We Laughed directed
by Gianni Amelio
any close competition to speak of, Gianni Amelio ranks as the preeminent Italian
filmmaker of the past two decades, a worthy heir to the likes of Rossellini,
De Sica, Fellini and Antonioni. The three movies he made in the first half of
the 90s–Open Doors (1990), Stolen Children (1992) and Lamerica
(1994)–are as beautiful, original and passionately intelligent as any European
films of the current era; all were released in the U.S. to widespread and eminently
justified critical acclaim. But Amelio’s career is now bounded by two movies
that, to our film culture’s continuing embarrassment, are all but unknown
on these shores.
The film will be shown on
Sunday, Feb. 20, at two p.m. at the American Museum of the Moving Image as part
of the series "The New York Film Critics Circle Looks at the 90s."
That Amelio’s latest is getting even one New York screening we owe to film
critic Stuart Klawans, who proposed it for the AMMI series. Klawans first saw
the film at the 1998 Toronto filmfest and wrote a passionate defense of it in
The Nation in which he scored the way audiences and distributors lapped
up trendy baubles like Run Lola Run while yawning at the more complex
and penetrating insights offered by Amelio.
While I share Klawans’
enthusiasm for The Way We Laughed, I’m not sure I share his understanding
of it. He evidently sees it as a flat-out masterpiece that aims at "nothing
less than the impossible thing: telling the truth about our emotions, as we
live them in a particular time and place." By that, I take it he regards
the film as a realistic drama that successfully communicates its meanings in
an unusually refined version of the way most films do. Myself, I think it’s
a semi-opaque perplexity on what might be called the prose level, the level
we’re most accustomed to in cinema. What sets the movie apart, to me, is
its force and fascination on another level–the realm of personal poetry–for
which Amelio’s narrative merely serves as a slightly awkward and deceptive
Ultimately, the film may
well come off as strangely turned and densely allusive in its meanings, but
let’s start with what it seems to be about. The story, which unfolds in
six episodes that take place (a day apiece) over the years 1958-’64, concerns
two brothers who come to Turin from Sicily to seek their fortunes. When the
film opens, Giovanni (Enrico Lo Verso), the older of the two, arrives at the
train station expecting his brother to meet him. But teenage Pietro (Francesco
Giuffrida) watches from behind a column, hiding, although moments later–ironically
enough–he’s persuaded to help a family of other arrivals try to find
Back at the train station
a day later, Pietro stumbles into Giovanni, who has also returned, and the two
have their big reunion. Obviously, there were reasons they didn’t connect
the day before, and we learn something about their complicated relationship
from the fact that Pietro would adopt the almost sadistic stance of concealing
himself from a sibling who adores him and needs his help. Yet the oddness of
this initial nonmeeting, which violates both cinematic and emotional norms,
lingers throughout the rest of the film, and indeed becomes a prime emblem of
the way Amelio declines to make the usual dramatic and intellectual connections
Much of the drama hinges
on the differences between the brothers, who, like many other poor southerners,
have migrated north at a time when Italy’s postwar industrial boom is reaching
its peak. Giovanni, who’s in his late 20s, is a good-hearted, uneducated
peasant sort who dotes on his younger brother and aims to help him complete
his education so that he can become a teacher. Pietro, though, hardly seems
worth such devotion. The day Giovanni arrives in Turin he hears that Pietro’s
been accused of stealing from the family he’s staying with; and, in fact,
the boy’s clothes are suspiciously new and smartly bourgeois-looking.
who gets a job as a laborer and slowly starts his climb up the economic ladder,
does everything he can to support his little brother, from defending his name
to paying his rent. He even takes him to a whorehouse–where Pietro notices
that the girl sent to service him is from their village back home. Perhaps because
of the solicitude that’s been lavished on him his whole life, Pietro has
a punk’s indifference to all generosity. Angel-faced but stolidly sullen,
he even seems determined to toss away the benefits of an education; a recurring
motif in the film has him constantly on the verge of losing his books, which
others must rescue for him.
Nearly halfway through the
story, in episode three (i.e., 1960), the film arrives at an unforgettable scene.
Pietro, who’s come into some money by scooping up a wallet dropped in a
pickpocketing incident, takes himself to a nice restaurant and invites Giovanni
for dinner. Giovanni arrives and looks at the place dumbstruck. He won’t
sit down, and obviously can’t even imagine doing so. It’s not a matter
of money but of class, of 1000 years of understanding one’s place in the
world. In looking at Pietro in a kind of baffled horror, he gazes across one
of the great psychological divides in Italian history–the one that finally
separates feudalism from pluralistic modernity.
That gap will not be instantly
breached. After Giovanni bolts the restaurant and Pietro runs after him, the
brothers have a heated confrontation in which Pietro says he doesn’t care
about his education, he’d just as soon be a laborer, and Giovanni slaps
him for uttering that great heresy. (Here, of course, the ironies abound: While
Pietro claims not to care about becoming bourgeois, the restaurant scene shows
he’s already made the transition mentally; his brother, who puts a premium
on socioeconomic betterment, obviously will never be anything but a peasant
If Pietro’s words are
heretical, Giovanni’s blow comes close to the ultimate sin, and it propels
the brothers into their most intimate conversation, wherein they recall "the
day Papa died" and, thereby, the whole constellation of their early relationship.
