A bittersweet story of fraternal love, sacrifice and devotion that also attempts to chart Italy’s transformation and resulting loss of innocence, “The Way We Laughed” unfolds from the late ’50s through 1964, as the country shook off the last vestiges of postwar poverty and became an industrialized economic power. Like director Gianni Amelio’s “Lamerica,” this meticulously crafted new feature deals with immigrants’ dreams of a new world of opportunity, but it fails to build the dramatic backbone of the 1994 release. Problematically structured, overly protracted and lacking in narrative fluidity, the eagerly awaited film appears unlikely to achieve the international profile of the director’s previous work.
One of the most accomplished filmmakers working in Italy today, Amelio brings an extraordinary visual sense and a depth of field to each beautifully designed shot that sets him apart from the crowd, as well as an almost painfully sensitive approach to his characters to which many audiences no doubt will respond. But there’s something basically wrong with the conception of this story in which the entire emotional core is exposed in the opening scenes, leaving the film nowhere to go but into repetitiveness.
Divided into six titled chapters that each chronicle one day in the years from 1958 to 1964, the film opens with the arrival at Turin station of illiterate Sicilian Giovanni (Enrico Lo Verso). As he showed in “Lamerica,” Amelio is adept at handling large-scale crowd scenes, and the teeming masses of poor southern families flooding into the prosperous northern industrial town to find work have the feel of an Ellis Island sequence from another era.
Giovanni’s brother Pietro (Francesco Giuffrida) already is settled in Turin attending school. It quickly becomes apparent after their reunion that the selflessly devoted Giovanni, who treats his younger brother like a son, has an all-consuming emotional investment in steering his brother through school to a teaching career and a life of enlightenment. But Pietro lacks commitment to his studies, and his results are not the top-of-the-class grades his brother imagines. The revelation is nicely set up, with both brothers employing impostors for parents’ day, but Amelio then declines to show the encounter.
The choice to play many of the story’s significant encounters and dramatic developments offscreen is rather frustrating, forcing the audience to fill in too many gaps, and the chapter structure makes the characters appear to change overnight, often implausibly.
One such jump occurs when naive Giovanni — who speaks in a thick Sicilian dialect and can barely string a sentence together in Italian — suddenly acquires the business acumen to sublet slum quarters and collect rent from other southern immigrants. Even more improbably, he later becomes president of a workers’ cooperative. Given that the character is set up as sweet-natured and verging on idiocy, his transition into an exploitative boss figure is impossible to swallow and far too mechanical an echo of the corruption of Italy.
As the focus of Giovanni’s dreams even after he has achieved his own success, Pietro also is unsatisfyingly drawn. Until the final chapter, he shows only a flicker of recognition of the sacrifices his older brother makes on his behalf, and his responses for most of the film remain annoyingly unclear. As the brothers drift in and out of contact over the years, the film becomes dull and plodding, losing its grasp of the characters and inching toward an unmotivated and schematic role-reversal finale.
Aggravating the scripting problems are two sincere but unaffecting performances from the leads. Lo Verso has done some of his best work for Amelio in “The Stolen Children” and “Lamerica,” but this incessantly talky, truism-laden role seems outside his range, especially an awkward monologue addressed to Pietro’s abandoned schoolbooks.
The actor spends the whole film panting anxiously for no apparent reason and is unable to bring anything but simpleminded determination to his obsession with Pietro’s betterment. Newcomer Giuffrida is even more of a problem, however, with his single sullen, unsympathetic expression.
Many isolated scenes — such as Pietro taking advantage of a pickpocket’s misfortune, a playful dance-class interlude, an encounter between Pietro and a former prostitute (Rosaria Danze) — are finely judged and give an inkling of what the project could have become. But what makes its dramatic shortcomings so disappointing is the loving attention to detail Amelio clearly has poured into its visual construction.
Filmed in muted colors and rich dark tones, every imposing widescreen frame is carefully arranged without seeming contrived. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi makes Turin’s gray sobriety highly atmospheric, and production designer Giancarlo Basili has done an outstanding job in restoring a late-’50s aspect to the stately burg and re-creating the cramped southern-refugee housing and immigrant hangouts of the period. Gianna Gissi’s costumes are similarly sharp, and Franco Piersanti’s subtly emotional score is used with admirable economy.