Berlinale 2023 review: Somebody Down There Likes Me (Mario Martone)

“Prolific filmmaker Mario Martone presents a respectful and affectionate portrait of Troisi, making an argument for the rediscovery of his directorial efforts and offering a comprehensive overview of his career.”

2023 marks the 70th anniversary of beloved Italian actor and director Massimo Troisi’s birth. Troisi sadly passed away at the age of 41, hours after completing the shoot of Il Postino, the Oscar-winning 1994 drama that would become his biggest global hit. But throughout the 1980s, the Neapolitan star had already established himself as a notable director who enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial success, even though those achievements never really found a footing outside Italy. In Somebody Down There Likes Me (Laggiù Qualcuno Mi Ama), prolific filmmaker Mario Martone presents a respectful and affectionate portrait of Troisi, making an argument for the rediscovery of his directorial efforts and offering a comprehensive overview of his career.

Martone has become a regular in prestigious festivals like Venice and Cannes in recent years, having competed for the Golden Palm just a few months ago with the stylish homecoming tale Nostalgia (2022). The director’s considerable pedigree can propel this affecting, but relatively straightforward documentary to further festival play. The long list of famous contributors, including Paolo Sorrentino (who appears as an interview participant), Isabella Rossellini (featured in archival footage from a television program), and multiple celebrated actors like Pierfrancesco Favino, Silvio Orlando, and Toni Servillo (all of whom lend their voices to Troisi’s writings) will be another major selling point. While the film lacks a distinctive touch and runs a bit too long at well over two hours, the involvement of all these significant names should appeal to all cinephiles regardless of their prior exposure to Troisi’s cinema.

Martone’s approach is notable for avoiding the standard biographical template and focusing solely on Troisi’s professional life. In an interview with Anna Pavignano (who co-wrote many of Troisi’s films and was romantically involved with him for a period), Martone himself explicitly says that he is not interested in personal details and inquires to learn more about the couple’s screenwriting collaborations. He refers to the French New Wave (Francois Truffaut in particular) to find a point of reference for Troisi’s directing style, offering a mixed bag of observations. Antoine Doinel may indeed be a relevant model for Troisi’s on-screen persona, but other comparisons about scenes where characters simply run or talk to their mirror reflections seem less specific, and therefore not terribly convincing. The bulk of Somebody Down There Likes Me is devoted to extensive clips from Troisi’s films, which is especially useful for audiences who may not be already familiar with his work. Newly-conducted interviews also revolve around his career rather than his personality or background, with participants talking at length about Troisi’s theatre days, television projects, and feature films. The parts about theatre include interesting connections with Martone’s own films, considering how other major figures of Italian theatre like Eduardo Scarpetta and Eduardo de Filippo informed recent Venice competition titles like The King of Laughter (Qui Rico Io, 2021) and The Mayor of Rione Sanità (Il Sindaco del Rione Sanità, 2019) directed by Martone.

The other key figure that looms large over the documentary is master filmmaker Ettore Scola, who directed Troisi in some of his best screen roles. Excerpts from Scola’s films are used frequently (including the opening scene of the film) with the director himself making an appearance in an archival interview. This is particularly significant because one of the main arguments in Martone’s account of Troisi’s career is that the actor was able to develop a consistent screen image not only in the films he wrote and directed himself, but also through his appearances in films by other directors. Martone does a very good job in depicting what that signature Troisi style really entailed, emphasizing how Troisi’s humanist comedies combined clever humor with wise commentary on a range of topics such as relationships between men and women, Italian politics, and mortality. Pavignano’s contributions are highlighted for bringing a female perspective to Troisi’s films, his involvement in politics is mentioned several times, and an early television film about his own death is brought up to identify a recurring theme in his work. More peculiar motifs are also singled out, such as how Troisi’s characters often put their hands on their eyebrows as an indication of reluctance. What emerges from all this material is a nicely-rounded, illuminating portrait of an artist who is fondly remembered in his country and deserves to be rediscovered elsewhere.

Somebody Down There Likes Me clearly reflects Martone’s deep admiration and appreciation for Troisi. While this may result in a modest documentary that is a tad too reverent towards its subject, it does feel like an apt strategy for a film about Troisi. As expressed in many interviews throughout the film, Troisi’s cinema left a lasting impression through both its influence on many prominent Italian directors and its popularity among common viewers in Naples and beyond. Martone’s loving portrait marks a valuable addition to this rich legacy.

(c) Image copyright: Fabrizio di Giulio