Katrin Talks to Mario Merola
This interview was first published in Katrin magazine No. 54 October 1979. It is reproduced here translated from the original Italian text.
Love will always be in fashion:
An interview with Mario Merola – Rome: October
For a number of years there has been a phenomenon that has interested both sociologists and the art house crowd in the world of the cinema.
While successful characters like Renato Zero and Amanda Lear, actors deeply rooted in costume drama, return to the fashion of the ‘Sceneggiata’ (see notes), a genre born out of the theatre of the ‘café chantant’. The ‘Sceneggiata’ is a representation of an ancient Neapolitan song in a particular form, where song and recital were founded. It also presents themes of reality, the sceneggiata usually recount stories of love and death which stem from crimes of honour, jealousy and passionate follies.
The most noted interpreter of this musical genre is Mario Merola who last year, with “Zappatore”, managed to affirm himself in the North of Italy where his film broke box-office records. But this is not enough; the popular ‘guappo’ from the sceneggiata is the star of two films centred on the Camorra in Naples. “L’ultimo guappo” and “Il mammasantissima” which have been appreciated by even the toughest of critics. The sceneggiata therefore, isn’t an outdated form, but can also draw in the attention of younger audiences, albeit with some reservations.
Corpulent, sympathetic, with the air of a successful man, Mario Merola is a singular personality who is worth getting to know, even if his records probably won’t get played on the hit parade. A man like this doesn’t need to explain himself in intellectual circles, as many critics have tried to do. According to us, to comprehend the world of the ‘king’, who faithfully respects the spirit of the sceneggiata; it’s better to just listen to him. Here is how he responded to our questions:
Do you think the sceneggiata is a genre which has superseded the theatre?
Merola : Are you kidding? People run to see my films all over Italy, this means they like sceneggiata . On the stage people still act out stories of love and death which will never fall out of fashion. The sceneggiata is life: You just have to turn the pages in a newspaper and read the crime reports to realise this is reality. Men who kill their rivals out of jealousy, women being cheated, injustices left unpunished. I am not an intellectual. I speak with a Neapolitan dialect, but I understand “Pammore” (amore/love) is an eternal sentiment that can push us to commit foolish actions. I don’t know how to say it in English, but I think the person who wrote ‘Romeo and Juliet’ also thought like me.
Apart from love, what other themes occur in sceneggiata?
Merola: My films also talk about important social problems, like the drama of the immigrants living in strange countries who cannot adapt the problem of the exploitation of prostitution, contraband and violence in general. Too often, and in particular in the south, there is born a disinterest and ignorance.
You speak well for someone who doesn’t consider themselves an intellectual.
Merola: I am not an intellectual, but I am also not stupid. I didn’t go to university, but I went around the world and I learnt many things from experience that are worth far more than hundred thousand books. Sure, I’ve walked a long path! When I was a boy I used to load up the ships at the port. I remember, I used to wash the hold and I saw the world from reverse while I swabbed the decks. I was so poor I was engaged to my wife for thirteen years.
How did you become successful?
Merola: I knew how to sing, so, one day, I built up the courage and presented myself to an impresario. I re-launched the sceneggiata with a song called “A ciurara” (La Fioraia/The Florist) It was appreciated straight away, without any false modesty I think I know why. On the stage I live the emotions of my characters. The tears that come out are real and so pure and so authentic the emotions I feel in certain moments. I give my audience all of myself.
Do you appreciate your Neapolitan colleagues who don’t work in the same genre, like Peppino Di Capri and Massimo Ranieri?
Merola: Yes, but they don’t seem to express the true Neapolitan spirit. They follow the trends and are successful. I am happy for them. I am close to Ranieri because I’ve known him since he was a little boy. He comes from a poor family and he would often come and eat in our home. When I got married he gave a (wedding) packet to my wife. Even Ranieri has tackled the sceneggiata in “Napoli notte e giorno (Naples night and day) for Viviani and the director Patroni Griffi. They were all good but Naples is something else.
Who is the most extraordinary person you have met in your career?
Merola: I remember, with some emotion, my meeting with Toto. He came to assist my production and then he came home with me, begging me to sing my songs for him in private. He was a good man, aside from being a great artist.
What do you think of Sofia Loren, another celebrity from Naples?
Merola: To be honest, Sofia Loren was born in Pozzuoli. However, it is around these parts. What can I say? She’s a great woman.
Do you like young women?
Merola: You should ask them yourself! However, many of them come to see my films. A girl told me once; “Mario…” She said, “To get to the theatre, I had to pawn my gold bracelet because I didn’t have enough money to pay for the ticket.”
What do you think of feminism?
Merola: I mind my own business, and I don’t criticise others. In my mind, however, men and women are different and they can’t exchange ideas, let alone clothes.
Are you knocking women wearing trousers?
Merola: If a woman is beautiful, then she’s beautiful even with tights, but I prefer skirts. If she has good legs then they should be covered up. In Naples they say “A roba bella s’ha da fa’ vedere” (Good things don’t need to be seen…)
Don’t you feel a little old fashioned?
Merola: No, I live a happy life with my wife and our children. We have six in all because I adopted three orphans. My films are successful and I travel the world always collecting new experiences. I don’t feel like I am living the life of an old man.
Could you allow us one indiscretion: Are you a faithful man?
Merola: Certain questions shouldn’t be asked to a married man.
Would you forgive your wife if she betrayed you physically or spiritually?
Merola: Absolutely not. I believe in absolute faith. I don’t make a distinction between the physical and the spiritual. There’s no point talking about it, it’s all just talk.
(Translated exclusively for lovelockandload by ‘The Weeble that wobbled and fell down’ 16th August 2008)
*Notes explaining the ‘sceneggiata’ – excerpt from ‘Crime Naples Style: The Guapparia Movie’ by Roberto Curti, the full text of which can be found at the link at the bottom of the page.
The roots of the new hybrid (which could be roughly translated as “guapparia movie”) lie in the so-called “sceneggiata”, a form of play that belongs in the Neapolitan tradition and is characterized by a strong melodramatic component as well as a tragic fatalism: both lead to a final, emotionally powerful catharsis. Songs are an integral and binding part of “sceneggiata,” and constellate the narration in its various parts, while the social environment in which stories take place is that of the “guapparia,” the Neapolitan underworld. The hero is the “guappo,” a good gangster with strong moral values (family and honor) while the villain (“’o malamente” – literally “he who [acts] badly”) is a grim, unfair adversary who tries to seduce the protagonist’s woman or to soil his reputation. “Sceneggiata” is an enclosed universe, where love and hate seem to be part of a natural order not unlike life and death: always absolute, complete, desperate.