The rise and fall of two brothers in postwar Italy
The winner of Venice’s Golden Lion, The Way We Laughed is the regret-filled story of two Sicilian brothers in Turin in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Director Gianni Amelio details not only these rustics’ adaptation to postwar urban society, but the changes wrought in Italy itself as it adjusted to its altered status in the modern world.
The title comes from the last page of La Domenica del Corriere, a very popular 1950s magazine to which readers sent in outmoded jokes, the sort of old chestnuts aging relatives recall at holiday dinners. The column served as a collective reminder of the distance traveled, of the things that Italians found funny twenty or thirty years before. Seen as the key to a promising future, education was the greatest separator. At the time, even basic literacy wasn’t a given at the time, especially for southerners (a frequent question among the manual workers in the film is if their coworker can read). Amelio succeeds in showing the abysmal sadness that results when the longed-for miracle of education doesn’t quite live up to its hype.
The Way We Laughed spans 1958 to 1964 in six vignettes: Arrivals, Deceptions, Money, Letters, Blood, and Families. The film opens with Giovanni’s (Enrico Lo Verso) appearance at the Turin train station, where he searches in vain for his younger brother Pietro (Francesco Giuffrida), who has been in the city awhile, allegedly studying to be a schoolteacher. In fact, although Pietro carries his books with him, the putative schoolteacher is disenchanted and rarely attends class. Hampered by innumeracy and illiteracy, Giovanni pedestals his brother’s reading and knowledge. For Giovanni, it’s a form of alchemy, a gift so important that he insists on sacrificing himself to the most menial work on behalf of his brother.
The intensity of Giovanni and Pietro’s sibling relationship – sometimes paternal/filial, sometimes quietly combative, and occasionally even romantic (it’s not sexualized but it is doting, not uncommon in a society where physical touch carries entirely different messages than in America) – is a rarity in film. Amelio relies on minimal dialogue and yet there is never a doubt as to the strength of their bond. Loyalty and a blindness to the truth about each other take a heavy toll, the final effects irreversible: one brother with no life, the other with no soul.
Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi gives The Way We Laughed a grainy, deep-hued look, the colors saturated but not lush. In the late ’50s, Italy still bore the fractures of the postwar years, and the city has a battered look. There’s a misty chill to Bigazzi’s Turin. Interiors feel dim and airless, the streets huge and unwelcoming. In sweeping Cinemascope shots, Giovanni and Pietro look puny, their insularity highlighted by all the life around them from which they are cut off.
Turin serves both as backdrop and, more important, as barometer of the changes underway in Italy. From the ubiquitous scaffolding in the first vignette, to the burgeoning traffic (and the whine of a scooter, modern Italy unimaginable without this aural icon), the brightly lit factory, and finally to Giovanni’s residence outside the city proper, Amelio traces the rapid pace of change as postwar Italy converted from an agricultural to an industrial economy.
Music, used sparingly throughout, reveals the foreign influences that shaped Italian popular culture – the French hit “La Mer,” Latin cha-chas, and finally, inevitably, American pop in the form of “She’s a Lady” and “Got a One-way Ticket to the Blues.”
Despite its historical accuracy, The Way We Laughed indulges in no wistfulness about the period. Amelio often shoots from behind, especially from the backs of his protagonists’ heads. It gives a sense of immediacy, of events coming at them. The first shot of Pietro is the back of his head as he spots his brother on the train platform; later, he hides behind a huge column at the train station, his profile Janused as he watches Giovanni search for him. (It’s an elegant announcement of a theme of doubles, the brothers’ positions never fixed. There are several repeated exchanges in the film in which the brothers trade positions; each is capable of great selfishness and dire sacrifice.) Throughout, Amelio signals shifts in the balance of power between the brothers by showing the backs of their heads – in scenes of reconciliation he shows the backs of both their heads. Amelio offers few explanations for much of the brothers’ behavior; the shots create tension as well as preserving the enigmatic aspects of the protagonists. But they also symbolize how little the brothers and their fellow Sicilians actually register with the Turin locals, whose prejudices are unhidden (Giovanni’s eventual father-in-law congratulates himself for allowing his daughter to marry a southerner). Sicilians were the Albanians of early ’60s Italy.
As they move through the six vignettes, Lo Verso and Giuffrida make subtle changes, the final result a devastating transformation. Lo Verso uses his sensuality and nearly grotesque handsomeness to signal an underlying fanatical violence. Clutching Pietro’s books, Lo Verso walks in a kind of trance, possessed by their power as a connection to his brother. The meanness surfaces as he becomes more successful – his moustache, initially the affectation of a hick, becomes minatory, even forbidding. As Giovanni changes, Lo Verso shows the anxiety of both nothing to lose and something to hide by narrowing his wide open look of the early scenes into one of suspicion and defensiveness.
Ruddy-cheeked and distracted, Giuffrida’s Pietro appears initially merely indolent, ungrateful for his brother’s sacrifices. He’s like a lamb in wolf’s clothing. But he lists under the weight of all that expectation, the burden of dreams too fantastic to be actually realized merely by education. By the last chapter of the film, Giuffrida deflates Pietro, the former exuberance mutated into joyless defeat.
The Way We Laughed continues many of the themes of Amelio’s earlier films, in particular Stolen Children and Lamerica. As in the earlier work, Amelio is fundamentally concerned with us-and-them situations. His stories are deeply Italian, their details and references specific to that culture. But Giovanni and Pietro could be postwar Italian immigrants in the States – or contemporary Middle Eastern new arrivals. The anxiety of gains and losses in the interest of betterment remains the same today as it was forty years ago. In The Way We Laughed, Amelio succeeds in telling a story both of its time and ours.