Most Arab filmmakers who were either born or grew up around the 1980s owe Massimo Troisi a huge debt, even if they don't realize it. The late Italian comic, who hailed from San Giorgio a Cremano on the outskirts of Naples, possessed a world cinema quality that can be noticed often in films from Palestinian directors or even, more recently, in the latest short film, Sisters of the Rotation by the Lebanese Zarazir brothers, Gaby and Michel. Known as a comedian, Troisi didn't play for grand, belly laughs, opting instead for the kind of insight-filling chuckles that remain with the viewer -- quietly and steadily changing our lives.
World cinema audiences would know Troisi best for his work in his last film, where he was featured as the leading man, Mario Ruoppolo opposite Philippe Noiret's Pablo Neruda in Il Postino, directed by Michael Radford. Neapolitan filmmaker Mario Martone makes a convincing point to Troisi's role beyond his acting in Il Postino, in the stunning new documentary Somebody Down There Likes Me ('Laggiù qualcuno mi ama') which world premiered as a Berlinale Special Gala, before being screened around Italy on February 19th -- to coincide with what would have been Massimo Troisi's 70th birthday. Troisi passed away in 1994 of a heart attack, at the young age of 41. He suffered heart issues all his life, a divine mockery it seems for someone who tried to discover the meaning of love, and laughter within it all, throughout his short but successful life.
The point that Martone makes is that even in a film like Il Postino, Troisi was a filmmaker, not simply an actor embodying a role. His presence on set added to the direction of the film and marked his persona, as well as the work of Michael Radford, for eternity. In his documentary, Martone shows Troisi rehearsing with his co-star, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, giving her blocking instructions and acting tips, the way a film director usually does on set.
Martone himself is the prolific filmmakers behind such recent festival favorites as the 2021 The King of Laughter ('Qui rido io'), which premiered in Venice, and Nostalgia, which in 2022 premiered in Cannes and stars Pierfrancesco Favino -- who also lends his sultry voiceovers in Somebody Down There Likes Me -- as a businessman who now lives and operates in Cairo, Egypt and returns to his native Naples on news of his mother's failing health. In person, Martone is kind, measured, unassuming. He speaks with a wonderful Neapolitan inflection but doesn't have an obvious accent. In Italian we would call it "un tono dolce" -- a sweet tone -- and he comes dressed in dark, inconspicuous tones to the interview junket inside the Berlinale Palast.
He makes a wonderful point for the greatness of Massimo Troisi in his perfectly edited documentary -- Martone did work, after all, in tandem with Jacopo Quadri, one of the greatest editors in film today. As never before, Martone gives Troisi the mic, and turns the stage lights onto his incomparable greatness, as both an icon of Italian cinema and a filmmaker with a world cinema vision -- comparing him to François Truffaut and others of the Nouvelle Vague.
Although a frequent collaborator, in the documentary we don't see Roberto Benigni talking about Troisi and Martone explains why simply, "in the beginning of this work, I called a few people, including Roberto as we're friends -- and Roberto said to me 'I've talked so many times about Massimo Troisi, I don't feel like I have anything to add'." Martone continues and admits that when he called Lello Arena, also a frequent companion in the comedies of Troisi, he received the same kind of answer -- he'd committed to another documentary about Troisi.
This "absence" sparked the idea within Martone to make a film about Troisi as if he was a painter from the 15th century, starting from his 'paintings' and the traces that he left.
Undeniably, this approach creates a wider persona for Troisi and makes him a worldwide star, thanks to Martone. "If you start from his film, and pay attention to the stories he wanted to tell, you get a wider vision, and naturally see the man who was behind the films," Martone admits. "The famous sentence from Hitchcock is valid here, 'cinema is life without the boring bits' and that's why I think it's good to start with Troisi's films to talk about him -- that's how you can start getting an idea about him." Martone also credits the collaboration of Anna Pavignano, whom he didn't know personally but had always noticed her name in the credits of Troisi's film. Pavignano's presence in the film is crucial, as she takes us on a journey through Troisi's private 'papers', a set of un-collated, assorted notes that the filmmaker scribbled and kept throughout his life. One heartbreaking moment in the film is when his heart operation, in the U.S. is described through his diary. A series of single sentences, sometimes only one word, that describe better than any film or recording the anguish and agony of Troisi's illness.
Pavignano also turned out to be partially responsible for another groundbreaking aspect of Troisi's cinema -- the great, fully formed women's roles featured in his films, which were roles simply not present in 1980s and 90s Italian cinema. She was his co-writer, after a brief time when they were dating, and remained his co-writer until the very last film.
Including all the films made by Troisi into his documentary was imperative for Martone but presented an expensive issue and a legal challenge to get the rights, yet the filmmaker approached his producers making it clear that he needed to be able to edit into the film all the work the comedian had made. And obviously, the producers agreed.
"Hunger for life," Martone jokes is what draws him to a project, "which then becomes a hunger for cinema." Also for the theater, TV, documentaries, everything that feels creative for him, and while our interview is going on, he confesses that his actors are rehearsing without him, waiting for him to get back to work at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan for his production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
In a 1995 article in Il Mattino, the Neapolitan newspaper, Martone wrote about Troisi and pointed to the actor and filmmaker's 'scandalous meekness', which he explained was scandalous "because it was so inadequate to our times." Here we are, in 2023 and this 'scandalous meekness' has become even more inappropriate for our time, so I ask Martone -- also a great example of this "improper" way to carry ourselves in modern times, without noise or fanfare -- about the reason he included the article in the documentary's press kit, as a solitary statement, in lieu of the interviews and other assorted notes we typically find in a media kit.
"Even, even more inappropriate," he jokes, "it's why I wanted to use that piece in the press kit, because when I was asked about my director's statement, I told them I would give them instead something I wrote a year after Massimo had passed way." In it, Martone confesses, "I wrote everything that eventually inspired me to make the film." In that article, Martone writes, "I have always agreed with the frequently heard comparison with Eduardo De Filippo: his acting [Troisi's] showed a unique phrasing, a quality belonging to great actors and jazz musicians alike. But I find little thought has been given to the ''cinematographic'' quality of his films, too often unappreciated, even by his town. And today, just when we are witnessing an awakening of Neapolitan cinema, he, who inspired it, is the one who is missing. Not as its father, as Massimo would reject paternal rhetoric, but as an older brother."
One of the filmmakers who has benefitted, and openly drawn inspiration from Troisi's work, is Paolo Sorrentino, who is also featured in Martone's doc, along with screenwriter Giuseppe Bertolucci, who co-wrote Nothing Left to Do But Cry along with Troisi and Benigni, and Il Postino director Michael Radford.
Sorrentino credits the last scene in his autobiographical The Hand of God to Troisi but admits that he lacked the courage to end the film in quite the same way as him. "He always influenced me," Sorrentino admits on camera -- "in my last film he influenced me consciously," he says, doing things that reminded him of Troisi. "The ending, it's like one of his films in the 80s, a sort of sudden ending, a freeze frame -- unexpected." Ultimately, Sorrentino, who wrote to Troisi as a young man in the hope of working with him, confesses he didn't have the nerve to do a freeze frame in his film, but that, in restrospect, it would have fit in well.
Massimo Troisi left a huge void in Italian cinema and touched on so much still currently worked on and reworked in world cinema -- themes like religion, politics, human relations, the importance of the places from where we hail, and most importantly, love.
And in Mario Martone's film, we finally find the love, unabashed and without limits, that Troisi deserved. And continues to deserve for his short but meaningful time on this earth.
All images courtesy of Berlinale, used with permission.