Nostalgia has seldom looked grittier, or more treacherous, than it does in Mario Martone’s eponymous new film. The Italian director splashes his teaming, boisterous, unruly native city of Naples across the screen in fulsome fashion in telling the story of a man who left as a teenager but, some 40 years later, is drawn back into its sinister embrace.
Largely unknown in the United States, Martone has made ten features over the past 30 years. From the evidence, he knows his way around full-blooded drama without pretense, which well suits this story of man who reacts more strongly to his return than he might have imagined.
Felice Lasco (Pierfrancesco Favino) is a tall, bearded bear of a man who abruptly turns up one day in Naples to surprise his aged mother. Felice is clearly a man of some means and it remains mysterious, nay, deeply disturbing as to why hasn’t returned to visit her in the past or put her on a plane to Cairo, where he has lived and worked all these years. Worse, he had no how far his mother had fallen; the poor dear lives in desperate squalor with little to her name. To top it off, Martone has persuaded the actress playing the mother to do a highly revealing and hardly necessary nude scene that seems very odd in context. This whole opening section makes the central character look like a neglectful shmuck.
Since he last saw his mama, Felice has also converted to Islam, albeit of a mild variety. Finally exhibiting some guilt over the woman who brought him into the world, Felice finds her a better flat, but she shortly expires. Weirdly, then, it’s only after she’s gone that Felice decides it might be time to return to Naples full time, even though he’s already seen Camorra gangsters shooting things up on the street.
Felice remains a frustrating fellow to figure out or warm to; although capable of making important decisions, he’s not terribly forceful. He befriends a helpful priest, who implores the visitor to leave the city, as he’s in danger. Even though he understands what the cleric is talking about, Felice waives off the concerns, as he’s more convinced than ever that his future lies in Naples.
The deep dive into this specific urban milieu is gratifying; you can practically inhale the smells of the open markets, the garbage, the run-down buildings, the motorbike exhaust and, once and a while, the purer air of the churches. There remains, however, the mystery of Felice’s boyhood ties with the now-leader of the Camorra; even though the two were once best friends, there is lingering unfinished business that Felice might advisedly best leave alone. But Felice can’t resist and a meeting between the two is finally arranged.
Almost all mafia stories have a time-tested draw, and this one has the fantastic advantage of a densely displayed real-life setting and a lack of cliched old-school conventions. When Felice finally gains access to the inner sanctum and once again sees his childhood buddy, now unkempt and aged beyond his years over all he’s seen and done, some final reckoning must be faced.
The main problem here is Felice’s lack of insight into the human condition and the realities of his place he was born into but of which he’s no longer a part; he seems to have less understanding of the mafia’s rules and protocols than anyone who’s seen The Godfather or The Sopranos. With his background, he shouldn’t be naïve, but he is, and quite massively so, which renders him an ultimately unsympathetic figure. It’s almost as if he himself hasn’t watched any gangster films.