What an impressive array of films played at the recent Open Roads: New Italian Cinema festival at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City. It was a shame to miss any of them, but one I was determined to see was Laughing. It garnered a lot of attention because it is the first feature directed by Valerio Mastandrea, who has been an extremely popular leading man in his native country for over two decades. What made his film even more intriguing is that Mastandrea, who isn’t in the movie but also cowrote the script, dared choose his significant other, Chiara Martegiani, to play the challenging lead role of Carolina, a newly-widowed young mother who can’t express her grief–and she rewarded his faith with a star-making performance.
The synopsis in the press notes: It’s a Sunday in May, and time is ticking at Carolina’s house. Tomorrow, she will need to join her community in their small village by the sea. They are grieving the loss of Mauro Secondari [Lino Musella], a young worker who has fallen down and died in the local factory, where more than three generations have previously worked, including Mauro’s father, Cesare [Renato Carpentieri].
Carolina has been a widow for only seven days. She has just lost the love of her life and is struggling with raising her 10-year-old son, Bruno [Arturo Marchetti], without collapsing from one moment to another. She doesn’t cry though. [Indeed], she often comforts people who come to visit her. There’s only one day left for the funeral, and she knows everyone expects to see her devastated and exhausted. She is shocked by her inability to suffer over what is happening to her. Why is she so far from grief and pain?
Watch the trailer:
Before this unique film played at Open Roads, I had this conversation with Valerio Mastandrea and Chiara Martegiani.
Danny Peary: Valerio, you have been a leading man in Italy since the mid-1990s. So why did you decide now was the time to direct your first feature film?
Valerio Mastandrea (laughing): I have done too much acting, maybe. I wanted to try having another kind of responsibility. That doesn’t mean I don’t support the movies I act in, but as a director I had the main responsibility to tell the story and choose the way to tell it.
DP: Why this film?
VM: I thought about this story 15 years ago. In Italy we have a great number of work-place accidents and deaths that have left women—wives, sisters, mothers—alone. There is always a lot of attention in the media about this issue but after a week, the media goes away. For a week everyone in town cries for the family that remains, but then stops. I asked myself, “What happens to the family after that week?” That’s the reason I wanted to tell this story.
DP: Why did you title it Laughing?
VM: Laughing is the translation. The Italian title is Ride, which is more like She Laughs. There is irony to using that title because the movie is about a tragic situation where there’s really no need to laugh. I like to see and act in movies with that kind of irony.
DP: Chiara, how do you see the title, Laughing?
Chiara Martegiani: Of course my character, Carolina, is not laughing after the death of her husband Mauro. I think the title refers to how she feels. She feels good. She cannot feel pain over Mauro’s sudden death.
DP: Maybe she feels the pain but can’t express it?
VM: I disagree. I believe she does not feel pain so she can’t express it.
CM: I think she doesn’t feel pain because she is in shock. Also after this kind of death—coming from a work-place accident—she is surrounded by a community that wants to know what happened. She is receiving a lot of attention. At this moment, she is the protagonist of the situation and she doesn’t have the freedom to stay by herself and feel her pain. That’s why she has difficulty expressing how pained she really is.
VM: The people around her steal her right to feel pain. It takes her pain and makes it a collective pain.
DP: I believe that the main theme of your movie is that a person is deprived of her or his need to suffer and grieve over a terrible loss.
VM: Yes. No suffering and no joy. We are not free to face these feelings as we want.
DP: We are not free because of ourselves or outside influences?
VM: It’s from the outside. Because of the media and social media we know everything about everyone today.
CM: For example Instagram, where we see every day how people express their happiness.
VM: And we feel guilty not being able to be as happy as them. It triggers a mechanism and what we express is not authentic.
DP: Another of Valerio’s themes is that the people who remain have survivor’s guilt. Does Carolina feel guilt for some reason?
CM: She does feel guilt. Usually when someone dies we feel very badly and cry. Carolina does not. She feels guilt because she loved her husband yet isn’t feeling anything. Why am I not crying? She feels too guilty about that to go out onto the street and have people not see the classic crying widow.
VM: She feels guilty not to respond to the stereotypical codes of society that ask people, especially women in Italy, to be fragile and desperate when they face this kind of situation that life gives them.
DP: There’s a terrific, very intense scene in the movie when Carolina’s son Bruno says that he wants to live elsewhere because his mother, Carolina, doesn’t seem to be feeling anything about his father’s death.
VM: He says, You don’t care about daddy because you don’t cry.
DP: Chiara, I imagine that was a challenging scene because of its intimacy—the camera is right in your face—and mother and son say brutal things to each other.
CM: Yes, of course. It was a very long scene and very difficult. The beautiful thing about that scene for me is that she’s saying terrible things to her son but in an ironic way, not a mean way.
VM: She’s telling him that it wasn’t good for his father to die the way he did, suddenly at work. He didn’t die from a disease, which would have given her time to prepare for his death.
DP: How did you explain all this to the young boy, Arturo Marchetti, who played Bruno?
VM: He understood. I spoke to him as an adult. For his scenes with his friend Ciccio, I just said, “You know how you are when you’re on the street with your friends.” For Bruno’s scenes with Carolina, I said, “You love your mother, you loved your father, but you want to protect yourself, even by telling lies and making accusations.”
DP: Chiara, did you get away from Arturo and talk to Arturo on your own about that scene?
CM: We spent time together with Varlerio and alone. He was well prepared and understood everything. We tried to make it a relationship in which Carolina and Bruno were both at the same level, more friends than a mother and a son. That was very important for how they can communicate.
DP: Arturo and Mattia Stramazzi, are very natural, like real boys.
