Despite considerable enthusiasm among international cognoscenti for the 19th-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, his fame remains largely at home; Mario Martone’s “Leopardi” may briefly expand his name abroad, but is unlikely to inspire a fresh wave of readers. In his short life, the tormented poet elevated melancholy beyond his own twisted body, presenting it as the overwhelming attribute of the human condition; turning such existential sadness into a biopic is a difficult task, and though Martone succeeds in reproducing snippets of biography and spiritual anguish, the film suffers from academic didacticism and far too many inconsequential scenes. Local arbiters of culture will boost home marketing, while offshore will be limited to fests and Italo showcases.
Martone is on a crusade to kindle interest in Italy’s complex 19th-century past via films meant to go beyond the kind of rote history lessons that too often benumb uninspired students. “Leopardi” is more successful than his previous “We Believed,” yet both suffer from dialogue that uncinematically conveys concepts more than character. Leopardi the man has often been classified with Byron, Shelley and Keats — all were born within 10 years of each other, and all died young. However with Leopardi, Romantic concepts of love and nature elide with man’s ill-fated place in the universe, and his philosophical writings, not limited to poetry, had a profound effect on the nascent country’s intellectual development.
Giacomo was born in the provincial Marchigian city of Recanati in 1798, the oldest surviving child of the learned, reactionary Count Monaldo (Massimo Popolizio) and Adelaide Antici (Raffaella Giordano), a severe, unforgiving mother. Monaldo’s celebrated library (the Leopardi descendants gave permission to shoot onsite) becomes a sort of prison for his children Giacomo (Elio Germano), Carlo (Edoardo Natoli) and Paolina (Isabella Ragonese), since their rigid father prizes intellectual achievement over all else and forces his offspring to spend most waking hours in study. Giacomo is the star pupil, and while he feels trapped in the library, it also provides an escape for his mind.
An intense correspondence with writer and editor Pietro Giordani (Valerio Binasco) opens Giacomo’s eyes to the political world, and though Monaldo discourages the relationship, viewing Giordani as a revolutionary, the two develop the kind of fervid epistolary friendship peculiar to 19th-century intellectuals. Flash forward 10 years, and Giacomo is living in Florence with his Neapolitan friend, liberal writer Antonio Ranieri (Michele Riondino). By now accepted among Florence’s powerhouse literary circles, Giacomo struggles with finances but, far worse, his always fragile body becomes increasingly bent.
Leopardi’s physical deformities informed his melancholia: Self-conscious and susceptible to beauty, he loved from a distance yet never believed he could earn the love of the women he admired. Chief among these (in the film) is Fanny Targioni Tozzetti (Anna Mouglalis, dubbed and oddly blank), a Florentine beauty intellectually inspired by Giacomo but attracted to Ranieri. As his health worsens and his fortunes — literary and monetary — start to teeter, Leopardi is convinced by Ranieri and his sister Paolina (Federica de Cola) to move to Naples. It’s there he dies in 1837, during a cholera epidemic, about one year after writing his great poem “Wild Broom” (“La ginestra”), which Martone movingly uses in the last scene.
Lives of poets are notoriously problematic film material — how do you show the creative process, and how much poetry do auds want to hear recited onscreen? The final sequence, in essence a summation of Leopardi’s philosophy, works exceptionally well, yet elsewhere Martone is less successful at integrating the poet with his writings. Episodes from his life, known through letters, biographies and writings, are doggedly incorporated, but many (an especially unfortunate brothel incident with a hermaphrodite, for example) shed no light on the man or his output, and countless small scenes merely add to the unwarranted length.
The director’s desire to educate results in a certain stiffness both in performances and dialogue; too often scenes play like an installation in an historic house, where visitors move from room to room watching actors dressed in period costume “bringing the era to life.” Germano uses his nervous intensity to craft a complete performance down to fashioning distinctive paroxysmal movements, but many will find the actor overly mannered, setting up a block between the player and the historical figure.
Visually the film is unfailingly attractive, with Renato Berta’s camera handsomely reproducing many of the original locations in Recanati, Florence, Rome and Naples. When the music sticks to Rossini the accompaniment works, but Sascha Ring’s score has numerous problems, especially in two sequences with English vocals (“deserted souls, deserted eyes”). The use of specially commissioned English-lingo songs in non-English films is a blight in contempo cinema, and makes no sense in a movie about an Italian poet.