Locarno 2022 review: Il pataffio (Francesco Lagi)

“Eccentric characters and bizarre situations, combined with a few meaningful, tender moments peppered in between the absurdity, lead to a multi-layered comedy that proves to be both extraordinarily creative, and deeply enticing.”

“You promised me a fiefdom, but you gave me a land of misery.”

In nearly any other film, these words would occur at a climactic moment that aims to highlight the tension underpinning a melodramatic scene. However, under the direction of Francesco Lagi, it is played for laughs, in one of the countless hilarious scenes of Il pataffio, his offbeat historical comedy that offers an alternative view of the Middle Ages and of people who lived through some challenging circumstances. Telling the story of a nobleman who has recently acquired a castle and its surrounding land as part of a marital dowry, the film is a fascinating account of the past, carefully curated by a director whose deep interest in this subject matter is only matched by his irreverent sense of humor. Compelled by the intention to prove that the past was not nearly as elegant and refined as our history books have made it seem, Il pataffio manages to be both sophisticated and bawdy. The off-the-wall dark comedy is populated by a motley crew of eccentric individuals that form the foundation for this fascinating character study, which flourishes into one of the most creatively deranged social and historical satires of recent years.

Looking at the subject matter, one could argue that the director could have just as easily made a serious drama, but instead chose to go with something that was more entertaining on a tonal level, a smart decision that ultimately works in the film’s favour. Il pataffio captures a universal kind of humor, consisting of a bespoke blend of outrageous slapstick and darkly comical satirizing of the past, which should resonate with a broad audience since this kind of comedy transcends geographical boundaries, granted the viewer has the sense of humor necessary to enjoy the film. Lagi is focused on showcasing a more outrageous side of Italian history, and while the film is undeniably heightened in tone, constructing it as an offbeat comedy more than a straightforward period drama helps underline many of the more notable peculiarities that simmer beneath the surface. Yet, even at its most outrageous, the film does not go too far – it pushes boundaries of good taste and decency, but is rarely vulgar (unless crudeness serves a deeper purpose in terms of the narrative), and its irreverent, unconventional humor is used well, never resorting to excess in situations where it does not progress the plot and the general intentions of the film. Il pataffio is a concise example of using humor as an artistic tool, and Lagi proves his mettle as an exciting voice in contemporary European cinema purely through how he handles the absurdity of this story with a distinct fusion of humor and pathos.

Therefore, as hilarious as the humor that defines Il pataffio may be, there is method to the madness, and the director ensures that he is not simply constructing a series of outrageous scenarios for the sake of evoking laughter, but also provoking some thought in the process. Arguably, we do not venture into a film like this expecting much nuance, but Lagi still finds the time to develop some slightly deeper themes throughout the narrative. This primarily manifests in how the film is based around the concept of desire, which appears in various forms. There are those very obvious allusions to carnal cravings of the flesh (with the film often skirting narrowly around becoming a crude sex comedy in certain scenes). These allusions then contrast with the more abstract and socially mediated theme of the lust for power and influence, which is how the film manages to tie itself together, being anchored in a recognizable conceptual space. The general thesis of Il pataffio is that even the most sophisticated people possess some degree of savagery, and that regardless of one’s stature within society, there is an inherent barbarism that propels many to challenge the status quo in favour of their own desires. An intricate knowledge of medieval feudalism or archaic Italian economic policy is not required to fully understand the scope of this film, nor is it needed to fully enjoy this peculiar and captivating comedy, which uses unusual comedic tactics to convey a particular message, delivered without any semblance of overwrought posturing.

Not many films achieve what is done by Il pataffio, since this is quite an unorthodox film, at least in terms of the general approach it takes to a relatively simple story. It could have been a more traditional period drama, but was instead filtered through layers of off-kilter comedy to become something unique. The attention to detail immerses us in this era, not only visually in terms of the production design and costuming, but also in how the characters speak, with the conversations being enormously fascinating to anyone with an active interest in language and how it has evolved. Ultimately, what Lagi seems to be aiming for here is to boldly state that artistic attempts to revisit the past do not need to be dour and academic, and some well-placed humor can go a long way to providing context and detail to an otherwise simple story. Eccentric characters and bizarre situations, combined with a few meaningful, tender moments peppered in between the absurdity, lead to a multi-layered comedy that proves to be both extraordinarily creative, and deeply enticing as a carnivalesque celebration of human debauchery, past and present.