The Music of Happiness

Antonio Fresa’s Ode to Napoli.

Frame from L'Arte della Felicità @ Alessandro Rak
Frame from L'Arte della Felicità @ Alessandro Rak
8 NOV 2013
by

I need to make music, good music… I want to think things that have never been thought; live things never lived; see things never seen; I want music, the right music at the right time; I want the impossible, the improbable…
- line from L’Arte della Felicità

Alfredo’s room is randomly adorned by nostalgic family portraits, swaying on the wall, as the soft wind gushes decades of fragile memories that will soon vanish before Alfredo’s radiant eyes — on that picturesque hill where he stood bravely in his long red-flowing robe before a monastery, enveloped by a sublime Gregorian chant-like chorus; on that peaceful, sunny and breezy day when he surrenders his last breath frailly to the heavens and to destiny.

This is the dramatic opening scene of the new, exciting, and masterful animation creation of Mad Entertainment in Naples, L’Arte della Felicità,(The Art of Happiness), which opened the International Film Critic’s Week at the 70th Venezia Film Festival (August 28 to September 7), and garnered Best Debut Film at the London Raindance Festival screened last October 5, Best Italian Film by The Arca Cinema Giovani, FEDIC award at the Venezia Film Festival, and an entry to the International Film Festival of India. The Art of Happiness is an emotional yet pragmatic, naturalistic yet surreal portrayal of two brothers, Sergio and Alfredo, caught in distance, compassion, and vulnerability, whose tender and brotherly love for each other is capsulated in old photographs, playful toys, a union of musical talent (Sergio on the piano, and Alfredo on the violin) and impregnated desire to understand each other and be understood, amidst the decaying pitfall of the city of Naples. Sergio abandons his musical passion, and circulates the dark streets of Naples as a disturbed taxi driver, filled with cynicism, despair, and animosity, after his brother, Alfredo, leaves him to become a monk, and dies unexpectedly. The animated taxi passengers, depicting various Italian traits, and who occupy Sergio’s chosen taxi habitat offer him the window to the prevailing diseases of society, politics, and religion, but most importantly, to the nest of mysterious Antonia, who captures his wounded heart, and who will save his empty life from continued unhappiness.

Behind the captivating cinematography, passionate close-up photography, and excellent directorship of Alessandro Rak, is the film’s endearing musical score that pulls the audience inevitably within the hearts and souls of each character in the movie. Together with remarkable music producer Luigi Scialdone, Antonio Fresa, likewise incomparable music producer, composer, arranger, conductor, musician and producer at Mad Entertainment, has brilliantly staged a delicate orchestration of piano, violin and other strings and percussion ensemble to capture the individualized emotions of Sergio, Alfredo, Antonia, and the careful blend of characters and scenarios that weave them closely with each other.

Antonio: “For the process of this musical score, I wrote about ten themes before getting to the main theme, because the direction of the film was very demanding. We were going around in circles, until we found the right method. I wrote the theme for the two brothers, Sergio and Alfredo, which worked very well and moved a lot of people — as many had been saying since the Venezia Fllm Festival. Some songs don’t belong to me, but to the Indie scenes in Napoli, which is a very nice way to write music in a movie, because you write instrumental music around pre-existing songs from different authors, so, you have different flavours. Just like in Hollywood movies, for example, you have famous songs and original scores, and you just take a simple, inspiring melody from them. A lot of the songs come from my partner, Luigi Scialdone and myself — we always write together. The music with strings and orchestra, and the deep scenes between the two brothers are from our compositions — especially, the particular scene of Sergio dreaming in a forest, where a tree stems out of the piano — that is a version of the main theme.”

Upon riding the taxi, we hear a rhythmical, gypsy-like tune, underlining both Sergio’s blissful moments and painful scars. Through the contemporary repertoire of Foja, Napolitan music band, the nostalgia of Neapolitan sounds in folk-jazz guitar fusion travel through the city’s cobbled streets and towering walls as Sergio spins his taxi across this ancient city. Antonio has enriched the visible connection between the antiquated city’s vibrant colors and the rustic characterization of the movie theme through his musical ingenuity.

Antonio: “Foja is a young Napolitan band that plays like folk-country rock or Neapolitan folk music. They just created their recent album that I produced for them. The leader, Dario Sansone, was one of the assistant directors of L’Arte della Felicità, so this film is really a production of very creative people from Napoli. When I look at my city, Napoli , from afar, I surrender just for a moment to its beauty. The battles and anger, discomfort or injustice have nothing to do with the beauty of a city. When you live in an ugly place, its civilization, efficiency and justice will help the quality of your life, but it won't help to undo the ugliness of the place; ugliness will always remain. Therefore, the beauty is a value and it belongs to everyone even if it lasts for just 30 seconds! If I were a believer, I would thank God; however, I only have to thank my ancestors for choosing to build a city on this amazing coastline, at the foot of a volcano so lazy as its people."

