Italian National Cinema… the Cinepanettone?
‘Above all else, comedy is an invitation to belong.’ (Andy Medhurst)
Massimo Boldi performs the ‘grotesque body’ in A Natale mi sposo
I’m writing a chapter on the cinepanettone for Peter Bondanella’s The Italian Cinema Book (BFI), a volume which, accordingly to Peter’s blurb,
will provide an accessible and innovative consideration of major critical issues in the history of the Italian cinema […]. This multi-authored work aims at moving beyond familiar approaches to the Italian cinema and will deal with a number of historical, cultural, and theoretical issues, including the evolution of Italian film culture over a century, the rise of Italian film stars, the structure of the film industry, the importance of the art film as well as the genre film, and the representation of Italian culture and history by the filmic image. […] Contributors will include not only some of the most distinguished senior scholars, critics, and film historians from a variety of national critical traditions but also some of the brightest and most innovative young scholars working in this field.
I’ll leave Peter’s description stand unremarked, but want to excerpt here some of the material I’m putting in my chapter. My argument, based on material in Catherine O’Rawe and my ‘Against Realism’ article, and on other stuff on the audiences for the cinepanettone discussed already in this blog, is that the cinepanettone has a good claim to be considered as ‘Italian National Cinema’ – as good a claim at least as the auteurist and realist canon of films that have been well received abroad and adduced as part of a kind of diplomatic project for the celebration of Italian culture. But what about what Italians actually watch in great numbers, and with regularity for many years? Isn’t that national cinema too? Here are some extracts from a draft of the chapter (the images are illustrations to the descriptive part of the article which I have not included because too familiar to the any readers of this blog).
Gestural energy: Christian De Sica in Natale a Beverly Hills
My purpose here is to claim for the cinepanettone the status of ‘Italian national cinema’. To argue as much is to challenge the conventional idea that Italian national cinema is comprised only of realist and auteurist works that have been appreciated outside Italy itself. It is also to refuse the idea that Italian national cinema should be conceived of as a kind of diplomatic project intended to represent the ‘best’ of the country’s cinematic culture at an international level. Given the contested quality and status of the filone it may seem a paradoxical gesture, but it is an essential one, to place the cinepanettone not at the margins but at the centre of discourse about Italian cinema.
National cultures have traditionally served as a way of demarcating academic areas of interest and, at least in the Anglophone academy, film studies have taken a foothold in departments of modern languages. Italianist cinema scholars therefore have a stake in retaining the national as a category of description, especially as the status of cinema studies was initially precarious within what were traditionally schools of literature, linguistics and history. It was institutionally imperative to assert a canon of individual film texts of undoubted aesthetic or ethical appeal, a canon (by analogy with the received litany of literary greats) that had ‘made Italy’ – indeed, that had ‘made Italians’.
In a context such as this, the study of genre cinema was unthinkable, and what emerged was a teaching and research syllabus that ignored most of the ‘popular’ in the sense of commercially successful within Italy itself. Italian cinema came to mean neorealism and the great auteurs, and the legacy of this approach is still with us today.
This legacy manifests itself in scholarship that defines its role in edifying and paternalistic terms, and that deals exclusively with the Italian cinema (however defined) the scholars believe should be known and admired rather than the range of films that have actually been produced and watched in Italy. This is often accompanied by a reflectionist model which sees a putative ‘best’ cinema as the ‘mirror’ of the Italian nation. In the Anglophone academy, this approach takes the form of a diplomatic project to celebrate those texts that resound to the glory of Italy, and the work of many writers on Italian film, perhaps especially in North America, is conceived precisely in terms of proselytizing for an Italian national culture.
Such a nationalistic cinema history has come in for criticism from within Italian cinema studies itself, from political and other perspectives. While areas of the discipline remain conservative, some have made the move from an essentializing model, in which the national cinema is seen as a direct reflection or expression of the national culture, to a constructivist model, in which the cinema is analysed as one of the means through which the ‘imagined community’ of the nation is posited and pictured. Some refuse the national cinema paradigm altogether, whether because it elides cultural discontinuities and the experience of, say, Italy’s minorities and incoming migrants, or because cinema is itself a transnational phenomenon, drawing themes, technologies, personnel and funding from across borders, and with designs on an international market.
I deploy the concept of national cinema here for strategic reasons, in order to put the experience and taste of a despised popular audience at the centre of our concerns. Some have argued that comedy ought to be considered as Italy’s quintessential national mode, based both on its commercial popularity and on its ability to ‘touch on themes very close and particular to the culture’ (Casetti and Salvemini 2007: 25). But I believe we should give equal attention to the context of the consumption of the cinepanettoni as to the content of the films (i.e., their themes close to the culture). In other words, the cinepanettone can be argued to be Italy’s national cinema because of its consumption within Italy itself and its adoption as part of annual holiday ritual, something demonstrated by the longevity and scale of its success within Italy itself.
A shocking interruption to the comedy in Natale in crociera
The divisive character of the films’ success is, ironically, another reason we can speak of them as Italian national cinema: the fact that they are as deplored as they are enjoyed suggests the cinepanettoni are engaged in a contested subtending of national identities. This is done, I argue, through ‘pleasurable politcs’, and I return to material discussed in a previous blog post to make my point. The pleasurable politics of the cinepanettone are similar to those identified by Andy Medhurst (2007: 69) in his (sympathetic) analysis of the reactionary content of some English stand-up comedy: ‘a politics of defence not attack, of refusal not uprising, of embracing your own, of consolidation against condescension’. That is to say, in its carnivalesque celebration of socially inappropriate behaviour and values, the cinepanettone also offers, precisely, a sense of community, even of home. Laughing, writes Medhurst, you feel at home:
It’s all about belonging, and the comic text or practitioner can call on a variety of devices in proffering the invitation. Belonging is why most television comedies have laugh tracks, why narrative film comedies will fade or cut or leave visual pauses when they think a great line has just been delivered and thereby reassure the audience that this is the right time to laugh, why stand-up comedians are filmed in theatres or studios with audiences present and why there are frequent cuts away from the comic to the convulsed consumers, why there are few more rapturous communal experiences than being in an audience rocking and hooting at the same gag, and why there are fewer finer pleasures in life than a group of old friends remembering and cementing their bonds through helpless, heedless laughter. (p. 20)
The ritual consumption of the cinepanettone perhaps offers precisely this: a feeling of home, as the spectator enjoys the antics of his or her fellow Italians abroad.
I am arguing that the cinepanettone constitutes Italian national cinema because of its consumption within Italy itself and its adoption as part of annual holiday ritual, something demonstrated by the longevity and scale of its intra-national success. That success may be fading, but the cinepanettone remains a perfect illustration of the process, constructive and contested, of imagining the national community. For many the cinepanettoni are a shared celebration, an assertion of community; for others, of course, the very idea these films could speak of or for ‘us’ is appalling. But the cinepanettone has been, and may be still, the Italian national comic genre par excellence.
Casetti, F. and Salvemini, S. (2007) È tutto un altro film: più coraggio e più idee per il cinema italiano (Milan: Egea)
Medhurst, A. (2007) A National Joke: Popular Comedy and English Cultural Identities (London: Routledge)