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Prolific Italian film and stage director Mario Martone, who is a Venice aficionado, is back in competition in Cannes 27 years after his Elena Ferrante adaptation “L’amore molesto” (“Troubling Love”) launched in competition from the Croisette in 1995. And there is a close connection between these two films that delve deep into the entrails of Martone’s native Naples.

In his well-received “Nostalgia”, praised by Variety as Martone’s “most rewarding film in years,” ace actor Pierfrancesco Favino plays the middle-aged Felice Lasco, who returns to the bustling port city after having lived in Egypt for 40 years. Once back, he is caught up in memories of a distant life spent in his hometown, as his criminal youth slowly catches up with him.

Martone spoke to Variety about why he adapted Neapolitan author Ermanno Rea’s novel by the same title and the elements that make it “more universal than a mere Neapolitan tale.” Excerpts

What grabbed you about Felice Lasco’s journey back to Naples after living in Cairo for decades?

Lasco appealed to me because he is so outside the box in terms of what you see in Italian cinema. He’s not a hero. He’s someone who feels the need to find himself by going back to his roots, ad any cost. And all this is taking place against the backdrop of a global South, that transcends Naples because he arrives there from the Middle East. This provided me with a setting that isn’t entirely geographically defined. It’s Naples, of course, and in particular it’s the city’s Sanità quarter. But there is something broader that this character carries with him.

The vibrant Sanità, in the heart of the city, which is known for poverty and crime but also for magnificent churches and Baroque buildings, is clearly a strong element of the narrative.

Well, I understood that I could shoot the entire film without ever straying away from the Sanità. This is not a quarter that I knew so well. It’s an enclave that even Neapolitans don’t know well, far from the sea and quite dangerous, which was abandoned for many years.

But I was drawn to the idea that I could make a film entirely in this quarter that became sort of like a chessboard or a labyrinth — I like these two analogies because they are effective in explaining what I wanted to do with the camera — where I could move around like on a chessboard. That appealed to me. Felice gradually delves into the Sanità, but it’s as though he has a labyrinth inside him. And the idea of moving the camera in a labyrinthian way in this quarter that reflects the labyrinth of his soul, I thought this could make it something more universal than a mere Neapolitan tale.

Of course what draws Lasco to Naples, at least initially, is his mother.

Yes, the film is basically about a clash between two former friends. But the mother is like a film within the film. This return to his mother that he has completely abandoned for 40 years, the initial part is about reviving that rapport. It’s through this that everything behind his decision to leave Naples resurfaces.

Talk to me about the character of the priest, played by Francesco Di Leva whom you often work with.

I chose Francesco Di Leva, whom I worked with on “The Mayor of Rione Sanità,” because Francesco is a not just a great actor, he’s also active in social work just like Father Loffredo. So that part was almost like making a documentary. I was also afraid of falling into the trap of rhetoric with this character and Francesco’s playfulness and irony hopefully helped me avoid that.

Talk to me about casting Pierfrancesco Favino, who is back in Cannes after making a splash here for playing the lead in Marco Bellocchio’s “The Traitor.”

Pierfrancesco has the range for this role due to his enormous talent and his mimetic ability with languages [he had to learn both Neapolitan dialect and Arabic]. But it would be belittling to say he was so right for the part due this aspect. He was right for the part because he’s an actor who can carry this character. The role of Felice is a big challenge because even though the story has to do with crime in Naples – and he has to be courageous to stand up to it – all this is being done by a man who is not looking for conflict. But who is just looking for his own place within his soul.

Let’s talk about Naples. For me this is your film that most resembles “Amore Molesto” because they both delve into the entrails of this city, though Naples has of course been part of other films you’ve made.

Let me tell you this. “Nostalgia” starts with the protagonist arriving in Via Foria [one of Naples’ main thoroughfares] and a Steve Lacy track playing. And that’s how “Amore Molesto” also starts. So there is a direct reference. It’s like a signal to audiences who’ve been following my work to say: ‘we are in the same place.’ In the first film we were following a woman, Adele, and her rapport with the past, memory and guilt. And now we are following this man. It’s like getting on the road, chasing someone and following them. So there really is a very strong connection between these two films. They talk to each other at a 27-year distance.