The animated film The Art of Happiness isn’t perfect, but that doesn’t matter – it is a moving and thoughtful film that challenges its audience to think about the terms of our existence and the nature of our lives. It does so through a genuinely moving tale of two brothers separated, and the consequences of death and spirituality.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Alessandro Rak
Screenplay: Alessandro Rak, Luciano Stella.
Runtime: 82 minutes
Cast: Lucio Allocca, Leandro Amato, Silvia Baritzka, Francesca Romana Bergamo.
Trailer: “We are in the wheel of life, my friends!” (warning: trailer doesn't do justice to the film.)
Plot: The Art of Happiness is the story of two musically talented brothers, both close to each other but bringing out the best when they are together in performance. Younger brother Sergio is baffled and angry when Alfredo suddenly decides to leave for Indiaand Tibet, to pursue his passion for Buddhism. Left to drive his uncle’s taxi around the city of Naples, Sergio’s life slowly falls apart as he is consumed by his anger and unable to confront the deeper, existential questions he has been avoiding.
Festival Goers? See it.
Viewed as part of the Lavazza Italian Film Festival.
Review: Alessandro Rak’s The Art of Hapiness (L’arte della felicità) is an ambitious and praiseworthy film; attempting to convey the spirit of a philosophy and its impact on the relationships of two troubled brothers. Eschewing the normally kitsch, family friendly focus of modern animated features, it instead narrates the intensely emotional and spiritual journey of protagonist Sergio (voiced by Lucio Allocca); a talented musician, but frustrated taxi driver, who is deeply wounded by his brother’s decision to leave Italy and pursue his Buddhist calling. The journey of his brother, Alfredo, is traced throughout the film in parallel with Sergio’s anger and slowly deteriorating life; creating a beautiful portrait of two spiritual twins, one who finds peace and fulfilment, while the other struggles with regret and despair. The doctrine the film preaches, and illustrates, is one of care for others and mindfulness of the world fully in accordance with traditional Buddhist teachings; but it introduces elements of discord and disagreement, in the form of a corpulent but fulfilled uncle who argues with Sergio, and a radio host who is sceptical about the nature of current Italian culture. The film is intelligent and well thought out, sensitive to its subject matter, and acts as a poignant launching point for investigating other perspectives on the world of everyday experience.
The plot itself is slight; Sergio drives around Napoli, in the usual taxi driver conceit, listening to the problems of the locals and hearing their diverse perspectives on the world. The film brings a varied range of animation techniques and styles to illustrate these stories, and discloses its narratives on a few levels – such as Sergio’s conversations, flashbacks, narration, and the intermittent commentary of the host of a radio programme also named ‘the art of happiness.’ The film is at its best when it focuses sharply on Sergio and Alfredo, particularly their divergent experiences of Naples and Tibet respectively after they have parted. There are many low-angled shots of Alfredo walking among the trees and contemplating the canopy above him, in an attempt to illustrate his connectedness to the world. Similarly with Sergio, although the vista in Naples is far more alienating and dismal. Every frame Sergio occupies reeks of his despair and inability to let go of the happiness he had when he was with his brother; a fact complicated by Alfredo’s death at the start of the film. Sergio can see no way out, except to drive and engage in a constant act of self-abnegation; one that he then rages about, alone in his cab, when his feelings of distress once again rise to the surface. ‘This is an old people’s world,’ the radio host remarks, ‘they don’t have an idea about the future of humanity and they don’t care.’ The crumbling surrounds of Napoli, and the despair of the passengers Sergio picks up, seems to echo this message.
There are some flaws in the glass of this film from a technical perspective; some of the animation is a bit rough, and several stylistic choices clash with each other. An intercut animation of a children’s wind-up taxi, proceeding across a nursery floor of toys and other landmarks, is a little on the nose from a film that is already heavily reliant on its symbolism. But then a scene will materialise, like Sergio’s conversation with his uncle in the taxi, that will wipe away all of those flaws with a sentiment or thought that is genuinely moving.
But the film is not a tale of doom; on the contrary, it offers up the lesson that 'everything we do is forever' and to celebrate ‘this infinite present, so bright.’ That may sound like typical new-age prattle, but it is the exact opposite – one of the oldest spiritual doctrines from a philosophy or way of living that stretches far back through human experience and time. Sergio is pivotal in illustrating that point, that capturing and experiencing this moment is one of the most difficult things one can aim for. 'Are we the home of this soul? Or rather its cage?’ the radio announcer asks; counterpointed in the image of a seagull flying through the city. At another level, the film asks us to contemplate the limits of experience and the traps we build for ourselves in constructing a particular identity, or personal investment. Alfredo’s gentle lessons to his brother are to loosen this grip; to let some things fly away, and focus on what the immediate present can be made into. This is something that Sergio is unable to do, ruminating on photographs of the happy family and locked in conversations with relatives about the past with Alfredo. The film asks for a certain sort of understanding from the nature of our existence, then responds ‘but the question is, will we like what we understand?’
The Art of Happiness treats all of these points lightly; never delving too much into the philosophies, or the dilemmas, or the dramas presented throughout the film. But that’s just fine, as what it does offer is satisfying food for thought. Professor Robert Thurman is quoted – grossly misinterpreting Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, sure, where the philosopher dismissed Buddhism as a slave morality and a nihilism, but otherwise on the mark – on the concept of reincarnation. Yet a beautiful twist on this concept is offered by Sergio’s uncle, who comments that during their childhood Alfredo and Sergio ‘were reborn a thousand times before my eyes and I thought: these were my old, new nephews.’ A beautiful thought in a film that makes only a few missteps, but begins the important journey of prompting an audience to think about the terms and nature of their existences. Even more importantly, whether it is possible to live in a different way. That is truly commendable.
Rating: Three and a half stars.