Rome-born Carlo Verdone is one of Italy’s most renowned film comedians. For decades he shared the national limelight with Roberto Benigni and the late Massimo Troisi, considered the country’s younger comedic big three for much of the 1980s and 90s.
Verdone’s brand of doubt-ridden, self-deprecating romantic humor followed in the tradition of Alberto Sordi, Rome’s most beloved postwar comedian. Both relied on Roman dialect, elaborate mix-ups and sexual innuendo to help fuel their gags. Through caricature and affectation, they also poked fun at the pretenses of education, position and class.
Verdone’s breakthrough came with the romantic comedy “Borotalco” in 1982 about a stressed-out encyclopedia salesman who steals a rock star’s identity to woo a woman with whom he’s become smitten.
Verdone’s character, Sergio Benvenuti, is typical of the fake-macho Verdone man: neurotic, insecure, narcissistic, and hopelessly romantic. The film was a massive hit, winning local awards and cementing Verdone’s artistic status.
Born in 1950, he got his introduction to film early on. His father taught film history at Rome’s La Sapienza University and co-ran the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (CSC), a hangout for neo-realistic writers and directors. But Mario Verdone’s movie tastes were more eclectic, and his son benefited.
“I remember I really liked Westerns with John Wayne, Glenn Ford, Henry Fonda, Walter Brennan,” says Carlo. “I especially liked John Ford as a director. And Jerry Lewis. I went to see all of Jerry Lewis’ films. He was the only one that made me really laugh.”
At 18, he began studying at CSC and joined a “cineclub,” a kind of film study group that met regularly to watch and discuss movies. He “discovered the importance of Sordi, Totò, Federico Fellini and Rossellini,” who also taught him at CSC. “The best Italian comedy was in black and white,” he says.
His acting and directing debut came in 1980, with “Un Sacco Bello,” in which he played three roles: a bully, a hippy, and a nerd. He returned to these boorish if good-hearted stereotypes in his later work. In the 1996 “Sono pazzo di Iris Blond,” Verdone introduced a new theme, midlife crisis. According to The New York Times, the film mixed “well-acted comedy, stylish pop music and an informed eye for the promises and perils of romance.” In all, Verdone has directed 23 films and acted in more than 30.
Verdone is also a dedicated rock music fan. Musical subplots have helped propel some of his films. An avid drummer, Verdone often spends evenings playing the blues with friends and his son Paolo, a budding guitarist (“He has a good, clean style, like Eric Clapton,” Verdone says.) He’s also busy filming his new film “Io, Loro e Lara” — “I play a priest who’s going through a spiritual crisis.”
Verdone lives in Rome’s verdant Monteverde neighborhood, where orange trees he planted grow on a penthouse terrace. He met recently with Katie McGovern. These are excerpts from their conversation.
What do you most love about Rome and what makes you crazy?
When I was 10, at the end of 1950s and the beginning of 1960s, I really loved Rome. There was respect. Respect for the streets, for the environment. That doesn’t exist anymore. I live here in this beautiful apartment with a big terrace and I see my city from above. It always looks beautiful from above. But when you get down to details, unfortunately…
There’s underlying melancholy in your films. What’s the trick to make discontent funny?
I use irony as much as possible to explain human discomfort — whether the problems are in romance, relationships with our children, friends and our own neuroses. I narrate fragility, small and large. It’s hard work these days. The wish to see things ironically doesn’t always work. You’re tempted to do something tougher and controversial. That’s because we’re living in a time that lacks ethics and morality, not just in Italy. It’s a confusing time, neither beautiful nor charming. Look at stock markets and governments. The late Sixties dream that I lived, which began with Woodstock, lasted only a few years.
Italian director and satirist Nanni Moretti, has focused on political films. Would that interest you?
Moretti couldn’t do a political film today. The left has ceased to exist in Italy. Who would he write the film for? His niche? Though my material isn’t militant or political, I share his [political] views. But my sense is that there’s no audience for Moretti’s kind of cinematic discourse. The young have been anesthetized by the banalities of commercial TV.
So you’re disenchanted with politicians?
They’re unprepared. Veltroni and D’Alema didn’t even go to college [Editor’s note: Former Democratic Party chief Walter Veltroni and former Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema skipped college to join the the Italian Communist Party youth organization]. You’d think graduating from college would be the minimum. You need a college degree to work at ENEL or ACEA [Italy’s gas and electric utilities companies], but not to govern the country, which is absurd. Sure, the president of the republic has a college degree, but most other politicians don’t. There are too many old politicians in charge. It’s a big family of elders, a kind of oligarchy.
But does that have a direct effect on the country?
Italy is feudal and fractured. Citizens refer to politicians in local terms. The North reasons one way, the Center in another, and the South in yet another. From Naples southward, people drive mopeds without helmets, which is illegal. In Rome, you’ll probably be fined. In Milan, where things are tougher, you’ll definitely be fined. It’s a silly example, I know, but it does give you an idea of the way behavior and rules are not perceived in a uniform way.
Could an Obama-like figure ever win in Italy?
No. A black man couldn’t win in Italy. There’s still no strong Afro-Italian culture. There can be a black TV news reporter but not a politician. We all look favorably on Obama, but we wouldn’t ever have the courage to do something like electing him. Obama is educated, cultured, prepared, went to Harvard, worked his way up.
