'Leopardi': Venice Review

Mario Spada
For the literati and Italophiles everywhere, but not many others.

Italy's greatest 19th-century poet Giacomo Leopardi gets classic honors in Mario Martone’s sumptuous biopic starring Elio Germano

Mario Martone, a film and stage helmer who once led a project with the esoteric title Death of a Neapolitan Mathematician, is not the most modern or exciting of directors. He is a man with a plan and an impassioned love for the poet Giacomo Leopardi. Filming on actual locations in the grand tradition of classical European high-art cinema, he slowly allows his sumptuous biopic about Italy’s greatest 19-century poet to build to its final crescendo in Naples, while Mt. Vesuvius erupts and Elio Germano, in the title role, reads a spine-tingling excerpt from La ginestra (The Broom). Such are the subtle pleasures of Leopardi (Il giovane favoloso), and they are pretty obviously addressed to the happy few. In Italy, there is a built-in student audience for this respectful handling of a national icon, and Germani’s popularity and persuasively engaging performance should help sell tickets. But with a running time well over two hours, the film will have to battle for audiences offshore after its festival run.

Let’s say off the bat that Leopardi, a small-town aristocrat plagued with ill health and a bone deformation that left him with a crippling curvature of the back, did not have the kind of colorful life of, say, an Oscar Wilde or Allen Ginsberg. The first hour of the film duly, and somewhat dully, reconstructs his youth in the family manor in Recanati where, under his father’s (Massimo Popolizio) overly protective gaze, he studies the classics with his brother and sister in the family’s magnificent library. He progresses from being a child prodigy to an impulsive, passionate youth who takes his first steps in poetry. Yet his line reading of the famous "The Infinite" against a grassy background feels disappointingly static.       

Nor did Leopardi have any big-time romances like Goethe; in fact, the film suggests he was a virgin until his death. The only stir that Martone and Ippolita di Majo’s screenplay can rustle on the sentimental front are two women Giacomo fantasizes about. The first is a beautiful illiterate girl who dies young, inspiring his famous poem, "To Silvia." The other is a freethinking Florentine countess played with verve by French actress Anna Mouglalis. Giacomo develops a serious crush on her, but she prefers, heartbreakingly, to have an affair with his dashing best friend Antonio Ranieri (Michele Riondino.) Finally, in a hellish scene in a subterranean brothel in Naples that could have come out of Fellini Satyricon, he is cruelly humiliated as he prepares to bed a prostitute, giving him further reason to view the world as a place full of suffering and torment.  

The film becomes more engrossing as it progresses, making some trimming in the early scenes a possibility. Martone is admirable in any case for not being afraid to approach a big subject like this at a time when Italian films are getting smaller and smaller. Leopardi was a philosopher and linguist as well as a poet, bridging the gap between the Enlightenment and Romanticism much like Beethoven. His comparison of human life with the immensity of the universe reaches for the stars, inspiring Swiss cinematographer Renato Berta to film some of the key scenes like a mystical dreamscape. As Leopardi and his loyal friend Ranieri move to Florence, Rome and Naples, Berta’s lighting creates entirely different moods, but dazzles most in the climactic eruption of Vesuvius that Leopardi witnesses, leading to the final great poem. The other key technical contribution comes from composer Sascha Ring, whose contemporary songs and music provide just the exhilarating touch the story needs to feel modern.

Production companies: Palomar, in association with Rai Cinema
Cast: Elio Germano, Michele Riondino, Massimo Popolizio, Anna Mouglalis, Isabella Ragonese, Valerio Binasco, Paolo Graziosi, Iaia Forte, Sandro Lombardi, Raffaella Giordano, Edoardo Natoli, Federica De Cola, Giorgia Salari
Director: Mario Martone
Screenwriters: Mario Martone, Ippolita di Majo
Producers: Carlo Degli Esposti, Patrizia Massa, Nicola Serra
Director of photography: Renato Berta
Production designer: Giancarlo Muselli
Costume designer: Ursula Patza
Editor: Jacopo Quadri
Music: Sascha Ring
Sales: Rai Com
No rating, 144 minutes