fed.

The beginning also introduces us to a dizzying array of supporting characters, who all manage to be sort of fleshed out over the course of the film. There is Rosa (Maria Nazionale), Scarpetta’s first wife, and her three children, including eldest son Vincezo (Eduardo Scarpetta), who can’t decide if he hates his father or desperately wants his approval. Next comes Luisa De Filippo (Christiana Dell’Anna), the company’s seamstress and mother to three more of Scarpetta’s children — Eduardo (Alessandro Manna), Titina (Marzia Onorato) and Peppino (Salvatore Battista).

While on tour, the company stops in Rome to see D’Annunzio’s new play, a tragedy called The Daughter of Iorio. The self-serious production inspires Scarpetta, who envisions himself onstage in a yet-to-be-written parody. Martone sparingly uses moments like these — where Scarpetta’s daydreams come to life — to get viewers into the artist head, to experience his frenzied, chaotic thoughts. Out of respect, Scarpetta visits D’Annunzio (Paolo Pierobon) and asks him for permission to parody the play. The disquieting artist, with his stiff handlebar mustache and pointed beard, assures Scarpetta that he will not retaliate or cause any trouble should the playwright choose to pen a spoof of his work.

That turns out to be a lie, and on opening night of Scarpetta’s parody, members of a new generation of Italian writers, ones who see D’Annunzio’s work as sacred, boo the play before the end of its first act. The humiliating moment is followed by a lawsuit that threatens to ruin the playwright’s reputation.

It’s at this point that the film picks up much-needed momentum and becomes an engrossing study of all that threatens to ruin Scarpetta. The King of Laughter’s best moments focus on the playwright’s internal tensions, his insatiable appetite for approval, and his increasingly isolating personal life. Servillo, in a complex and moving performance, shades his Scarpetta with a chilling darkness, one that invades his personal interactions. Here is a man so self-absorbed that he fails to see his family beginning to unravel and can’t register — until it’s almost too late — the disdain of the Neapolitan cultural community.

Martone, with the assistance of cinematographer Renato Berta (who worked on Il Buco, another Venice competition title), indulges in long, dramatic shots of Scarpetta staring at the calm azure sea or walking down a dimly lit alleyway. As the legal case unfolds, seemingly, at first, not in his favor, Scarpetta folds into himself and struggles to locate a North Star in his life. I much preferred this close character study, which, when considered alongside the courtroom scenes, paints a clearer, more convincing portrait of the mysterious comedic actor.

This is not to diminish the role of his family and how his artistry influenced their desires and stoked their deepest fears — of course the theater of Scarpetta’s life must include all his relationships, especially the ones with his kids. But, at times, these pull us a little too far away from the man himself.

Full credits

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Distributor: Film Movement
Production companies: Indigo Film, Rai Cinema
Cast: Toni Servillo, Maria Nazionale, Christiana Dell’Anna, Antonio Truppo, Eduardo Scarpetta, Marzia Onorato, Salvatore Battista, Roberto De Francesco, Lino Musella, Paolo Pierobon, Giovanni Mauriello, Chiara Baffi, Roberto Caccioppoli, Lucrezia Guidone, Elena Ghiaurov, Gigio Morra
Director: Mario Martone
Screenwriters: Mario Martone, Ippolita Di Majo
Producers: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori
Executive producers: Viola Prestieri, Giorgio Magliulo
Cinematographer: Renato Berta
Production designer: Giancarlo Muselli, Carlo Rescigno
Costume designer: Ursula Patzak
Editor: Jacopo Quadri
Composer: Alessandro Zanon
Casting directors: Raffaele Di Florio, Paola Rota
Sales: True Colours
In Italian

2 hours 12 minutes

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