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The King of Laughter 2021

Recommended with Reservations

Distributed by Film Movement
Produced by Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, and Carlotta Calori
Directed by Mario Martone
Streaming, 133 mins

College - General Adult
Acting; Biography

Date Entered: 05/17/2023

Reviewed by Andy Horbal, Cornell University Library

Much of the pleasure of biopics and costume dramas is derived from the way they use icons of the present to evoke the past: it’s fun to watch this contemporary actor play that historical figure or hear this famous musician’s song paired with that important event. Films in these genres therefore don’t always travel well to cultures other than the one they were created by and for where people have different points of reference. Such may unfortunately be the case with The King of Laughter and North American audiences.

The film begins with a prologue of sorts: the early (1896) Lumière Brothers’ short Naples. Port et Vésuve plays silently in the background over the opening titles. Then a blast of music (“Indifferentemente” by Sergio Bruni, aka “The Voice of Naples”) announces the start of the narrative. We are in the dressing room of Eduardo Scarpetta (Toni Servillo), the biggest box office draw in Belle Époque Naples, before a performance of his hit comedic play Poverty & Nobility. As Scarpetta applies his makeup and eats a slice of pizza, we are introduced to the other members of his family and theater company, including his wife Rosa (Maria Nazionale), who also designs the costumes; his sons Domenico (Roberto Caccioppoli) and Vincenzo (Eduardo Scarpetta, an actual descendent) who keep the books and act respectively; his daughter Maria (Greta Esposito); and two younger children, Eduardo (Allessandro Menna) and Titina (Marzia Onorato), who call him “Uncle” but are his by mistress Luisa De Filippo (Cristiana Dell’Anna), a former seamstress in the company (and his wife’s niece) who now watches from a balcony seat. If this sounds like a lot to keep track of, that’s precisely the point: it’s also less than half the number of lovers and offspring and we will eventually meet.

A subsequent scene finds the company enroute to Rome via train. Scarpetta’s best friend and second-leading man Gennaro Pantalena (Gianfelice Imparato) mentions that dramatic playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio’s latest work The Daughter of Iorio is the toast of the town and everyone decides to go see it. Based just on a description of its plot (“rustic tragedy with subject matter from Abruzzo”), Scarpetta announces that it would be perfect fodder for a parody. Sure enough, he can barely contain his mirth as he watches, imagining himself and Vincenzo in the leading roles of a production which will be called The Son of Iorio. Scarpetta and Pantalena visit D’Annunzio afterward to ask for written permission to stage it but leave only with the latter’s verbal assurance that he will do Scarpetta no harm. The second half of The King of Laughter chronicles the trial which takes place after Scarpetta is unsurprisingly (to us and everyone who advised him that he was taking too big a risk, anyway) sued for copyright infringement. At stake is not just the livelihood of Scarpetta and his family, but the future of the art of parody in Italy.

Although The King of Laughter culminates in Scarpetta making a passionate speech in defense of his play and there is no doubt whatsoever that the film revolves around Toni Servillo’s star turn, it is nearly as much about Eduardo, Titina, and their little brother Peppino (Salvatore Battista) as him. Major plot points include Peppino reluctantly moving back in with his mother and siblings after living with another family in the countryside; Eduardo succeeding Titina as the member of the company who plays the character Peppiniello and then in turn passing the role along to Peppino as they each age out of it; and Titina and Eduardo defending their desire to act and write plays respectively against their mother, who turns against Scarpetta following a miscarriage and tries to tell them they must find “serious” jobs instead. This is reinforced by the way the movie ends: as Scarpetta recites lines from The Son of Iorio that leave everyone attending his trial in stitches, the color bleeds from the scene, the audio takes on the quality of an old phonograph, and tinny piano music starts to play. End titles announce first that Scarpetta was acquitted and retired soon after, but then immediately afterward state that “Titina, Eduardo, and Peppino De Filippo are never recognized by their father” but “are destined to become the most beloved theater company in Italy, and Eduardo one of the most important playwrights in the world.” The final images of the film are a black and white photograph of the three De Filippo siblings together followed by one of Eduardo alone, all of which amounts to a clear statement that Scarpetta’s enduring legacy owes as much to their accomplishments as to his own.

The King of Laughter’s production values are top notch, and if it was about an equivalently famous and influential American playwright it likely would have been an Oscar frontrunner. Non-native viewers may struggle with things like the performance of Poverty & Nobility that the movie opens with, though, which accounts for more than 10 minutes of screentime. It’s easy to imagine how this might constitute a welcome stroll down memory lane for someone who grew up seeing it live or watching the 1954 film adaptation starring Totò and Sophia Loren, but others will wonder what all the fuss is about. Cameo appearances by philosopher Benedetto Croce (Lino Musella) and a gaggle of prominent Italian 20th century literary figures stand more of a chance of being enjoyed as intended but are still likely too obscure to make an impression on many audiences. While this level of specificity may limit The King of Laughter’s appeal, it will certainly be of interest to scholars and aficionados of Italian theater, literature, and film.

Festival del cinema di Spello - Best VFX (Rodolfo Migliari), Best Make-Up Artist (Alessandro D'Anna), Best Hair Designer (Marco Perna); David di Donatello Awards - Best Supporting Actor (Eduardo Scarpetta), Best Costume Design (Ursula Patzak); Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists - Best Director (Mario Martone), Best Screenplay (Mario Martone and Ippolita Di Majo); Premio Berenice - Best Editing in Film (Jacopo Quadri); La Pellicola d'Oro - Best Key Grip (Sandro Fabbriani), Best Prop Master (Roberto Benetti); Venice Film Festival - Best Dressmaker, Best Actor (Toni Servillo); Golden Ciak Awards - Best Film, Best Production Design (Giancarlo Muselli and Carlo Rescigno), Best Costume Design (Ursula Patzak), Best Cinematography (Renato Berta)

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