A lot of heartsick Nineteenth Century Italian noblemen wrote lyric poetry, but Giacomo Leopardi is still read today. He was a poet and a scholar but not much of a lover, for reasons that will be sadly obvious. Mario Martone dotingly dramatizes his short and infirm life of letters in Leopardi (trailer here), which screens as part of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2015.
Leopardi was born in Recanti in what were then the Papal States. For years, the sickly young man studied in the famed library of his illustrious father, the Count Monaldo, but it was a gilded cage. With the encouragement of firebrand classicist Pietro Giordani, whom Leopardi knew through correspondence, the frail poet absconds from his ancestral home under the dark of night, commencing a life of literary bohemianism in Florence with Antonio Ranieri, a Neapolitan exile.
His fame increases now that Leopardi freely writes the sort of verse his strict mother never approved of, but his body will contract, perhaps the result of Pott disease. Nevertheless, Leopardi will fall desperately in love with the elegant and sophisticated Fanny Targioni Tozzetti. She is hardly an empty-headed party girl, but she does not return Leopardi’s ardor. Alas, she is more interested in Ranieri and any number of other lovers who present themselves.
Even though Leopardi is not widely read outside of Italy, there is not a vast bounty of surprises to be found in Martone and co-screenwriter Ippolita Di Majo’s big screen bio treatment. A brief description of the poet and his circumstances is sufficient to suggest the general narrative arc. Yet, somehow they drag the inevitable out beyond the two hour mark. Perhaps Martone was simply too reluctant to leave Recanti. Granted permission by the heirs to film at the Leopardi library and palazzo, the cast literally walks in the footsteps of their characters. As a result, the film looks gorgeous and rings with authenticity.
Elio Germano also deserves great credit for his portrayal of the title figure. It is rather remarkable how he slowly but steadily shows the poet becoming more stoop shouldered and literally twisted. It is a seamless progression that never calls attention to itself. He is also convincingly smart and sensitive as Leopardi, yet reserved in a way that never trolls for cheap sympathy. Even though she is dubbed in Italian, French actress Anna Mouglalis has the sort of earthy, seductive presence that makes it easy to accept Leopardi’s yearning. However, Michele Riondino’s shaggy Ranieri never looks like he belongs in the era.
Martone successfully incorporates Leopardi’s poetry into several key scenes, including his big emotional payoff. Nevertheless, he leaves a lot of slack in the first two acts. The pop songs included in the soundtrack are also a calculated mistake that are far less likely to “speak” to anyone interested in the life of Giacomo Leopardi than period-appropriate arias.