THE WAY WE LAUGHED (Gianni Amelio, 1998)

Così ridevano, dubbed The Way We Laughed here in the States (The Way They Laughed would be a closer translation), is the fourth feature film by Gianni Amelio, whose previous work was as a documentarian. It takes up Italy’s postwar experience, its odyssey from economic stress to success and the human cost exacted on either side of the ledger. Allegorical, the result may remind one a little of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s great The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979), which charted a similar course in post-Second World War German history. Amelio’s film, while not as brilliant, is an engrossing achievement—a genuine work of art that makes scarcely a single concession to the compromises of entertainment. Così ridevano probes and enlightens, not ingratiates. It won the Golden Lion of St. Mark, the highest honor, at the Venice Film Festival.

The human vehicle for its social odyssey is not a marriage, as is the case in Fassbinder’s film, but over the course of seven years the relationship between two brothers, one beginning as a boy of about 30, the other in his mid-teens. From this range of time, 1958-1964, Amelio has selected a single day from the boys’ lives for six of the seven years (1962 jumps to 1964), providing an approach to the material that sacrifices narrative continuity for the greater rewards of illuminating a series of dramatic shifts and changes in the boys’ fortunes and attitudes. Amelio has also given each of these “chapters” a title: “Arrivals,” “Betrayals,” “Money,” “Letters,” “Blood,” and “Families.” This breaking down of narrative into chapters, coupled with the film’s focus on fraternity, reveals Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960) as a major influence on the film and by the way reminds us that Italy is in the habit of making the most trenchant films about brothers: Rocco, Family Diary (Valerio Zurlini, 1962), Three Brothers (Francesco Rosi, 1980), now Così ridevano. (Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece, Francesco, giullare di Dio, 1950, while not about biological brothers, is also a film about fraternity.)

Indeed, the opening of Così ridevano cannot help but invoke memory of Visconti’s magnificent work, which also begins at a train depot. Here, in the Amelio film, the older brother, Giovanni, is arriving, his younger brother, Pietro, having arrived earlier to begin school. In the Visconti film, on the other hand, a family arrives together. In both cases, the boys’ father has died, exacerbating the brothers’ poverty. More importantly, in both cases the boys are Sicilians moving to the industrial north: Milan, in the Visconti film; Turin, in Così ridevano. Amelio’s film even more than Visconti’s is steeped in an analysis of regional bigotry, Amelio seeing the economic hardship of the postwar period as exacerbating the prejudice against southern Italians that northern Italians have traditionally felt. Sicilians are regarded as the “niggers” of Italian society.

Amelio’s is, like Visconti’s, a drama of fraternal sacrifice and conflict. Giovanni, who is illiterate, feels that his younger brother is unusually gifted intellectually (the film suggests that, despite his ignorance, Giovanni is really just as intelligent) and is therefore determined that he should graduate university (high school). Towards that end Giovanni labors at a number of physically grueling jobs, motivated by the idea that Pietro’s future comfort and achievement will greatly surpass his own. His daily sacrifices for his brother, then, constitute an act of love and a faith in the future. But Pietro is deceiving his brother, ducking school; eventually he is expelled. Pietro is ambivalent about the future that Giovanni desires for him because he is torn between his identical desire and his Sicilian allegiance, between his love for the older brother he idolizes and his self-love, which in itself generates enormous guilt in him over the feelings of superiority education has introduced him to—feelings urging him in the direction of Northern assimilation: a tearing at his regional and familial roots. This expresses itself as surly loneness and separation, to which in the main his brother remains oblivious, so fired up is Giovanni by his dreams for Pietro. Overwhelmed by Giovanni’s sacrifices for him but loath to reveal this, Pietro instead periodically rebels against his brother and these sacrifices, even at one point running away.

Meanwhile, Giovanni is rising up the ranks of labor, entering a realm of corrupt power and decision-making that makes his embittered personality more patriarchic than fraternal to fellow workers. He also is “assimilating”—ironically, more smoothly than Pietro. He kills a man, a crime to which his brother bears witness. Pietro takes the fall, Giovanni allowing this because he naively believes that his brother, a minor, will have to pay only with a brief stay in a reformatory, not serve the long, possibly lifelong prison term that he would have to serve. More sophisticated than his elder brother, Pietro knows precisely the nature of the sacrifice he is making; but he feels it is now his turn to sacrifice as payment owed. (Underscoring the film’s elliptical nature, the previous two sentences cover nothing onscreen; all this is matter we must interpolate.) By the end of the film Giovanni’s Northern assimilation is near completion. Instead of marrying the Sicilian girl he loves, he is married to a northerner whose awesomely condescending father brags about his own tolerance for allowing his daughter to marry Giovanni; Giovanni’s future, as he had once hoped Pietro’s would be, is assured. Pietro is permitted to attend his nephew’s christening; Giovanni has named his son Pietro, having neatly displaced from his brother onto his son part of the burden of his fraternal love. Pietro’s life, meanwhile, is ruined, as Giovanni finally learns when Pietro’s escort informs him that the boy will not be released at age 21 but will be transferred from the reformatory to an adult prison. The revelation doesn’t impress Giovanni, so much has he changed. After all, he now has a new life.

