Pierfrancesco Favino is best known internationally for strong male character roles such as mobster Tommaso Buscetta in The Traitor, disgraced politician Bettino Craxi in Hammamet and terrorist-targeted vice-police chief Alfonso Noce in Padrenostro, for which he won Venice’s Volpi Cup for Best Actor.

In Mario Martone’s drama Nostalgia, he plays the gentler, less defined figure of Felice, a man in his 50s who returns from 40 years in the Middle East to his mysterious, layered home neighborhood in Naples to reconnect with his elderly mother and confront a past wrong. 

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“What was interesting to me was this relationship with his mother and the tenderness of this man and how gentle he is. It’s quite rare to see a man’s masculinity portrayed in that way,” Favino told a Contenders International panel Saturday.

“I have to say he resembles me much more than The Traitor,” he added. “With The Traitor, I had to do a step towards something that’s really far from me. In this occasion, I could think he’s something that belongs to me quite quickly.”

A key challenge in the role for Rome-born and -based Favino was learning Neapolitan, which typically is spoken in parts of the city.

“In Italy, there’s huge respect for the Neapolitan language,” he said. “All of our playwrights come from Naples. And there’s such an incredible history of Neapolitan actors that I’ve always admired. And I was surrounded by Neapolitans, so not only did I have to learn it, but I also feared their judgment.”

Favino also studied Arabic in preparation for the role as his character has been living in the Middle East and adopted some of its customs.

“I had studied a little bit of Arabic before as I’ve always been fond of the Arabic culture,” he said. “There’s magic, and it’s very poetic. It helped me a lot because there are so many things in the character that are hardly describable otherwise, one thing is what destiny means for him.

“I discovered by studying Arabic, for example, that we all think that ‘inshallah‘ means ‘if God wants,’ but actually it means ‘what God wanted.’ So imagine how much people used to think in that way, just embracing the possibility that anything might happen in your life, because it’s been already decided, elsewhere,” he added.

Martone joined Favino on Saturday’s panel.

The celebrated cinema and theater director also takes co-writing credits alongside Ippolita Di Majo on Nostalgia, which is adapted from the late Neapolitan novelist and journalist Ermanno Rea’s 2016 novel.

One of the aspects that drew the director to the book in the first place was its real-life setting of the Rione Sanità neighborhood.

“Naples is a complicated town. For me, this was a trip into a part of my city, I didn’t know very well. It was also a trip into some something of myself, I didn’t know,” said Martone.

“The character of Felice was impressive for me as was this mysterious story, which was very human, very thoughtful,” he added. “It was very important for me to get Pierfrancesco — with Pierfrancesco, this trip became real. I am Neapolitan, he is not Neapolitan, and together we went into this labyrinth.”

The drama, which world premiered in competition at Cannes in May, has been acquired for the U.S. by Breaking Glass Pictures, which is planning an early-2023 release.

Check back Monday for the panel video.

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