The Great Beauty and The Hand Of God star Toni Servillo plays Neopolitan actor and playwright Eduardo Scarpetta in The King Of Laughter (Qui Rido Io), Mario Martone’s latest Venice Film Festival competition premiere. An affectionate, theatrical portrait set in the early 20th century, it culminates in an historic court case, but the build-up is leisurely to a fault.
We first meet Scarpetta when he’s preparing to go on stage. It’s a place where he seems the happiest, if you discount the beds of various female family members. That pretty much sums up the characterization that takes over two hours to repeat. We see that Scarpetta craves the adulation and laughter of the audience, and is having affairs with both his wife’s sister and his wife’s niece. Everyone knows that the resulting children are his, but it’s barely spoken of: he’s known as “Uncle” to the kids. Some are keen to follow in his footsteps; others seem initially rebellious, but will relent.
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Martone’s last film, The Mayor Of Rione Sanità, was based on a play by Eduardo De Filippo, who’s featured in the film. We also see his brother Peppino (Salvatore Battista) as a small, angry boy, prone to glaring at Scarpetta and storming out of the room. Initially raised in the country, he is devoted to his pet lamb and furious to be returned to his mother, Luisa De Filippo (Christiana Dell’Anna). He is the most sympathetic character in this, partly because he attempts to stand up to his father.
Luisa inspires pity more than anything: she waits for Scarpetta’s visits, grabbing what time she can with him, quietly glowering when he refuses to acknowledge the children as his own in public. Meanwhile wife Rosa (Maria Nazionale) is pressing her husband to make a will that only includes their children. Figuring out the exact nature of all their relationships has a certain fascination, but it’s not exactly entertaining. The dialogue feels mannered and Scarpetta’s actions are so selfish and pompous they become irritating.
One of the most nuanced scenes sees Scarpetta meeting celebrated poet Gabriele D’Annunzio (Paolo Pierobon), who has penned a tragedy called The Daughter Of Iorio. Faced with a public figure who is taken more seriously than himself, Scarpetta suddenly becomes more subservient, flattering D’Annunzio as he begs him to give a parody his blessing. The poet, meanwhile, is hard to impress, sneering through his mustache in his castle, while thunder crashes and an orgy awaits him upstairs — literally a horny devil. There’s an intriguing parallel between D’Annunzio’s open permissiveness and Scarpetta’s semi-secret hareem: Scarpetta later expresses a desire to be seen as a loving family man rather than the whore-mongering poet, but the latter’s approach seems more honest to modern eyes.
The next most engaging scene is in the courtroom, as an effervescent Servillo booms and boasts around the de facto stage. But this scene is also welcome because it signals the end of a film with a fatally indulgent pace — and an ironic lack of wit.
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