Naturally, Pietro was their father’s favorite, which produced a dynamic
expressed in two memories the brothers share. In one, Giovanni, mistakenly blamed
for bloodying Pietro’s face, got a beating from their father. In the second,
Giovanni swiped some money from their father but escaped punishment for it when
darling Pietro took the blame.
Two brothers, two "crimes,"
two mistaken identifications, two erroneous judgments and unjust punishments
(or lack of punishment). Such symbolic/perceptual exchanges of guilt, as it
were, are famous in the cinema of Hitchcock, which cues us that The Way We
Laughed (a deceptive title if there ever was one) might have as much in
common with The Wrong Man or Strangers on a Train as it does with,
say, Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers or Rosi’s Three Brothers.
Which is to say that Amelio’s film bears meanings that play out on the
level of psychological and symbolic suggestion and, therefore, are not always
Like the director’s
other films, this one seems to rest on an essential duplicity or disjuncture:
while its look and dramatic approach are nominally realistic, its ultimate affect
is inescapably dreamlike. The first time I saw the film, I had the odd sensation
that in its second half (episodes 4-6) the brothers had literally exchanged
identities: that the person we were seeing as Giovanni was actually Pietro,
and vice versa. A second viewing erased that misimpression, but also clarified
the reasons for it. In the film’s first half, Giovanni is the "good"
brother who sacrifices himself and bears the weight of his brother’s sins
(real or imagined). In the second half, the relationship is reversed: Pietro
is the one who sacrifices and assumes responsibility for his sibling’s
malefactions. But why do the brothers, in effect, change places? The fact that
this reversal finally doesn’t make a sufficient amount of sense on a realistic
level (although it does make some) should alert us that it is the key to the
film’s poetic significances.
As for the nature of those,
permit me to wax a bit overly schematic in suggesting three areas of inquiry,
which I’ll dub the national-historic, the personal-historic and the cinematic-historic.
Regarding the first, my comments on the restaurant scene above should point
to a concrete cultural reason for the tale’s central reversal: It’s
about the moment in the Italian saga when the peasant becomes bourgeois, and
vice versa. Regarding the second area, one would need to look at the body of
Amelio’s work to see the extraordinarily complex and resonant ways in which
his stories are always structured around betrayals, misperceptions, accusations,
exchanges of guilt, and various "mirrorings" that encompass such things
as the differences between family members, classes and regions of Italy.
But it’s the third
area that fascinates me most as regards The Way We Laughed. Amelio’s
films have always posed implicit moral arguments regarding the nature, value
and history of modern Italian cinema, and these have tended to privilege realism
(i.e., the heritage of neorealism) over auteurist "subjectivism."
In setting his new film in the era he does, he takes us back to precisely the
years when the struggle between those apparent poles was at its most intense,
and when indeed a crucial "reversal" of sorts occurred.
Pure neorealism, after all,
ended with De Sica’s Umberto D in 1952, and subjectivism made its
first grand appearance a year later in Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy,
which more than any other film catalyzed the auteurist esthetic of the French
New Wave. To glean from Amelio’s past films, it might be assumed that he
finds particular value in the years just following that 1954 advent, when the
neorealist impulse or example was still strong enough to hold in check subjectivism’s
tendency toward introverted irresponsibility. If so, then the years 1958-’64
hold special meaning and poignance.
In his Italian Cinema,
Peter Bondanella describes the decade beginning at 1958 as the high-water mark
of modern Italian cinema. In his Vital Crises in Italian Cinema, P. Adams
Sitney identifies–as others have–1960 as the era’s pivot, the
"annus mirabilis." This, the year of Rocco and His Brothers,
Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and, especially, Antonioni’s Cannes
earthquake L’Avventura effectively marks the triumph of the subjectivist
approach and the onset of neorealism’s full eclipse. Surely it’s no
coincidence that this is the same year that Giovanni and Pietro face each other
in that restaurant, and later seem to exchange moral positions.
As for why the story ends
in 1964, one might suggest that this was the year when the French, having been
inspired by the Italian cinema, seemed to return to it as conquerors, the crucial
film being Bertolucci’s Godard-influenced, consummately subjectivist Before
the Revolution (a title that, ironically, could serve as an alternate for
The Way We Laughed). Amelio has had a career-long obsession with Bertolucci,
and The Way We Laughed’s final sequence and scene–which take
place in the Po Valley and a train station, respectively–abound in sly
references to Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), the
film in which the box of subjectivism was finally sealed tight, becoming an
endless Borgesian labyrinth.
Of course, the kinds of
interpretations sketched in above, besides being provisional and deliberately
open-ended, are deeply heretical at present. Films are now supposed to "mean"
on one level only (if that), viewers are not to be asked to think or reflect,
and no filmmaker (or critic) is supposed to act as if cinema has a poetics or
a history that might have some bearing on its present or its potential. Naturally,
such self-limiting attitudes end up as self-fulfilling prophecies. Thus do we
arrive at a degraded moment when a master like Amelio can’t even get a
hearing in the U.S., and the New York Film Festival programs crap like The
Woman Chaser and Dogma while rejecting works of true poetic vision
and mature artistry like The Straight Story and The Way We Laughed.
For a glimpse of what you’re
increasingly missing in New York’s film culture, head out to AMMI and check
out the most ambitious and richly associative Italian film of recent years.
Sunday’s screening will have an added benefit: Amelio himself will be in
attendance, and will join Stuart Klawans in a post-screening dialogue.