Amelio’s film is splendid. To begin with, the script is remarkable; what a compelling story he has created, one that becomes a light-sensitive vehicle for questioning what degree of humanity social and economic growth and success may have indeed cost and be still costing the nation whose culture invented humanism. (Amelio’s co-scenarists are Daniele Gaglianone, Lillo Iacolino and Alberto Taraglio.) Moreover, Amelio has devised purely cinematic means for expressing the odyssey that he charts. A number of his shots stun. The shots of Giovanni laboring are visually correlative to the depth of his fraternal love and sacrifice, requiring none of the rhetorical and sentimental nonsense that would belabor the point in another (say, a Hollywood) film. During a strike, workers organized by their trade union are marching in the streets; a Communist flag washes over Giovanni’s face. Giovanni resists joining the march, and the sequence visually discloses not only his ignorance of a path that might lead him to a viable future (not the loss of a future for the sacrificial sake of his brother’s future, as though both aren’t entitled to live decently—call this Giovanni’s fraternal tunnel vision) but also, as a defense against poverty and prejudice, the potential in him to turn away from his social brethren and indeed, later on, to exploit them as a co-operative leader trading jobs for under-the-table payments. In a single shot, then, Amelio expresses a human instance of alienation and self-alienation while, implicitly compounding it, predicting its consequences for an increasingly successful, selfish nation. One more example of Amelio’s superlative filmmaking: a pair of shots with Giovanni’s back to the camera. In the first, he turns around at the sound of his brother’s voice, singing; a loving reunion between them will seconds later follow. In the second, he turns around to reveal the infant son in his arms: in contrast to the earlier image, a disclosure of his mental and spiritual separation from his brother, his feelings for whom he has largely now transferred to this “new” Pietro. Shot after shot, Amelio’s film rings with a thrilling, if elliptical, clarity.

One must admit, however, that the rich social canvas that Amelio creates necessarily thins out in the last part so that he can make his point about the brothers’ switched positions and sacrifices. To some, this will seem a weakness, although it can certainly be argued that this is an instance of Brechtian distancing compelling the viewer to revisit the film’s earlier parts for a better and more complete understanding of what was shown in light of the unexpected resolution. American audiences may be at a disadvantage because the Hollywood filmmaking with which they are familiar lacks an intellectual motive. Some viewers doubtless will be perplexed by a film about loving brothers that doesn’t tug at the heartstrings. After all, no film in creation sweeps us away emotionally more than Zurlini’s Family Diary.

Assisting Amelio throughout is his cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, whose orchestration of sober, even dull blues in the early parts perfectly conveys the harshness of the laboring lives of Sicilian immigrants in the North. But Amelio’s finest collaborator is Enrico Lo Verso, who has starred in three of his films. Lo Verso is wonderful as Giovanni, communicating Giovanni’s great love for his brother, his willingness to endure hardship for his brother’s sake, his occasional anger at the hostile environment treating him like a workhorse and targeting him with bigotry, and his generous good humor. Lo Verso also unerringly charts Giovanni’s journey to the emotional blank that, tragically, Giovanni largely becomes. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Lo Verso’s acting is his appearance. This handsome young man fully projects the premature aging that results from massively hard labor performed day-in, day-out. On the other hand, the principal flaw of the film is the inadequate, at times insipid performance that Francesco Giuffrida gives as Pietro, although his final facial expression, showing Pietro’s hopelessness as he returns by train to his incarceration, is close to devastating. This last image also haunts as a book-closing gesture reminding us of Giovanni’s arrival by train at the beginning, impressing on us the distance traveled by the two main characters in between.

The title perplexes: literally, The Way They Laughed. Reviewer Megan Ratner explains: “The title comes from the last page of La Domenica del Corriere, a very popular 1950s magazine to which readers sent in outmoded jokes, the sort of old chestnuts aging relatives recall at holiday dinners. The column served as a collective reminder of the distance traveled, of the things that Italians found funny twenty or thirty years before.”

Above all, through its dark allegory Così ridevano is a film about a nation’s collective memory.

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