Review: The King of Laughter

king of laughter

The Italian film festival which has opened in various cities of India from October 12, 2022, has brought with it a slew of interesting works by Italian directors which include Mario Martone, Michaelangelo Frammartino, Guieseppe Bonito and others. This is part of an effort to bring about a cultural communion between the two countries and to showcase new works in cinema in Italy.

The festival in Kolkata opened with The King of Laughter (Qui Rido io) by Mario Martone, on the life of the famous stage comedian, Eduardo Scarpetta. Apart from Eduardo’s own comic life with his extramarital liaisons and liberal reproductive profligacy, he has several children, both legitimate and illegitimate, born to women who are connected to him professionally, the film deals with the Italian society of snobs with strong entry barriers to aspirants to their coveted positions. The miserable nobleman, one who only has his snootiness, and no money, makes for an uproarious comedy in the pen of Scarpetto called Misery and Nobility.

Set in the late 19th century Naples, Eduardo rides the high wave of popularity as he has his audiences in splits with laughter followed by rapturous claps. One day, perhaps, as part of his expansion plans, he approaches D’Annunzio, who would later become the ‘National Poet of Italy’ to convert one of his major tragedies, his most well-known, The Daughter of Iorio, into a parody. Not only is the play well-known, it is flavoured with the style of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The parody of D’Annunzio work is akin to a parody of Dante.

D’Annunzio is portrayed as a vindictive man, who, it seems was waiting for this opportunity to humiliate and ruin Scarpetta’s career, future and finances. He recommends some of his friends, among who are poets, novelists, and philosophers, to the show so that they could create a chaos, disrupt the performance, and finally go to court pressing charges of plagiarism against the comedian, notwithstanding the fact that he had formally sought permission from the poet laureate to render the concerned work into a parody. D’Annunzio cleverly withheld the formal and written permission and instead sent him a telegram containing trivial and irrelevant text.

As Scarpetta is dragged into the court, the viciousness of the ‘Gramscian elite’ comes to the fore. This is an ensemble of elites who command the cultural high status among the Neopolitons and eventually for the whole of Italy. D’Annunzio and his cohorts wish to hegemonize this culture and hence have no qualms about ruining an artist who is popular.

In a typical ‘high art versus low art’ syndrome with mass appeal, Scarpetta is attacked mercilessly, by an elite who get jealous of his mass appeal, especially among ordinary folks. This is the paradox of it all; the elite claim to be producing the authentic culture by speaking for the poor, while, at the same time, nurturing a deep contempt for those who genuinely entertain the poor.

Scarpetta tries to befriend the hostile litterateurs and philosophers from the D’Annunzio camp. He hosts them to a gala dinner which they enjoy very much but retain their animosity towards him. This shows the rigid caste system in the Italian society without being articulated as such.

In the end, Scarpetta wins the case when his friend Benedetto Croce analyses the structure of parody and why parody should not be regarded as plagiarism. The arguments that won him his day were mainly two; one, that parody cannot be a parody unless the original work is mentioned specifically, and it would fall flat were the original work not cited. Hence, a parody can never be plagiarism.

Secondly, parody was yet another way of finding the sublime because the tragic as well as the comic eventually try to access the same sublime. Hence, parody is not only not a distortion of the work, but an interpretation of the same work — differently. Indeed, after the case concluded, parody was established as a veritable and legitimate genre of art.

Scarpetta not only wins the case but reveals the envious trolling by D’Annunzio and his friends as the closed coterie who create barriers for anyone who even remotely comes anywhere near to public acknowledgment for their artistic talent. When the prosecutor says that Scarpetta must have paid the audience in the court to cheer him, the actor replies that it was his paid audience who loved the performance, while those with free tickets — as in guests of D’Annunzio — who created the trouble to sabotage the popularity of the comedian. Certainly, this is straight from Gramsci.

In the court, Scarpetta addresses the accusation that D’Annunzio makes that he is polluting the culture of Naples, typically trying to appropriate the populace owing their native culture. He says that ‘popular culture’ has an equal legitimacy to claim the status of a ‘national culture’ as high brow art has.

This brings us to the eternal battle between the popular and the elite art. Who am I if not a Neopoliton, he asks, am I Chinese? Am I a Turk? Here again, he raises the imagery of the Neopoliton’s battle against the Turks and Mongols where many fought as mercenaries in the Middle Ages, which, somehow, was transformed into a ‘nationalistic identity’ a few centuries later.

The image of Scarpetta, perhaps, has been copied and stylized by Charlie Chaplin later in this incredible film as the wobbly and broken man who finds the world laughable because of its pretentions. Naples of the 19th century was a unity of opposite forces; it had a monarchy and a nobility, and a strong popular movement in support of unification and the monarch, and, yet, it also saw a series of resistance movements towards a unitary state of Italy. Naples was peripheral to Rome and thereafter to Italy and yet its benevolent monarchy helped grow its culture and confidence in which Naples took the ideological leadership of modern Italy, whereby it was not an open class war but a continuous negotiation over the share of power as represented by the Edgeworth’s box diagram in microeconomics.

Scarpetta represents that negotiation between the plebians and patricians, a theme that has marked Greece and then Rome, the French Revolution, and, later, even fascism. His parody reflects that negotiation over the exact point of equilibrium between the plebians and patricians.

The case reminds me of the Rituparna Ghosh and Afsar Ali Mir case’, in which the former was a maverick film director, now dead, and the latter, a comedian. Rituparna pulled Mir up for imitating him while Mir held all along that imitating did not mean caricature, and, instead, it constituted a homage.

The film seemed, serendipitously, to reflect the Ramayana. Scarpetto’s three women, the eldest son Vincenzo, born of the legitimately married wife, who was also the oldest among the other women, thinks that he should be the natural heir to his father’s empire, while Eduardo, the son born to his young and charming mistress, Luisa de Fillipo, seems more talented and who looks like the most promising heir to Scarpetto’s talents. Then there is the son born of the maid too. These are Kaushalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra. In the tension among siblings, there is love and affection mixed with a sense of rivalry and the anxiety of inheritance, but, somewhere, a deep, mutual attachment remains which sustains their business as a famous and popular theatre company.

Dr Susmita Dasgupta has been a policy economist with the Joint Plant Committee, Ministry of Steel, Government of India, but has pursued a parallel academic life with her MPhil and PhD from JNU on Amitabh Bachchan. Along with her book ‘Economics of the Indian Steel Industry’ published by Taylor and Francis in the United Kingdom, she has published ‘Amitabh — The Making of a Superstar’ and ‘Amitabh Bachchan — Reflections on a Star Image’. 

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