Women in Italian film and TV are often objectified. What accounts for it?
That’s Berlusconi-era television. It’s ratings. Our TV is very superficial. It lacks style and class. You’ll ask, “How is it possible that a Catholic city with the pope and St. Peter’s is the capital of the most immoral country in the world?” These are Italy’s contradictions. In forgiving everything, you forgive this, too. The key to Catholicism is that you’re always forgiven.
How powerful is the concept of la mamma in Rome and Italian life? It seems Italy is among the few countries where the mother figure is comic or tragic but little in between. La mamma is very important when children don’t grow up. And since Italian children don’t grow up, mothers are very important. The number of 30 and 40-year-olds who get separated and divorced and go back to live with their mothers is increasing. Look at the shape of Saint Peter’s Square. It’s like a big hug, the mother and the church embracing you.
What’s a typical Rome day for you?
I’d go to my favorite bar in Monteverde Vecchio for breakfast, stop by to look at new CDs and DVDs, new and old movies, films on rock concerts. Then I’d head for Feltrinelli and check out new books. I’d also go to my barber to get my hair trimmed. I like shopping, but never in the center or near Via del Corso, which would be a disaster and a problem for me. I try to go other places where there aren’t many people. Or take my Lotus for a drive in the countryside. I’m happy driving through the hills… or when I play my drums.
How do you feel about getting older? Does it change your approach to roles?
I do what I can do with the “mask” that I have now. Certainly, I had more possibilities before. But that doesn’t mean the films come out less well. My gift is that I can also direct. So, in five years, say, I could decide to stop acting and get behind the camera. It wouldn’t be traumatic. I’m just not used to thinking pessimistically. I try to live well. I’ve never been depressed. I was anxious in my early years, but not anymore — which is too bad in a way, because a bit of anxiety gives you that something extra.
Have you ever experienced stage fright?
In the beginning, sure, obviously. If you don’t have a little stage fright, your performance suffers. The only time I was completely sure of myself I messed up. I was really calm, and I made a mistake. At the beginning of a film you need a little fear, without being panicked. No fear and you can’t bring tension to the role.
You’ve said that 60 percent of your acting is improvised. Is that more natural to you?
To improvise, you need to be ready and you have to have talent. In recent years, I have tried to rehearse as little as possible, because it makes my acting more natural and spontaneous. But you do this only when have you enough experience and security.
Do your actors also improvise?
No. When I see an actor that doesn’t understand what I have in mind, I show them how I want the scene done by playing that role. By the end, the crew has seen me in all the roles.
Do you like watching your own movies?
When we promote the film, I see it twice with an audience, and that’s it. Time is the best judge of what you’ve done. Some things that an audience didn’t pay much attention to acquire value over time. They take on a different dimension. Same with what you thought was powerful. Perspective changes. Time lets me judge my films better.
Have you noticed people’s taste in laughter changing? If so, do you adjust to the audience?
I have to do what I know how to do. I generally don’t bend in an effort to follow trends in audience taste. I have to do that a little, because the audience is buying the tickets. But it has to be the right compromise. I have to do something that I really feel. I don’t want to do stupid films. Movie audiences are dropping, in both numbers and taste. Again, you can thank horrible television.
Given the choice of Charlie Chaplin, Totò and Rowan Atkinson [Mr. Bean] to sit down and discus comedy, who would you pick?
Charlie Chaplin. He’s superior to all of them hands down. My sense is that he was probably very melancholy, reserved, and closed off, like most great comic actors.
So the comedian is not a comedian at home?
Private life is a separate realm. It’s a law of physics. For all actions there is an equal and opposite reaction. When people meet me, they say, “But you are not like you are in your films.” I don’t continue to be an actor inside my house.
Do you watch comedy — Woody Allen, say — to get ideas of what works and doesn’t?
I like him as a director. He’s very good, especially from a purely theatrical standpoint. He directs very simply, he’s tasteful. I just don’t want to see him kissing the girl.
What makes you laugh these days?
Nothing. Unfortunately, nothing. I’d have to see a film by someone who brings back aspects of the past. I’m exasperated by what I see in my country, politically-speaking. I have to work hard to make people laugh.
How do you select your film soundtracks, given your affinity for music?
The composer who works in my films doesn’t have much freedom. I have a strong musical culture and before filming I usually point out sections and say, “Work on this.” I have him listen to something experimental — never commercial. I might suggest music comparable to work by [composers] David Sylvian, Scott Walker, Thomas Newman [“Revolutionary Road”] and Mark Isham [“Bobby”]. I like to collaborate 50 percent with the musician.
Do you have a pace when it comes to filmmaking? Where do the ideas come from?
I write a film every 18 months, more or less. Which is pretty hard. I only take a month of vacation.
As for my ideas, they come from my life. All you need is the power of observation… or the power to listen to other people’s stories… or even just reading a newspaper article or seeing a TV report. The key is being curious about reality. When you stop being curious, you’re done.
Who gives you feedback?
The producer first. I also trust my children, who are very modern, and my ex-wife with whom I have a good relationship and who’s very objective. They aren’t my fans. They always want me to do better and judge me in a no-nonsense way.