Mario Martone on Capturing ‘Il Postino’ Actor Massimo Troisi’s Humor and Humanity in Berlin Doc ‘Somebody Down There Likes Me’

Veteran auteur Mario Martone, whose Naples-set drama “Nostalgia” launched last year from Cannes, has quite a lot in common with Massimo Troisi, Italy’s beloved late comic actor-director who is best known internationally as the star of Oscar-winning film “Il Postino.”

Which is why Martone was well-suited to direct the multi-layered doc about Troisi’s legacy “Somebody Down There Likes Me” that is screening in the Berlinale Special sidebar.

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For starters, they are both Neapolitan, and were born only a few years a part. Troisi – who in “Il Postino” played the simple postman who rides his bicycle on a sandy Italian island to deliver mail to his sole client, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda – died tragically of congenital heart failure at age 41 in June 1994, the day after “Il Postino” finished shooting at Rome’s Cinecittà studios.

Martone in Berlin spoke to Variety about capturing Troisi’s combination of humor, humanity and social consciousness.

I know you were asked to direct this doc by the producers and by Troisi’s partner and screenwriter Anna Pavignano. You are a busy guy. What prompted you to accept?

I was drawn to it by my love for Troisi’s body of work and also the political dimension of his figure. This can seem odd since he was a beloved comedian known to everyone as very sweet man. But his artistic vision always encompassed the changes that were going on in Italian society [during the 1970’s, 80s and early 90s]. My only request to the producers was: ‘I need to be able to use his films, which of course involved clearing the rights. Pavignano was crucial because she provided me with scraps of paper with Troisi’s notes on which he wrote observations and poems, and also with intimate tapes with his voice.

How did you structure the narrative?

After I gathered the material I worked in the editing suite with Jacopo Quadri [Martone’s regular editor]. And as I looked at the material I started making a running commentary. That’s basically how I wrote it. The basic idea was to understand Massimo Troisi from his films. I made a deliberate choice not to interview the many people who knew him. I didn’t want anecdotes. I told the producers: “It’s like I’m making a doc about a 15th century painter. So I just need the body of this work and some narrative threads as starting points.”

What was the challenge for you in pulling those threads?

As a director I wanted to try to create a dialogue with his films. That’s why I chose to appear on camera, which was not easy for me. But I thought this was important. I wanted to make it clear that this was a personal journey for me. So I fearlessly went into specifics, like the ways in which Troisi framed specific shots. I wanted to delve into details of his choices as an all-round filmmaker. Choices I know he cared about tremendously. This is also my way to give Troisi more recognition as a filmmaker.

Troisi’s body of work comprises twelve films, five of which he directed, including “Nothing Left to Do But Cry,” which he wrote, directed and starred in with Roberto Benigni in 1985. But, especially outside Italy, the film he is best known for is “Il Postino” which you beautifully analyze.

As I try to explain in the film, “Il Postino” [which was Troisi’s passion project for which he chose Michael Radford as director] stands as a sort of final chapter of a discourse that Troisi started from his his first film onwards. It’s a discourse on love and the impossibility of expressing love, especially in words. Troisi’s persona is characterized by the fact that he stuttered and by his overall aphasia. What he saw in Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta’s novel was that this humble postman at its center instead managed to express love in his poems. In broader terms it’s a discourse on cinema. On cinema, as something that can save us.

What do you think the international appeal is for this doc?

I think it can be interesting for anyone who loved “Il Postino” to see what germinated that film. The human and social context that spawned it. It’s thanks to these aspects that I hope Troisi can be discovered internationally. He’s someone who speaks to everyone. His great quality is his humanity. In his frailty, he’s so human: the way he acted, the way he made movies that are extensions of his personality, which is quintessentially Neapolitan. I’ve experienced this recently with “Nostalgia.” I thought it was very specific to Naples, but the film’s strong human element is proving to be very appealing to international audiences.

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