Mario Martone’s feature film, The King of Laughter, takes us into the golden age of stage and cinema, where actors were treated like deities, and you’d shell out every lira you had to watch one brilliant story after the other.
The King of Laughter is the story of famed stage actor and comedian Eduardo Scarpetta. It was the beginning of the 20th century, and we find ourselves at the Neapolitan theater in Belle Époque Naples, where we see the grand master at work performing in one of his plays. The man had his hands in everything from writing, directing, and acting, and the crowd was eating it up.
At home, Eduardo lived the bohemian life of an artist. His success in the theater allowed him to live lavishly…more than providing for his wife, Rosa, and their two children. But theater was his first love and his children, whom he insisted follow in his footsteps, always took a back seat. To complicate his family life even further, Eduardo had separate families with two other women in the company. In fact, one of his illegitimate children was named Eduardo as well. Eduardo’s affairs were no secret to anyone, even Rosa and his eldest children.
In the second act, The King of Laughter follows two paths. The first was his involvement in a lawsuit with famed dramatic poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. One night Eduardo saw one of D’Annunzio’s plays and thought he would write a parody of that play. After a handshake agreement with D’Annunzio, Eduardo proceeded to produce the play. Unfortunately, the play fell apart in its first performance, and D’Annunzio decided to sue Eduardo for criminal plagiarism, the first lawsuit of its kind.
“The man had his hands in everything from writing, directing, and acting, and the crowd was eating it up.”
The second path follows Eduardo’s personal life spiral trying to manage not only a popular theater company but three families. To his children, corporal punishment was the easy way to gain obedience. However, his oldest son, Vincenzo, wanted to forge his own path in music and was instantly shut down by his father, who wanted him to act.
First, I didn’t know this was a biopic, partly because the narrative plays out so well. Thankfully it’s void of those “then this happened” moments while feeling like several scenes from his life. Instead, what we get is a complete character profile of an artist who not only embraced the trappings of being an artist, including using others for professional, financial, and sexual gain–all the while being the toast of the town.
The King of Laughter is a big-budget production from Italy. The turn-of-the-century city streets are breathtaking, the Neapolitan theater is ornate, and the performances are top-notch across the board. Toni Servello brings a brilliant yet nuanced performance as Eduardo Scarpetta. His emotional range is astounding, considering he’s playing an almost Charlie Chaplin-like character in terms of Eduardo being a shrewd businessman and, like a good artist, a lover as well.
That said, the two-and-a-quarter long runtime feels long. And the theater’s opening scene introduces many characters, which might make it hard to follow from the start.
But what this film is ultimately about is a man desperately trying to solidify a legacy that’s slipping out of his grasp and the desperate attempts to secure it. It’s too easy for Eduardo to simply lives the life of an actor rather than take on the responsibility of fathering a lot of children…a lot. The King of Laughter explores just what legacies are worth pursuing.
For screening information, visit The King of Laughter page on the film freeway website.