VM: Arturo is an actor’s son but doesn’t want to be an actor. After he was cast he worked with an acting coach for three months. Mattia, who played his friend Ciccio, is a dancer. When we called them for dubbing after six months we discovered they couldn’t do it because they grew up and their voices had changed.
DP: Valerio, you suddenly go to magical realism when Carolina finally expresses her pain. What was your intention?
VM: My screenwriter, Enrico Audenino, and I knew Carolina would cry, but we asked ourselves, “Do we want to make her cry normally or do we want to break with the language for the movie?” Having it rain into the house was totally liberating.
DP: There is a lot of humor in the film, including the scenes in which people who knew Mauro come to console Carolina but she ends up having to console them.
VM: They start worrying about her but then care only about themselves.
CM: How these people cry represents, for her, the pain.
DP: Chiara, did you realize that Carolina doesn’t leave the house the entire movie?
CM: Yes, and it was very difficult because the space was very small. The room where I shot the scene with Arturo was tiny so it was very hard. It was necessary for my character to show that she was like in a cage, a prison.
DP: Did it make it easier that you filmed all your scenes in the house?
CM: I don’t know. We were in the same location four weeks in a row but we didn’t film it chronologically.
DP: Valerio, you set up three arenas for your story. Carolina is in the home being visited by young and middle-aged adults, youngsters Bruno and his friend are on the roof, and Mauro’s father Cesare and the other elderly men are on the beach.
VM: This was by choice. I wanted to isolate everyone because the day before the funeral they want to be alone to prepare for the next day. Mauro’s brother Nicola [Stefano Dionisi], who is the black sheep of the family, binds everyone.
DP: Yes, by moving from one arena to another. When he sits at the kitchen table next to Carolina pretending to eat in the distinct manner Mauro once did, he suddenly gets up and says, “I can’t do this anymore.” What does he mean?
VM: He tried to help her by simulating a typical dinner she’d had with Mauro.
CM: But it’s too difficult for him to play the role of his brother.
VM: He can’t do it because it causes him too much pain. He loved his brother too much.
DP: We never see them together, but what do you think Carolina’s relationship with Mauro’s father Cesare is?
CM: They have a good relationship but Cesare is the classic Italian working-class father. You see how he is with Nicola.
DP: We see the relationship between Carolina and Bruno, but a lot of this movie is about fathers and sons: Mauro and Bruno, Cesare and his sons Mauro and Nicola.
VM: I am very sensitive about this topic, for personal reasons. I think the roles of fathers with their sons and daughters is one of the main topics of human beings. It is often a topic in cinema.
DP: You said, “This movie says a lot about me, not only in terms of tone but also its human and professional contradictions.” That was your explanation for why it’s such a personal film.
VM: I think the first movie for a director means a lot to him. It reveals a lot about him. Many people who know me very well as an actor and as a person recognize a lot of me in every character—the way they talk, the way they face issues, the way they tolerate pain. In your first movie, this is permitted, but then you can grow up and make movies that aren’t so personal.
DP: Did you want your first film to be so personal?
VM: It’s not that I wanted that, but that’s the way it came out.
DP: I read an interview with you in which you said you were surprised at how angry you were making this film.
VM: I wasn’t angry, but I expected a lot from the actors because I’m an actor. I’m an actor because I need to be an actor to cover my holes. So I approach roles in a very natural, spontaneous way, not in a technical way, to find the soul of the characters. I play basketball and think of how if I became a coach and tried to make my players play like me.
DP: Directors usually tell me that the hardest thing when doing a film that is both serious and funny is getting the right tone. But I have the feeling that with this movie, you didn’t worry about it.
VM: I didn’t care. But I made it clear that the movie was divided into three different acts. The central act, for me, was used to move from the first act to the last act. The first act was light. The final act has a heavier tone. But it is not sad. It is deeper, with darker feelings. I think it is a movie about life, not about death. It is dedicated to those of us who remain, who have to go on living and have to be strong. That’s why it is a very personal movie—I am still here.
DP: You have brought your film to New York. Did you think that people in America will act differently to it?
CM: I think the movie is about emotions and emotions are universal, the same for everyone. We showed it in Tokyo and we worried about the reaction there because the Japanese are very controlled and guarded in regard to pain. But the film fans there they cried.
VM: I didn’t think about people here and there. When you make a movie, you hope that it reaches everyone everywhere, especially if it is about feelings.
DP: Do you two want to work together again?
VM: Maybe in a coffee shop.
DP: So it was hard to be a couple and work together?
CM: For me, no. Because I really trust him. For him it might have been more difficult because he had to edit the film.
VM: Every minute, every hour, every day I had that in front of me.
DP: How long did the editing take?
VM: Not a short time because while I was editing I acted in two films.
DP: Chiara, I wonder how this film fits into your career. Your character is stuck in one spot but Carolina is a great role because she has so many sides to her.
CM: Yes, it was a great challenge for me. It is the biggest role I’ve had till now. In Italy it’s hard to see a character like this because they don’t write a lot for women. They never represent women as we are, but as stereotypes. Doing this character was a big present. I don’t know if I’ll have another shot to do a part like this.
DP: Valerio, are you eager to direct your next movie right away?
VM: I want to direct again, but I don’t have the need to get out another movie now. If I have a story I will but I don’t know if I have one that is right for a movie
CM: Valerio has too many stories, but he doesn’t know which one is right for him at this time.
DP: Whatever he directs, I hope you’re in it!
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies, Jackie Robinson in Quotes, and his newest publication with Hana Ali, Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It, about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes (Workman Publishing).