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Massimo Troisi: Neapolitan Cultural and Linguistic Revolution

“Troisi is universal; we are all a bit Troisi.”

If Maradona had been born in San Giorgio a Cremano, he would have been the Massimo Troisi of soccer. He would have been even more a hero of Campania, belonging to those colors by birth, and his way of playing would have been no less acclaimed. We would not have said about him that he was the expression of Neapolitan soccer, but simply that he was the expression of soccer. In the same way, it is said that actor, director and screenwriter Massimo Troisi told the story of Naples in the 80s, and it is true. But in reality, he did not only tell the story of Naples, nor only of his generation. Massimo Troisi started from Naples at a difficult time (perhaps at a turning point in its history) and exported to the rest of Italy something that had never before been staged, something that many felt represented by. His style was an innovation, above all a cultural one. He showed a Neapolitan protagonist different from the stereotypes: shy, but still witty; often impatient, but also overwhelmed by events and unable to make decisions; crossed by a thousand doubts, the same ones we still have today. 

His strength as an actor and a director was that of not looking for the difficult, the abnormal or the exaggerated, but of bringing to the big screen the normal, the sober everyday life. In those on-screen moments, Troisi became all of us. All of us who stutter during an important speech or who abruptly interrupt one sentence to start another. All of us who struggle to find the right words and go searching for them with our eyes and our hands. In the 80s, it was common opinion that his cinema told the reality of young people in Campania better than many documentaries. He could have spoken of Turin, Umbria or Calabria: his message would have arrived with the same intensity, because the feelings he brought to the stage were (and still are) shared by many young Italians. 

Massimo Troisi doesn’t look like he’s acting. His dynamic language, fragmented by pauses and stuttering, is spontaneous: it is ours. It is the language of those who discuss with friends, with colleagues or with partners every day. It is a language of silences and gestures, of unmistakable expressions and cumbersome reflections on the meaning of life. Even the themes that he tackles have been topical for 40 years: love, work and the lack thereof, the incommunicability of feelings, the difficulties in emancipation and personal fulfillment. Troisi is universal; we are all a bit Troisi.

Massimo Troisi also revolutionized the perception of Naples in mass culture, shattering the commonplace with the sagacious.

“I am marginalized twice. Because when people know you’re Neapolitan, they are prejudiced because they think you’re being cunning, that you want to take advantage. But if you’re Neapolitan and also shy, and you keep to yourself, then you really disappear!”

He joked about the contradictions of Italians, exposing himself with lightness and acumen on thorny issues from faith to politics. He joked about the untouchable San Gennaro and the Annunciation in the famous comic sketch with the trio La Smorfia, and the tears of the Madonna in Scusate il ritardo. He hit fascism in Le vie del Signore sono finite, ex-Italian president Sandro Pertini in Morto Troisi, viva Troisi!, and even U.S. foreign policy in an interview for a televsion show hosted by Pippo Baudo.

Troisi also redeemed Neapolitan as a dialect, spreading it everywhere, as his great friend Pino Daniele, a Neapolitan singer-songwriter, did for music. “I think, I dream in Neapolitan. When I speak in Italian I feel like I’m being fake,” Troisi said. Maybe that’s why he never seemed to act. “I make an effort to speak Italian, so you make an effort to understand Neapolitan!”

This choice of language, especially at the beginning of his career, was strong, daring. In a historical moment when dialectal expressions were becoming less and less used in cinema, he risked limiting his audience. Instead, he succeeded in making Neapolitan a popular language, comprehensible to everyone despite its geographical connotations. In cinema, theater and TV, he was expressive through more than just language: from his voice to his gaze, from his movements to the way he speaks, to his magniloquent face. For this reason, his language is unbeatable and universal, even when dialectal. Even though he lent his voice to a version of the song “Saglie, Saglie” by Pino Daniele, Troisi was never one of those performers who could have made the most of it through music or audio material. His voice was unmistakable, but it could in no way be detached from his image. It was part of an indissoluble whole, unique in the cinematographic and theatrical panorama. 

The music for three of Troisi’s films was born from the collaboration with Pino Daniele, as well as the piece “’O ssaje comme fa ‘o core”, with which the singer-songwriter set a beautiful poem of Troisi’s to music. Interviewed on TV by Gianni Minà, Troisi commented on their artistic partnership: “He makes the songs, then he calls me and says ‘Will you make me the movie?’ […]. And we’ve been going on like this for years. He makes the songs and I make the movies around them.”

They called him the “comedian of feelings”, but not even this definition encapsulates who he was. For Troisi, the role of comedian sounds rather reductive–as it would for Alberto Sordi or Paolo Villaggio, just to name two who, like him, knew how to make people laugh and move with the same intensity.

“I’ve accomplished three things in my life, why should I start again from scratch? I want to start from three!”

Massimo Troisi’s comedy was far beyond that of his time. Today, 40 years later, it’s still not outdated. He knew how to identify human weaknesses and quirks, even the smallest ones and the uncertainties that are taken for granted, and he knew how to joke about them. He had the ability–this one all Campanian–to not take himself too seriously, but to always manage to tell it like it is. Perhaps we should all learn to be little Troisis who don’t take ourselves too seriously, who use sarcasm, who always have a smile on our faces, trying to go on.