There is an equally poignant aura in the beautiful melody embracing the heart-warming scenes between Sergio and Alfredo, especially when Sergio plays the piano so gently while Alfredo plucks his violin skillfully amidst a glowing aqua light that seems to lift the two brothers to spatial eternity. In another scene, after Sergio hazily imagines Alfredo trapped horrifyingly in a taxi explosion, he raises his bitter cry of agony to the entire universe, and the music transcends beyond clouds, in an ardent escalation of deepest yearning.

Antonio: “This piano scene was fun to write, and to imagine the charm and the taste of another musician (Sergio) without really describing the theme of the movie, but to write the music that the character is playing. I didn’t compose this scene to underline the mad feeling of Sergio, but rather to reveal the music that Sergio wanted to keep playing after his brother had left him. It’s like a jazzy tune that recalls the happy days the two brothers spent together, and does not particularly comment on the emotions of Sergio. The scenes alternate between this powerful episode in the rain and the parts where Sergio is saying something in the taxi while passengers are telling him all kinds of things about life.”

Possessing an international high school education in Atlantic City, and a music degree from Berklee College of Music in Boston and Conservatorio di Musica in Napoli, Italy, Antonio is blessed with a unique understanding of both international and Italian passion for music that cradles the foundation of his sensitive touch in composition and musical arrangement. Apart from The Art of Happiness, he has produced impressive musical scores for Non è giusto, Elisa di Rivombrosa, Valeria medico legale, La squadra, Il mio nuovo strano fidanzato, Il principe di San Sereno, La Cantata dei Pastori, and El campo, among other films and animation productions. La Cantata dei Pastori, the adorable Christmas tale that debuted in Italy last year, stood in the same rank with international animation productions, such as Disney, Dreamworks and PIXAR, and became the first Italian animation film that was aired on RAI 1 national television after many years. The joyful musical score has proven Antonio’s subtle, but moving and poetic approach toward a well-balanced interpretation of adult and childlike symphony.

Antonio: “Scoring the music for Cantata was a really super busy job. It aired during Christmas on Channel Rai 1. That was a big deal for us because it had been about twenty years since the main Rai channel had been broadcasting only international animation from Dreamworks, Pixar, Disney etc. It was exciting doing the mixing and the synchronization on images, and we also had a children’s choir.”

As a dedicated musician, he joins the bands of Joe Barbieri, Kantango, Flabby, Fitness Forever, Nino Buonocore, and others as pianist and musical arranger and producer. He has also collaborated with outstanding music personalities, such as Richard Galliano, Peter Erskine, Palle Daniellson, Lura, Susana Baca, Terence Trent D'Arby, Paolo Fresu. Fabrizio Bosso, Stacey Kent, Chiara Civello, Stefano Bollani, Mario Venuti, Luca Aquino, to name a few. From Europe to Asia, Antonio, together with Joe Barbieri and his well-praised band members, Sergio Di Natale, Giacomo Pedicini, and Stefano Jorio, hit Tokyo soil with unforgettable concerts at Cotton Club Japan for Joe Barbieri’s Respiro album.

Recently, he joined Joe Barbieri in embarking on an exciting project to realize Chet Baker’s smooth repertoire in Chet Lives, a memorial celebration of Chet Baker’s 25th death anniversary. Side by side with the amazing flugelhorn artist Luca Aquino, the trio has been delighting audiences all over Europe with pulsating live concerts.

Antonio: “Chet was a very gentle, elegant and delicate musician and artist. Italy was so enthusiastic about his presence that he got involved in many movies and performed with so many different singers. He gave a new modality to music, which was so rich and different.”

It may be said that a conductor is a shepherd that leads a herd of obedient sheep. For Antonio, his sheep come forth in multitudes as paramount musical and animation productions pour out incessantly from his creative hands. It is such a farce to believe that Naples has lost its musical glory since the monumental days of Alessandro Scarlatti, Enrico Caruso, Renato Carosone, Roberto Murolo, Sergio Bruni, Eduardo di Capua, or Luigi Denza. It is only a matter of taking a curious peep through the windows of Piazza del Gesù Nuovo 33, in the heart of Napoli, the very same edifice where Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren used to throw sugarlike glances at each other in the movie Marriage Italian Style — where here, Antonio Fresa and his herd of spiritful and adventurous creators are busy raising Naples once more to an artistic and musical realm of utter happiness.

I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear, whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. The very motion of our life is towards happiness.
- Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness.