Though hardly a household name outside his native land, Italian dramatist Eduardo De Filippo is one of the country’s most important creative voices of the 20th century, best remembered offshore for two classic cinema adaptations, “Marriage Italian Style” and “Ghosts – Italian Style.” Renowned at home for capturing the essence of Neapolitan life through a unique mix of comedy and drama drawing from realism and surrealism with clear ties to the style of the commedia dell’arte, De Filippo’s plays, rich in dialect, are difficult to translate not just into other languages but other cultures. Mario Martone’s decision to maintain the theatricality of his 2017 stage adaptation for NEST (Napoli Est Teatro) of “The Mayor of Rione Sanità” certainly won’t coax newcomers into the playwright’s world, nor is it likely to entice many Italians apart from De Filippo cognoscenti.
A “rione” is a neighborhood with traditionally recognized boundaries; the rione Sanità in Naples is one of the city’s poorest, with a reputation for criminality often associated with the Camorra. De Filippo’s play was first performed in 1961 and centered on Antonio Barracano, a 75-year-old power broker who adjudicates disputes in a godfather-like manner. Part gangster don, part mediator and judge, Barracano sees himself as the guardian of his flock, a parental figure convinced of his Solomonic wisdom, enrobed in the trappings of wealth, authority and fear.
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At 81, Anthony Quinn played Barracano in Ugo Fabrizio Giordani’s “The Mayor,” and now Martone gives the character a new spin by casting Francesco Di Leva, 38, in the role he also played on stage when chosen by De Filippo’s son Luca. The shift down two generations actually works fine given how habituated we’ve become to powerful younger Mafiosi on screen (Al Pacino was just five years older when “Scarface” was released). What’s significantly less successful is Martone’s vision, retaining the theatrical line delivery of his stage production while failing to differentiate the story from countless other Camorra/Mafia/’Ndrangheta movies.
To call attention to his stagey conception of the piece, Martone opens with a cinematically exciting montage of Naples at night which then settles down into a classic three-act structure notable for wordiness and a restricted viewpoint even when including outdoor vistas. A couple of hyped-up punks, ‘O Palummiello (Ralph P, also the film’s rapper/composer) and ‘O Nait (Armando De Giulio) get into an argument and ‘O Nait shoots his friend in the knee. They head straight to Barracano’s large but undistinguished villa overlooking Naples, where Don Antonio’s in-house doctor, Fabio Della Ragione (Roberto De Francesco), removes the bullet and treats the wound. The doctor’s just one of Barracano’s retainers, tied to him by loyalty and a respect for power; who wouldn’t want to work for the big man? Even his two kids, Gennaro (Domenico Esposito) and Geraldina (Morena Di Leva) act like quasi-incestuous sycophants, though his wife Armida (Daniela Ioia) is more ambiguous.
After settling the first dispute, Don Antonio arbitrates a dispute between Pasquale ‘O Nasone (Gennaro Di Colandrea) and his creditor Vicienzo ‘O Cuozzo (Giuseppe Gaudino); his judgment favors the man in debt, allowing Barracono to be seen as a man of the people, champion of the underdog. His next visitors present a more complicated problem: Rafiluccio Santaniello (Salvatore Presutto) brings his pregnant, barely legal girlfriend Rita (Lucienne Perreca) and tells Don Antonio he’s going to kill his father for treating him and his girl like trash.
This doesn’t fly well with Barracono — family is family, right? — so he tells him to wait nearby while he commands Rafiluccio’s father Arturo (Massimiliano Gallo) to pay him a visit. To Don Antonio’s surprise, Arturo isn’t interested in mediation: His son’s a punk, and everyone should mind their own business. The big man is taken aback by this challenge to his paternalistic authority, and later that day he goes into town to meet with Arturo at his workplace, but things don’t go as expected.
Italians, as De Filippo recognized, have a weakness for strongmen (they’re hardly alone), and his conception of the mayor of rione Sanità reflects ambiguity as well as a grudging admiration. Antonio Barracano’s ability to instill fear in others has made him a figure of respect. He’s a crime boss resting on his ill-gotten gains, and yet at the story’s end, he sacrifices himself in an act that many will consider noble. To really make the play interesting, that tension is what needs to be developed, yet Martone doesn’t appear to question the problematic nature of a character of Shakespearean contradictions who seems to redeem his criminality with a final grand act of generosity. Is the audience meant to forget the man’s violent background in light of his martyrdom? Even shooting the final act in the Palazzo San Felice, one of the architectural wonders of Naples recognizable from innumerable films, furthers the sense of unoriginality.
Still less comprehensible than Martone’s p.o.v. is his decision to retain all the play’s theatrical trappings, down to long soliloquies in an already word-heavy text. The actors were clearly coached to keep the gestures and inflections they used in the 2017 production, making for a tedious experience when not reinforced by dynamic visuals, largely absent here apart from the opening minutes. Ralph P’s hip hop music tries to drive things forward and give the material a contemporary spin, but there’s no getting around the film’s calculated stasis.