Mario Martone is among Italy’s most influential cultural figures, active as a director in theatre as well as in film. His “Leopardi,” at Venice in competition and also in Toronto, is a classic biopic of Italian Romantic poet and thinker Giacomo Leopardi, played by hot thesp Elio Germano, who won the acting nod at Cannes in 2010, in a tour-de-force perf. Martone spoke about his passion for 19th century Italy and Leopardi in particular with Variety’s Nick Vivarelli. Excerpts:
Q: “Leopardi,” and your previous film “We Believed,” are both classic historical costumers set in the 19th century during the leadup to Italy becoming a unified nation. Is that what drew you to them?
A: The Italian 19th century is not a known period outside Italy, and is also unknown in Italy. But it’s a turbulent time full of “inconvenient” incidents, some of which very tough, that have been covered up by Italy’s Catholic culture which tends towards hypocrisy and basically erased a lot of rough spots. That’s what prompted me to make “We Believed,” and now “Leopardi.” Leopardi was a rebel who in Italy was always considered a sad poet with an uninteresting life filled just with suffering. I wanted his ghost to come back to life, I wanted to hear him vibrate. His body; his blood; his anger; his being an extreme radical.
Q: And to do this you chose Elio Germano for the lead role.
A: This film could not have been made without Elio. I started writing the screenplay with Ippolita di Majo only when I thought that there was an actor in Italy who could play Leopardi, and that actor is Elio. If he had not accepted, we would not even have started writing. Still, working with him was a surprise. He has a rebellious personality, and I knew that. But what I had not imagined was how deeply he studied his subject and delved into his character. That was extraordinary. He combined the discipline of an American actor, in things such as learning how to handwrite like Leopardi, with a very Italian improvisational approach. That was the dynamic of our work rapport.
Q: It seems to me that in making a movie about a poet the big challenge is conveying on screen the creative process behind poetry-writing.
A: First of all I didn’t want poetry to be a literary backdrop for the film by using voiceover. We only use that at the end. For the rest of the film, poetry is an integral part of the action. We did this in a very free-form way. When the tension on set was right, I would give Elio the title of a poem, such as ‘Infinito’, and, without saying another word, he would start acting out the creation of that poem while the cameras kept rolling. It was like a constant poetry lab.
Q: The film was shot in part in Leopardi’s real family house in Recanati, before the action moves to Florence and Naples. It seems that you established a good rapport with the Leopardi family.
A: Yes, they were very generous. They never interfered, never set any conditions, though they knew I wasn’t going to gloss over the difficult rapport he had both with his family and with Recanati. I can’t work on something historical unless I’m in the real location where it took place. Even in the script-writing stage we had seen the locations first, and wrote the scenes accordingly.
Q: Speaking of locations, the final scene in front of the Mount Vesuvius volcano in full eruption is very powerful indeed. You have a great d.p., Renato Berta, who has worked with Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Louis Malle. How did he shoot it?
A: It took a lot of work. First we had to find the location, a terrace on the foothills of Mt.Vesuvius that didn’t overlook anything modern. Then we shot the scene with a tracking shot to make sure it wasn’t static. The shots towards Vesuvius are in day-for-night, while the shots towards the terrace are shot at night. Berta had to carefully calibrate the lighting. Then the effects were added on.
Q: You started out in avant-guarde theatre, then you made several films, including “Amore Molesto,” and “The Scent of Blood” which were not period pieces. But more recently you’ve veered towards a very classic cinematic style in the grand European tradition.
A: Yes, I’ve fallen out of line with more modern tastes, and perhaps I am paying the consequences of this. But I like to pursue an idea of cinema that follows Rossellini’s lead, especially on historic films like this. For example in this case: how do you tackle Leopardi? We could have emphasized many aspects, such as his possible homosexuality. But I said: ‘no, I want to respect the source material, confident that his poems, his papers and his letters, contained enough to fill the film. And I was very happy to see that Elio (Germano) and the other actors, and the whole team agreed with this. We decided we were basically just conduits for the subject matter.
Q: Do think you will return to making movies set in the present day?
A: Sure, to be honest I can’t wait. I love the 19th century, but this cycle is now over.