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Mario Martone's biographical film about the early 19th century poet, philosopher and philologist Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is handsomely shot with lovely period detail and good performances based around an intriguing central character. Highly regarded as a major literary figure in Italy, Leopardi is however not as well-known elsewhere and if you're not familiar with the philosopher, Il Giovane Favoloso doesn't give you much more than a broad sense of the nature of his ideas and his writing and little sense of the scale or importance of his achievements. It does however give a compelling portrait of the man.
In the broader sense of the nature of Leopardi's poems and philosophy however, you certainly get the impression that it's deeply pessimistic, pondering the nature of living, love and death with a wistful melancholic tone, if not even rather grim and bleak in its outlook. Although Leopardi denies it in the film, some part of that outlook must derive from or be in reaction to his upbringing and the ill health he suffered all of his life. Il Giovane Favoloso shows the strict upbringing endured by Giacomo and his sister under their father in the reactionary environment of Reconati in the Papal States, where ideas of liberty and progressiveness that were being explored in the rest of Italy were not encouraged.
In such a restrictive environment, denied any contact with unwelcome outside influences and even the possibility of any close personal or romantic relationships - although Giacomo's self-conscious of his own physical shortcomings don't make such matters any easier - it's no wonder that Giacomo's youthful writings and poems, expressed in his 'Small Moral Works' display such a negative view of the world and the nature of mankind. Even when he finally breaks away from his father's influence, inspired by Pietro Giordani and striking up a friendship with Antonio Ranieri, Leopardi's unconventional views may be widely admired, but prove to be far too bleak and despondent for academic circles seeking to promote a more optimistic view that contributes to the betterment of mankind.
Travelling to Florence, and then to Rome and eventually Naples certainly broadens Leopardi's views, but the world for him still remains a hostile place full of anguish. Even falling in love only causes him more pain, his failing health and increasing deformity ruling out any possibility of a romantic attachment. Martone brilliantly captures a sense of Leopardi's Romantic inclinations as well as his darker perspective in a few brief fantasy-like dream scenes, and particularly has a real feel for his own home town of Naples, full of life, death misery and fervour, but stricken by cholera during this period. It's near the slopes of Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii, shortly before the poet's death, that the director captures best this sense of life and works coming together in Leopardi's concluding meditation on the destiny of man in 'La ginestra'.
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