The Way We Laughed directed by Gianni Amelio Without any close competition to speak of, Gianni Amelio ranks as the preeminent Italian filmmaker of the past two decades, a worthy heir to the likes of Rossellini, De Sica, Fellini and Antonioni. The three movies he made in the first half of the 90s?Open Doors (1990), Stolen Children (1992) and Lamerica (1994)?are as beautiful, original and passionately intelligent as any European films of the current era; all were released in the U.S. to widespread and eminently justified critical acclaim. But Amelio's career is now bounded by two movies that, to our film culture's continuing embarrassment, are all but unknown on these shores.
The film will be shown on Sunday, Feb. 20, at two p.m. at the American Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series "The New York Film Critics Circle Looks at the 90s." That Amelio's latest is getting even one New York screening we owe to film critic Stuart Klawans, who proposed it for the AMMI series. Klawans first saw the film at the 1998 Toronto filmfest and wrote a passionate defense of it in The Nation in which he scored the way audiences and distributors lapped up trendy baubles like Run Lola Run while yawning at the more complex and penetrating insights offered by Amelio.
While I share Klawans' enthusiasm for The Way We Laughed, I'm not sure I share his understanding of it. He evidently sees it as a flat-out masterpiece that aims at "nothing less than the impossible thing: telling the truth about our emotions, as we live them in a particular time and place." By that, I take it he regards the film as a realistic drama that successfully communicates its meanings in an unusually refined version of the way most films do. Myself, I think it's a semi-opaque perplexity on what might be called the prose level, the level we're most accustomed to in cinema. What sets the movie apart, to me, is its force and fascination on another level?the realm of personal poetry?for which Amelio's narrative merely serves as a slightly awkward and deceptive springboard.
Ultimately, the film may well come off as strangely turned and densely allusive in its meanings, but let's start with what it seems to be about. The story, which unfolds in six episodes that take place (a day apiece) over the years 1958-'64, concerns two brothers who come to Turin from Sicily to seek their fortunes. When the film opens, Giovanni (Enrico Lo Verso), the older of the two, arrives at the train station expecting his brother to meet him. But teenage Pietro (Francesco Giuffrida) watches from behind a column, hiding, although moments later?ironically enough?he's persuaded to help a family of other arrivals try to find their destination.
Back at the train station a day later, Pietro stumbles into Giovanni, who has also returned, and the two have their big reunion. Obviously, there were reasons they didn't connect the day before, and we learn something about their complicated relationship from the fact that Pietro would adopt the almost sadistic stance of concealing himself from a sibling who adores him and needs his help. Yet the oddness of this initial nonmeeting, which violates both cinematic and emotional norms, lingers throughout the rest of the film, and indeed becomes a prime emblem of the way Amelio declines to make the usual dramatic and intellectual connections for us.
Much of the drama hinges on the differences between the brothers, who, like many other poor southerners, have migrated north at a time when Italy's postwar industrial boom is reaching its peak. Giovanni, who's in his late 20s, is a good-hearted, uneducated peasant sort who dotes on his younger brother and aims to help him complete his education so that he can become a teacher. Pietro, though, hardly seems worth such devotion. The day Giovanni arrives in Turin he hears that Pietro's been accused of stealing from the family he's staying with; and, in fact, the boy's clothes are suspiciously new and smartly bourgeois-looking.
Nevertheless, Giovanni, who gets a job as a laborer and slowly starts his climb up the economic ladder, does everything he can to support his little brother, from defending his name to paying his rent. He even takes him to a whorehouse?where Pietro notices that the girl sent to service him is from their village back home. Perhaps because of the solicitude that's been lavished on him his whole life, Pietro has a punk's indifference to all generosity. Angel-faced but stolidly sullen, he even seems determined to toss away the benefits of an education; a recurring motif in the film has him constantly on the verge of losing his books, which others must rescue for him.
Nearly halfway through the story, in episode three (i.e., 1960), the film arrives at an unforgettable scene. Pietro, who's come into some money by scooping up a wallet dropped in a pickpocketing incident, takes himself to a nice restaurant and invites Giovanni for dinner. Giovanni arrives and looks at the place dumbstruck. He won't sit down, and obviously can't even imagine doing so. It's not a matter of money but of class, of 1000 years of understanding one's place in the world. In looking at Pietro in a kind of baffled horror, he gazes across one of the great psychological divides in Italian history?the one that finally separates feudalism from pluralistic modernity.
That gap will not be instantly breached. After Giovanni bolts the restaurant and Pietro runs after him, the brothers have a heated confrontation in which Pietro says he doesn't care about his education, he'd just as soon be a laborer, and Giovanni slaps him for uttering that great heresy. (Here, of course, the ironies abound: While Pietro claims not to care about becoming bourgeois, the restaurant scene shows he's already made the transition mentally; his brother, who puts a premium on socioeconomic betterment, obviously will never be anything but a peasant in outlook.)
If Pietro's words are heretical, Giovanni's blow comes close to the ultimate sin, and it propels the brothers into their most intimate conversation, wherein they recall "the day Papa died" and, thereby, the whole constellation of their early relationship. Naturally, Pietro was their father's favorite, which produced a dynamic expressed in two memories the brothers share. In one, Giovanni, mistakenly blamed for bloodying Pietro's face, got a beating from their father. In the second, Giovanni swiped some money from their father but escaped punishment for it when darling Pietro took the blame.
