It is futile but understandable to speculate how the career might have turned out of one who died much too young. The Neapolitan papers this week spent some time doing that, true, but generally just paid heartfelt tribute to Massimo Troisi, from San Giorgio (near Naples), who died in 1994 but who, this week, would have turned 50.
Troisi made his first film, in 1981, Ricomincio da tre (a pun on the expression Ricomincio da zero —I'm starting over— (thus, roughly, I'm Starting Over Somewhere in the Middle), and his last film, shortly before his death, Il Postino (The Postman, probably his best-known film abroad. (Photo, left). Perhaps only Roberto Benigni, among recent Italian comics, strikes you the same way Troisi does, as having that quality of comic genius worthy of mentioning in the same breath as the great Totò. (Benigni and Troisi appear in one film together, in 1984: Non ci resta che piangere (There's nothing left to do but cry) where they are transported in time back to the 1400s and even meet Leonardo da Vinci and give him some pointers.)
the same type of "Do you remember that episode…?" —stories
that characterize conversations about all great comics.
(Do you remember that scene of Laurel and Hardy moving
the piano up the long flight of steps? Of course you
do.) There are scores of those about Totò and, by now, a
lot of them about Troisi. Yes, I remember that scene
where Troisi plays the wrong Mary (!), not the
mother of Jesus, but another Mary in "a city of Galilee
named Nazareth" whose daily routine gets interrupted by
an inept Herald Angel who keeps barging onto the stage
with "Hearken! Mary…the Lord is with thee…thou shalt
conceive…" Troisi spends the skit trying to
convince the angel that he/she/it has come to the wrong
house and the wrong Mary. Joseph's wife is over on the
next street. There is not the least sense of irreverence
in the performance, either.
language was that of Naples, with virtually no attempt
to modify his difficult native dialect to a more
standard Italian for the benefit of those who might
have difficulty understanding him —audiences in
northern Italy, for example. With Totò, Troisi is a
living language lesson and one more reason why almost
all Italians now like to think they speak a little
update - added 19 Jan 2016
Yesterday Naples paid tribute to Massimo Troisi by naming some stairs after him. The stairs are an outdoor stairway that played prominently in a film called Scusate il ritardo [Excuse the Delay] from 1983. The original scene in the film involves him and his co-star Lello Arena discussing life and love in the driving rain on an anonymous stairway in the Chiaia section of Naples. The film is brilliant, the scene is brilliant, and the stairs are now less anonymous because they have been dedicated to one of the best-loved Italian comics of the 20th century. The mayor was there. The late comic's sister was there, visibly moved by the dedication. It was nice. He deserved it. He was an enormously likable and modest person with a great talent for making people laugh.
update2 - added June 5, 2020 To the Memory of Massimo TroisiThis poignant story comes from Suzanne Toll, who found it on a recent Facebook page, presumably put up to coincide with the anniversary of Troisi's death in early June, 1994.Gerardo Ferrara was 21 years old and from Sapri, the last sizeable town at the southern end of the gulf of Policastro and the Campania region of Italy before the coast road continues on to parts south, down to Calabria and the tip of the Italian "boot". Gerardo bore a notable likeness to Troisi, even the facial features, the dual mask of drama and comedy of classical imagery, projecting both joy and sadness, never being quite sure which one was "on" at a given moment. (Gerardo Ferrara, on the left in image.)
The producers of Il Postino (The Postman) contacted Gerardo, looking for a "double" to stand in for Troisi in scenes that were physically now more than Troisi could handle given his frail health, which was in rapid and serious decline. Troisi and his "stunt double" hit it off immediately. It was like looking in a mirror. Gerardo says, "Massimo saw my embarrassment, smiled and put his arm around me and said "Hey, come on. Now you get to show off a little. So go show them!"
Gerardo was Troisi's double for a month. He's the one you see pedaling his bicycle beneath the sun of Procida, or stopping to watch the sun set from the top of the hill, supporting his bike so it didn't fall. During the filming, Gerardo's own wife, Elena, was pregnant. Once Massimo said to them, "How's Pablito? You have to name him Pablito, right?" (the name of the Postman's son in the film.) Big smiles all around. The last take of il Postino was on June 3. 1994. Troisi said good-bye to them both with, "I love you both. Don't forget me." Massimo Troisi died the next day.
Today Gerardo Ferrara is 25 years older. His special association with Troisi has given the town of Sapri occasion to hold periodic tributes to the comic. (In the image, right, Gerardo is in the "Troisi museum" in Sapri and is explaining, as he is always happy to do, the whole story once again, this time for a local TV crew.) He's a school teacher and has saved some memorabilia from his short film career. He has a book that Troisi gave him with this inscription: "To Gerardo, for his patience and his selflessness in making my job easier and more pleasant." Gerardo had made Troisi's life easier. That was indeed an honor. Forget Massimo Troisi? Not a chance. Gerardo's wife, Elena, had her child shortly after Troisi's death. They didn't name him Pablito. They chose "Massimo".