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Reaching the stars

A chat with the multi award-winning actor Francesco Di Leva By N. Yakova

A “scugnizzo” (street urchin) lives on the street, among people, experiencing real life and getting his hands dirty. Sometimes it can happen that he gets lost but other times he can fly high with a dream in his mind and honesty in his soul. For a long time we have known a Neapolitan scugnizzo who has interpreted the thousand faces of our city.

Among the many he played, we have watched him as a ruthless boss in Il Sindaco del rione Sanità (The mayor of the Sanità district); as a frustrated financial police inspector in Mixed by Erry; as a determined priest in Nostalgia and that is not all. Francesco Di Leva dresses every character he plays with bold intensity.

The natural rhythm that characterizes his acting is one of his strong points, probably what led him to obtain several awards in the theater and cinema fields.

According to him, theater is a dutiful act of cultural resistance. Although he will never abandon it he cannot hide his deep love for cinema. The choice of films in which he participates is determined not only by their stories but also by the soul of the director. In 2021, alongside his participation as an actor, he also made his debut as a screenwriter for the film La Cura (The Care), together with the director Francesco Patierno.

Neapolitan, from San Giovanni a Teduccio, Francesco Di Leva tells us he grew up and survived the Naples of smuggling and illegality of the 90ies. Today, as an actor, by examining the city he better understands the mechanisms that belonged to the Naples of his adolescence, a Naples that was beautiful but needed cleaning from the bad things. However, what emerges from his words is a pinch of nostalgia for the values of the past, for simplicity, for the magic of slowness, for the charm of handwritten letters, for diving from rocks, for pranks with friends, and for a poetry that seems to be no longer fashionable throughout Italy. But the awareness he achieved as an adult did not make him leaving his hometown but motivated him more to do good things and improve the condition not only of himself but of the entire neighborhood where he lives. He finds his input in the words of a song, by Pino Daniele, representative of his adolescence “…Allora sì, che val’ ‘a pena vivere e suffrì” (Therefore yes, it is worth living and suffering).

F.D.L.: “I come from a family of workers. Until I was 31 I worked as a baker. I was a good worker. I was a scugnizzo (street urchin ed.) but I want to point out that the word scugnizzo does not mean racketeer. I am, like all Neapolitans, just a son of Vesuvius.”

He is generous, determined and, if necessary, with a touch of “cazzimma”, (cazzimma is a Neapolitan word that we could translate as a type of attitude marked by opportunistic and cynical cunning).

By observing other artists he is encouraged to improve. According to him, the life of an actor is made up of continuous study. He analyzes people carefully to understand their looks, emotions, movements… And every day he learns something. A few years ago, together with director and author Giuseppe Miale di Mauro, and the actor Adriano Pantaleo, he implemented an important project: the rehabilitation of an abandoned space to help the people of San Giovanni a Teduccio.

Following the success obtained with the first shows other collaborators joined in. It is called NEST (Naples EST Theater) and it is a small jewel of about 100 seats, a 90ft² stage, AC, and an outdoor space, which restores prestige to Naples and, in particular, the San Giovanni a Teduccio district, giving opportunities to young people to grow up in a healthy environment, full of art and positivity.

F.D.L.: ”Before becoming a theater it was an abandoned gym, near the school I attended as a boy. Today the NEST is one of the flagships of our nation’s theaters. We do activities for 60 kids, free of charge. We try to build something with our theatrical works as well as others’ works. San Giovanni a Teduccio is a neighborhood that suffered 20 years of crime and exploitation and there is a need for the entire area to recover from the excessive trouble and from the oppression suffered.”

Since 2007, in fact, the NEST has featured, in addition to its theater company, other nationally renowned actors, with a program of high artistic level, proving to be a successful initiative. Something that is very valuable for Naples as a constant source of energy and extraordinary strength, but a complex reality in which all things and their opposites coexist. A place where it is difficult to make choices, especially for the younger ones. And he who always lived the city to the full, with his wife Carmela, has built an honest family and together they try to make the right choices. They have two children, Morena and Mario, both fans of their dad and very young actors.