Two brothers, two "crimes," two mistaken identifications, two erroneous judgments and unjust punishments (or lack of punishment). Such symbolic/perceptual exchanges of guilt, as it were, are famous in the cinema of Hitchcock, which cues us that The Way We Laughed (a deceptive title if there ever was one) might have as much in common with The Wrong Man or Strangers on a Train as it does with, say, Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers or Rosi's Three Brothers. Which is to say that Amelio's film bears meanings that play out on the level of psychological and symbolic suggestion and, therefore, are not always immediately obvious.
Like the director's other films, this one seems to rest on an essential duplicity or disjuncture: while its look and dramatic approach are nominally realistic, its ultimate affect is inescapably dreamlike. The first time I saw the film, I had the odd sensation that in its second half (episodes 4-6) the brothers had literally exchanged identities: that the person we were seeing as Giovanni was actually Pietro, and vice versa. A second viewing erased that misimpression, but also clarified the reasons for it. In the film's first half, Giovanni is the "good" brother who sacrifices himself and bears the weight of his brother's sins (real or imagined). In the second half, the relationship is reversed: Pietro is the one who sacrifices and assumes responsibility for his sibling's malefactions. But why do the brothers, in effect, change places? The fact that this reversal finally doesn't make a sufficient amount of sense on a realistic level (although it does make some) should alert us that it is the key to the film's poetic significances.
As for the nature of those, permit me to wax a bit overly schematic in suggesting three areas of inquiry, which I'll dub the national-historic, the personal-historic and the cinematic-historic. Regarding the first, my comments on the restaurant scene above should point to a concrete cultural reason for the tale's central reversal: It's about the moment in the Italian saga when the peasant becomes bourgeois, and vice versa. Regarding the second area, one would need to look at the body of Amelio's work to see the extraordinarily complex and resonant ways in which his stories are always structured around betrayals, misperceptions, accusations, exchanges of guilt, and various "mirrorings" that encompass such things as the differences between family members, classes and regions of Italy.
But it's the third area that fascinates me most as regards The Way We Laughed. Amelio's films have always posed implicit moral arguments regarding the nature, value and history of modern Italian cinema, and these have tended to privilege realism (i.e., the heritage of neorealism) over auteurist "subjectivism." In setting his new film in the era he does, he takes us back to precisely the years when the struggle between those apparent poles was at its most intense, and when indeed a crucial "reversal" of sorts occurred.
Pure neorealism, after all, ended with De Sica's Umberto D in 1952, and subjectivism made its first grand appearance a year later in Rossellini's Voyage in Italy, which more than any other film catalyzed the auteurist esthetic of the French New Wave. To glean from Amelio's past films, it might be assumed that he finds particular value in the years just following that 1954 advent, when the neorealist impulse or example was still strong enough to hold in check subjectivism's tendency toward introverted irresponsibility. If so, then the years 1958-'64 hold special meaning and poignance.
In his Italian Cinema, Peter Bondanella describes the decade beginning at 1958 as the high-water mark of modern Italian cinema. In his Vital Crises in Italian Cinema, P. Adams Sitney identifies?as others have?1960 as the era's pivot, the "annus mirabilis." This, the year of Rocco and His Brothers, Fellini's La Dolce Vita and, especially, Antonioni's Cannes earthquake L'Avventura effectively marks the triumph of the subjectivist approach and the onset of neorealism's full eclipse. Surely it's no coincidence that this is the same year that Giovanni and Pietro face each other in that restaurant, and later seem to exchange moral positions.
As for why the story ends in 1964, one might suggest that this was the year when the French, having been inspired by the Italian cinema, seemed to return to it as conquerors, the crucial film being Bertolucci's Godard-influenced, consummately subjectivist Before the Revolution (a title that, ironically, could serve as an alternate for The Way We Laughed). Amelio has had a career-long obsession with Bertolucci, and The Way We Laughed's final sequence and scene?which take place in the Po Valley and a train station, respectively?abound in sly references to Bertolucci's The Spider's Stratagem (1970), the film in which the box of subjectivism was finally sealed tight, becoming an endless Borgesian labyrinth.
Of course, the kinds of interpretations sketched in above, besides being provisional and deliberately open-ended, are deeply heretical at present. Films are now supposed to "mean" on one level only (if that), viewers are not to be asked to think or reflect, and no filmmaker (or critic) is supposed to act as if cinema has a poetics or a history that might have some bearing on its present or its potential. Naturally, such self-limiting attitudes end up as self-fulfilling prophecies. Thus do we arrive at a degraded moment when a master like Amelio can't even get a hearing in the U.S., and the New York Film Festival programs crap like The Woman Chaser and Dogma while rejecting works of true poetic vision and mature artistry like The Straight Story and The Way We Laughed.
For a glimpse of what you're increasingly missing in New York's film culture, head out to AMMI and check out the most ambitious and richly associative Italian film of recent years. Sunday's screening will have an added benefit: Amelio himself will be in attendance, and will join Stuart Klawans in a post-screening dialogue.