London Film Festival: Leopardi

Directed by Mario Martone
Starring Elio Germano, Michele Riondino and Massimo Popolizio

by Amanda Farley

Mario Martone’s latest film focuses on the life and work of Giacomo Leopardi, one of Italy’s most celebrated poets, considered by many to be second only to the great Dante. Yet for most this film will be the first introduction to a man who’s prolific collection of writing continues to capture people’s hearts and imaginations.

This is an undoubtedly beautiful feature. Shot in many of the original locations from Leopardi’s life, from his family home in Recanati, to Florence, Rome and Italy. There is an authenticity and attention to detail that brings the world into sparkling focus. It is easy to fall into the reality of this eighteenth century story and to grasp the pain, beauty and excitement of life as Leopardi (Elio Germano) lived it.

Beginning with his childhood in Recanati, we see him grow from a boy into a youth and finally we witness his deliverance into independence and manhood. We watch as his intellect develops and his body decays. While living in Recanati he is nurtured and later trapped by his father’s (Massimo Popoliz) love and emotionally damaged by his mother’s (Raffaella Giordano) distance and severity.

Despite the company of his brother (Edoardo Natoli) and sister(Isabella Ragonese) Leopardi longs for something more. The studies which have freed his mind are now his prison but spurred on by a passionate exchange of letters with Pietro Giordani (Valerio Binasco) Leopardi begins to see a life for himself outside of his father’s library.

Flash forward ten years and Leopardi is in Florence with writer Antonio Ranieri (Michele Riondino). Accepted as a literary figure of note, Leopardi struggles with both his finances and ever deteriorating heath. The relationship between Ranieri and Leopardi is at the heart of this and the film explores the growing dependance of Leopardi on Ranieri and his sister Paolina (Federica de Cola).

Elio Germano is excellent as Leopardi, he gives a nuanced and touching representation of a man trapped by his own brilliance and loneliness. His depiction of Leopardi’s physical afflictions is subtle and truthfully done. His perfectly conveys the poet’s increasing fragility and deterioration even as his mind continues to develop and expand. The rest of the cast are well chosen and Popoliz in particular gives a wonderful performance as the loving but domineering father figure.

While this is an ambitious and brave attempt to tell a difficult story the film has several failings. It is obvious that Leopardi is loved by those who encounter him, but yet the script never lets the audience in and as such it is hard to understand why he inspires such affection. From the audience’s perspective there is a distance that is never bridged and that makes it harder to care about this beautiful, damaged man. Martone’s desire to educate veers towards didacticism and at 144 minutes this is an indulgent mistake that takes away from the story being told. The overall effect is one where concept is king rather then character.

Martone does look to create a sense of relevance and with Sascha Ring providing a modern score to mix with period pieces it creates a fresh and different sound. He also uses Leopardi’s poetry to great success at the end of the film. The closing images and the words to Wild Broom” (“La ginestra”) are a perfect parting scene. It captures the beauty and loneliness of Leopardi’s existence in a way that truly resonates. This film may run slightly too long but it does bring Leopardi to life in a way that will hopefully inspire audiences to read his work.

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