Francesco dedicated to Carmela his latest award, obtained as a supporting actor, in Nostalgia directed by Mario Martone, in which he plays Don Luigi Rega, parish priest of the Rione Sanita’, who, inspired by the work of Father Antonio Loffredo, works to help young people in a difficult neighborhood.

F.D.L.: “The moment I was awarded I felt like I was in a blender. I thought about Mario Martone who accompanied me there. I still feel so emotional! Mario bet on me when I was 22 years old and worked as a baker. He took me by the hand, just like a father does. Then, working together, step by step, we reached this goal which is not a point of arrival but for me it is important because I can say that I was accompanied to this award by a director who saw in me a flame that he powered, reaching a great result. He is like the captain of a large ship who does not abandon it like the Captain of Costa Crociere did. Then I thought of my parents who made so many sacrifices and never hindered my dream.I thought about my family, my wife, who was with me and who cried like a little girl. It was all very spontaneous, I didn’t prepare any speech. My strength has always been to be myself. I don’t want to create any character, I want to be who I am. That’s it. If I find myself at the Academy Awards, or in the presence of the President of the Republic or I find myself talking to you, I am always the same person. I want to be respectful, I want respect and then I want to have fun. I also thought a lot about my son Mario, who is following the same path as me. He was at the press office watching the awards ceremony live on TV. As soon as I got off the stage I picked up the David and brought it to him.”

Speaking of Mario and Morena, with whom he has worked more than once, Francesco says he is almost obsessed with filming them on every occasion. He wants to collect memories and be able to see them when he will be older.

He considers himself a good father. However, he knows that he spoils his children but he can’t help himself. This matters little, because perfection does not belong to human beings, even to geniuses, as we will read further on, in the next lines.

In the professional field, despite being aware of the sacrifice that being a film actor entails, he is rather demanding and intolerant of unpreparedness, even with his kids. But, given the excellent results and success that the children are enjoying , it is clear that he is doing a good job. In fact, he gets exhilarate every time he sees them act.

F.D.L.: “When my children do their job as actors, as my son Mario does now, I demand total respect. Playing a part, performing in general, has to be funny but the fun must be respect. Our job is made of technique and work. Otherwise it would mean disrespecting hundreds of people who work. However I like the fact that my son acts, this has a great charm for me. When I see myself on television or at the cinema I always find a thousand defects while when I see him on stage or on the screen I have so much fun and I always get excited.”

The moments that he records with the video camera and keeps in his heart are precious, as are the memories that he keeps of his childhood, some even indelible, such as the arrival of Diego Armando Maradona in Naples. It was 1984 and he was just 6 years old. His father didn’t follow football but to make him go to the stadium he gave the season ticket to his brother, Francesco’s uncle.

F.D.L.: “You are talking to someone who experienced the famous moment in which Maradona kicked the ball towards the curve. Something indescribable! I was very little. I experienced the curve of the stadium then and then as an adult. Afterwards I didn’t go any more at the stadium because I didn’t like some of the dynamics. I believe that this sport has also become something else. But I have beautiful memories of Maradona. He is like Mohammed Ali. He is part of those who were not just athletes but something different, mysterious, sacred and profane at the same time. Almost like a god coming down to earth and completing a mission… I understand that we may sound crazy when we talk like this. But Maradona left something in Naples that is still there today: crazy magic! Despite the flaws he had as a man he was powerful. I believe I want to be a man with flaws, I don’t want to be a perfect man.

Mohammed Ali was also a great athlete, a great boxer, but he had his flaws.. And how many he had! Yet it was Mohammed Ali! It has been 60 years since the death of Martin Luther King. Another great one. He wasn’t an athlete but… We loved him for these things. He made some big mistakes as a human being, he made them and he paid for them. We loved him, we love him. But what should we do?!”

Francesco’s qualities of reliability, his ability to make people cry, laugh and reflect with his natural humanity, far from clichés and convenient phrases, are qualities that are amplified because they are also shared, both personally and professionally, in the social sphere. This is something very valuable for San Giovanni a Teduccio district and the whole city of Naples.

Just a month ago he turned 45 and today, October 4th, is his name day. We wish him the best in his career, in his projects and a good life in the arms of Parthenope.

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