New Yorker Films // 1998 // 128 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // April 14th, 2004
Giovanni arrives in Turin from Sicily to live and work with his younger brother Pietro, who is studying in the "big city." At first, the older sibling finds the metropolis dark and foreboding, more than happy to swallow up "southerners" for the sake of cheap labor. But this poor illiterate worker has great plans. He wants to make sure his little brother gets a good education and becomes a teacher. But Pietro is too lost in his own daydreams and dispirited behavior to pay attention to his studies.
As the years go by, Giovanni rises from garbage man to construction worker to head of a job-hunting cooperative. For Pietro, the years contain disappointment, deception, and eventual disappearance. But when the brothers finally get back together, things seem to be looking up. Giovanni is now a power broker in Turin, respected...and feared. Pietro, with the help of a hired tutor, has aced his undergraduate work and has his sights set on that hoped-for educator's position...or perhaps, the priesthood. But the celebratory events of one dark June evening change each brother's life forever. For Pietro, the sacrifice will be enormous and devastating. For Giovanni, the alteration is far subtler. While they remain family, the bond becomes less about love or loyalty and more about legalities. Things will never be the same between the two. As time moves on, they will find it more and more difficult to remember the good times. It will be harder for each to remind the other of "The Way We Laughed."
Some scholar once said that a movie (or novel) that uses a gimmick as a means of setting out its storytelling has nothing much to say except how clever its conceit supposedly is. If you buy into such narrative bribery and presentational prestidigitation, you'll gladly go along with whatever is offered. Well, The Way We Laughed attempts such a cinematic trick of storyline legerdemain. Divided into six parts by dates (January 20, 1958; February 7, 1959; October 10, 1960; April 7, 1961; June 29, 1962; and July 5, 1964) and subtitles (Arrival; Deceptions; Money; Letters; Blood; Families), the film wants to use this sectioning to keep its otherwise rambling narrative in thematic focus. What this means, unfortunately, is that sense and sensibility are sacrificed for the sake of a mood, a minor issue, or a feeling.
The basic parameters of the tale are as simple as they are symbolic. Pietro is the young intellectual whom the family has sent off to be educated. Giovanni is the stubborn, strong laboring older brother, sturdy but illiterate. By the end, we see how even the most learned man can come undone, while the lack of formalized instruction can never hurt the hard worker with an eye for power. Whether it's fate, or luck, or just the manner in which each man reacts to the world around him, Pietro seems destined to fall the higher he reaches, while prosperity blossoms unchecked in the manure-filled fortunes of Giovanni. If this all sounds very dramatic and dynamic to you, then you are obviously reading something into the words presented here. The Way We Laughed is, in actuality, a rambling, occasionally incoherent mess that never fully takes its time to establish its characters before walking them through another of its sextet of situations.
Arrival sets up the strange circumstances here. Avoiding his brother at the train station, Pietro offers to help another illiterate clan find their way and purposely misguides them through Turin to a piazza in the middle of nowhere. Giovanni's faith in his fey family member is so naïve and innocent that the resulting adoration is painful. But by the time we reach Deceptions, we learn the real truth. Pietro hates school and is more than happy to skip out to spend his days dreaming. Giovanni, on the other hand, will work overtime in the rain for little or no cash to, hopefully, guarantee his brother's continued classwork. At this point, The Way We Laughed appears about ready to reach some manner of first act epiphany, to construct a way in which all this hero/zero worship makes sense. But just like Pietro and his studies, the film ditches us.
Money suddenly steps in and confuses everything (as does an awkward moment in a fancy restaurant). The believability gap grows even wider in Letters. Pietro has run away and Giovanni is so grief-stricken, he wanders the streets like a beggar in bondage, rambling insane, incoherent love for his brother. What a difference a subsection makes, as Blood turns up to spin everything around on its arch axis. This is the sequence in The Way We Laughed were you either say, "Okay, I'm with you," or you toss aside the DVD remote in disgust. Without spoiling the surprise, Giovanni lets his brother take the blame for something he did. Fade Out. Enter new segment and Giovanni is now happier and more secure than ever. Huh? The relative he reveres like a god is supposed to suffer for him? Huh? Families fleshes out this finale without ever explaining a thing, then tosses the bambino out with the balderdash water to really sink this film once and for all.
Yes, it's this twist near the end that really destroys The Way We Laughed. Prior to this lamentable decision by the director, we could almost buy into the changes each brother is experiencing: the success (either through perseverance or the perversion of power), the greed and the need for love and acceptance. But by turning Pietro into all he has fought to avoid, and Giovanni into everything he wasn't, the narrative bamboozles us. It realizes that for almost 80 minutes it has messed around with motive and meanings, beating around the cinematic bushes in little mini-movements of movie, hoping to avoid reaching a real point. Bereft of ideas and hemmed in by the meandering in the film to this point, director Gianni Amelio aims for the cheap seats and plants one square in the cliché for everyone to gawk it. The events of that one fateful night single-handedly undo all that came before, turning each brother into a bold-faced liar, a situational ethicist, and a predetermined pawn in the other's hoax. As we sit through the glorious, sun-drenched family christening, Giovanni and Pietro are now virtual strangers linked only by the sanguinity of the aforementioned section (and said installment's actions). But that is not good enough. This couldn't have been the point behind all the mafia don leanings given to Gio, or the smart-aleck antisocial stances of Pete. Indeed, The Way We Laughed has never set us up for what happens in its final act. As a result, the cheat feels that much more forced, and the divisional character of the film that much more flimsy. While not a bad movie by any standards (both the acting and the directing have their magical moments), it's the lamentable decision to parcel out this story and dodge the dramatic bullets it created that leaves The Way We Laughed feeling more like the time you cried.
New Yorker Video gives this ambitious misfire a nice DVD presentation. The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is clean and clear, but only when the movie stays in the light. The minute we move into the dark underworld of Giovanni's "business" and the nighttime scenes of city walks, there is telltale haloing and the perception of edge enhancement everywhere. With the lack of really resonate blacks and some obvious source soil, the visuals here are viable but far from pristine. The aural issues here are far less severe. While one can gauge a tiny bit of tinniness in the scoring, the dialogue is always understandable (with an assist from the subtitles) and easy to hear. Though presented in Dolby Digital Surround, there aren't many frequency fireworks to launch your channels into full sonic superiority. The same can be said for the extras. A few trailers, a photo album and a poster gallery are not really anything that special. Adding an "Easter egg"-style link to other New Yorker Video ads seems a poor reward for remote surfing.
Indeed, a lot of The Way We Laughed is much ado about something aggravating. If director Amelio had just told a straightforward story, peppering his plot with little detailed comic asides, he could have had something formulaic, but successful. Here, all his experimentation adds up to exasperation. The Way We Laughed is jumbled, puzzling filmmaking at its most weak and mysterious. And the pieces never fit right.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Italian)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Photo Album
* Poster Gallery