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November 05, 2019

Denver Film Festival - Laughing


Valerio Mastandrea - 2018
01 Distribution

Until I saw his filmography, I didn't realize I had seen Valerio Mastandrea in several films. The Italian actor might not be well-known in the U.S., but think of him as the equivalent in talent to Jack Nicholson. He even won both the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in the Italian equivalent to the Oscars in 2013. Laughing is his debut film as a director.

The title is a bit misleading as this is not a comedy, or at least how most would define it. Perhaps a comedy of manners, but even that might lead to more specific kinds of expectations. Mastandrea's film is about how death is dealt with by the survivors - a wife and child, father and brother, coworkers and acquaintances. The film takes place the day before the funeral of a man, 35 years old, who suddenly died at work. Mastandrea portrays the awkwardness of offering condolences, and the individual ways people will internal process death.

Rather than depend on a more traditional form of exposition, Mastandrea demands that the audience pick up clues as to who the characters are, and their relationship to each other. The results is almost like eavesdropping on the conversations. The film begins with a conversation between the young widow, Carolina, and her ten year old son, Bruno, sitting across each other at a small dinner table. Bruno is asking about what would be appropriate to wear at a funeral, but it is not until later that the viewer is able to identify whose funeral is the subject of discussion. Later, sitting by herself, Carolina plays the Ultravox song, "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes" on a stereo. Carolina appears to be sitting rigidly, unmoved by this very danceable song about lost love. Mastandrea cuts to a shot of Carolina's foot tapping to the rhythm.

In an interview, Mastandrea has stated that the Italian title should be translated as "She Laughs". Carolina doesn't laugh but finds herself almost trapped by others who wish to share their grief with her or their expectations of how a widow is to look and behave. The only concession to tradition is being dressed in black, but in this Carolina is quite casual with her black shirt and jeans, pixie hair cut, and face free of make-up. Out of habit she continues to leave an empty plate on the table for her husband's dinner. Carolina is virtually a prisoner in her own apartment, inadvertently being the one who consoles others, finally experiencing her own reconciliation following the film's break into magic realism.

It should be noted that the actress Chiara Martegiani, who is also Mastandrea's wife, won the Nastro d'Argento award for Best Actress, an award given by Italian film journalists.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 5, 2019 11:10 AM