The Art of Happiness (L'Arte della Felicita): Venice Review

L'Arte della felicita? The Art of Happiness Still - H 2013

L'Arte della felicita? The Art of Happiness Still - H 2013

Strongly drawn characters and imaginative East-meets-West contrasts make for a unique debut feature about the metaphysical bond linking two brothers.

Venice Critics Week opens with an unusual Italian adult animation feature set in Naples.

Anyone wondering where to find an elusive feeling of joy in a world remorselessly depicted as “crappy” may find a bit of enlightenment, or at least bemused pleasure, in The Art of Happiness, a thought-provoking animated drama for adults set on the mean streets of Naples. The story of an angry young taxi driver who refuses to come to terms with his brother’s abandonment recalls Richard Linklater’s 2001 Waking Life in its smart and imaginative exploration of consciousness, with the twist that debuting filmmaker Alessandro Rak inserts an East meets West dimension into a highly naturalistic urbanscape. Kicking off Venice’s Critics Week, this first feature is promising but stuffed with a little too much to finally click, and an noxiously loud, ever-present music track adds to the confusion. In Italy, young adult audiences will most easily latch on to its crudely expressed but ultimately uplifting message, and the same qualities may entice adventurous offshore buyers.

The film’s initial difficulty is describing the close bond that unites Sergio Cometa (Leandro Amato) and his older brother Alfredo (Nando Paone) through time and space. While Sergio drives his cab through rain-drenched Naples, dodging piles of garbage bags piled high in front of Baroque churches and cruising past Mount Vesuvius, he obsesses over Alfredo, who has just died. Ten years earlier he left home to become a Buddhist monk in Dharmamsala in India, seat of the Dalai Lama. His death in the opening scene, as he looks up at the Himalayas and yearns to catch a glimpse of the Infinite, starts the film off on a high note.

Sergio, in contrast, is a bearded, bear-like guy who lives in the “real world” and can hardly suppress his fury at his brother’s departure. Among other things, it spelled the end of their music duo, Sergio on piano and Alfredo playing the violin. When Alfredo, now a shaven monk wearing red robes, calls him on Skype, they are amusingly articulate as they insult each other and argue in a lively idiom full of four-letter wordplay and colorful expressions. Although Alfredo’s choice of a path seems above reproach, he has a certain off-putting haughtiness that swings sympathy over to his frustrated frère.

Sergio’s rebellious response is to live in his grungy cab and hate the world. He chucks his music career and breaks with his family and girlfriend. In the taxi all day he listens to a gloomy talk radio speaker who predicts Apocalypse is on the way, while himself being a listening post for the stories told by eccentric passengers. These strongly drawn characters leap out of Rak’s screenplay with verve and realism – a weeping girl (Jun Ichikawa), Sergio’s debonair uncle (Renato Carpentieri), a straight-talking, rich old lady.    

Trying to express the complex relationship that links the two brothers proves the toughest problem for cartoonist and animator Rak. The back-and-forth editing of flashbacks and memories mixed with metaphoric asides, like a symbolic toy car running amok, often leads to awkwardness and confusion. While everything does become clear in the end, the film’s wealth of ideas would have benefited from a more linear structure.

This is the first full-length animated feature to emerge from the new Naples music, animation and documentary studio Mad Entertainment, founded by producer Luciano Stella with music producers Antonio Fresa and Luigi Scialdone, who contributed the film’s original score. Ranging from classical to modern variations, the musical commentary is used twice as often as necessary, literally dousing each scene with distractingly loud background sound that urgently needs a remix. 

The animation team, led by Ivan Cappiello, turns out an impressively varied look that captures the typical feel of Neapolitan buildings and streets, the vagueness of memory in other scenes, and makes a good stab at suggesting the ineffable through natural landscapes and mystical lighting.

Venue:  Venice Film Festival (Critics Week)
Production company: Big Sur in association with Mad Entertainment, Rai Cinema, Cinecitta Luce
Cast:  Leandro Amato, Nando Paone, Riccardo Polizzy Carbonelli, Renato Carpentieri, Jun Ichikawa, Lucio Allocca, Patrizia Di Martino
Director: Alessandro Rak  
Screenwriters:  Alessandro Rak, Luciano Stella
Producer, executive producer: Luciano Stella  
Chief animator:  Ivan Cappiello
Music: Antonio Fresa, Luigi Scialdone
Characterization, storyboard: Dario Sansone
Editor:  Marino Guarnieri
No rating, 84 minutes