An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog
In recent years, contemporary Italian cinema has received increasing attention. Despite being a filone (or sub-genre) that has been despised and hitherto almost unworthy of academic attention, even the cinepanettone has become a topic of discussion in Italian Film Studies. This is largely due to the work of Dr. Alan O’Leary (University of Leeds), who published a book in Italian entitled Fenomenologia del cinepanettone and a few academic articles in English. What is a cinepanettone? Three features, according to O’Leary, seem to be the most important: the cinepanettone is part of a ritual; it is watched by many Italians; and it is despised by many others. O’Leary aims for a ‘neutral subjectivity’ toward the audience of the cinepanettone; he wants to place himself far from the intellectual polemics that take place in Italy – polemics which assume that these films are watched only by ‘stupid people’, or that the cinepanettoni are even one of the causes (but at the same time a consequence) of Silvio Berlusconi’s success. I argue in this piece that despite the value of his positioning, O’Leary does not manage to adequately discuss the Italian society in which these films undoubtedly play a part. I conclude this article with an appeal regarding the study of Italian cinema.
O’Leary sketches a history of the filone, trying to define what the cinepanettone is – a term, argues the author, which was created sometime at the beginning of the 2000s. He delimits the field by including only the films starring Christian De Sica and/or Massimo Boldi, which have a farcical tone and were distributed in cinemas around Christmas time. Indeed, Fenomelogia del cinepanettone seems at moments to be a defence of the cinepanettone, a perspective that surely has its advantages – as O’Leary manages to debunk some commonplaces of these films. The two most significant assumptions of this type, it seems to me, are that these films are overloaded with the exposition of the female body and the (very trivial) idea that they all look the same. He notices how, on the contrary, the body most on display is Boldi’s own, and he goes on successfully demonstrating how the ‘cinepanettone is a complex form which has evolved over three decades’: for example, the films of the 1990s (especially those by the Vanzina brother) have references to Italian society, while the recent ones (those entitled with the formula Christmas + preposition + place, such as Natale a Miami, Natale a Beverly Hills etc.) do not. The filone is very heterogeneous also because several directors and many writers, with very different styles, worked on these films, and the only constant element is the production company (Filmauro, owned by the De Laurentis family). O’Leary does not really discuss the reasons for these changes in style: I argue that they are due to business matters more than artistic ones; as Marco Martani (one of the writers) recalls, ‘the goal of the Christmas film is to make people laugh and to make as much money as possible. Period. If it reaches these two goals, then the film is a masterpiece’ .
Some authors, like Gian Piero Brunetta, have used the cinepanettone to make a parallel between the decline of cinema-going in Italy and the emergence of cynicism and disinterest in the 1980s. O’Leary takes pain to argue why the axiom ‘1980s = birth of Berlusconism’ is wrong, but he does not try to present an alternative vision of this decade. O’Leary’s strategy is again aimed at explaining why Brunetta and other thinkers are wrong, but not at explaining why in the 1980s, specific ‘cultural forms that prove themselves receptive and sympathetic’ were successful, while other forms were not. He seems more interested in debunking the widespread idea of cinema as ‘mirror image’ of Italian society than in critically discussing the role of the cinepanettoni in this society. The risk of such a reading is that these films become small, autonomous worlds which fluctuate in Italian theatres without dialoguing with what is around them – that is, by throwing away cinema as ‘mirror image’ of Italian society, he also throws away the society, somehow like the baby and the bath water.
The highest point of O’Leary’s defence of the cinepanettone is reached when he discusses the idea of the typical spectator of these films. In a questionnaire that he gave to a restricted number of people (only 289 – a number that therefore, as O’Leary himself argues, cannot have a large-scale statistical value) he asks how the respondent imagines the typical spectator for these films. He received answers such us an ‘ignorant person, a simple one, superficial, that goes to the cinema once a year’. These answers are wrong, because ‘it is unlikely, given the success of the cinepanettone with a variegated audience that includes families and persons of all ages and gender, that its spectator can be so confidently characterized or gendered’. But even the people that made these films seem to disagree with him: the scholar therefore appears to have a higher opinion of the spectators of the cinepanettone than the writers and directors of the cinepanettoni have themselves of their audience – as for Martani, ‘if you make a Christmas film for people who go to the cinema once a year, it is not that you are dealing with cinephiles’, or for Fausto Brizzi (also one of the writers of the cinepanettoni) the audience is a very ‘provincial’ one, and for Luigi De Laurentis ‘80% of the country is simple, it needs a very easy language’.
In his defence of the cinepanettone, O’Leary also forgets to talk about a fundamental aspect of the cinematographic industry: the distribution. This is an aspect that, when talking about the cinepanettoni, cannot be eluded. If going to the cinema during the week of Christmas in Italy is a ritual, something that must be done, as O’Leary correctly postulates, then we need to highlight the fact that the cinepanettone is distributed in about 850 prints – a very high number, that is only (sometimes) rivalled by Hollywood productions. This means that if a spectator, performing a ritual, goes to the cinema, it is quite likely that s/he will find a cinepanettone screened in the theatre s/he chooses to attend. The power of distribution and of marketing are not aspects that can be forgotten when analysing the cinepanettone, even when, as in this case, the analysis is mostly an aesthetic one. This could have shed a light on another question that O’Leary does not mention, which is how many people actually see these films. He mentions a generic ‘many people’, and one of the journalists he interviewed says that the total audience could be composed of around five to six million people. This estimation, a rather optimistic one, is still quite far from the number of people in Italy that watch a successful TV show, and very far from the number of people who watch an important game of the national football team. When approaching these kinds of cultural productions, I think it is necessary to take these data into consideration and reflect on how these products influence the Italian imaginary.
In 2011, in an important article entitled ‘Against realism: on a “certain tendency” in Italian film criticism’, O’Leary and his colleague Catherine O’Rawe (Bristol University) launched a useful and provocative anathema against the pervasive study of neorealism in Italian Film Studies: ‘Let us declare a moratorium on the mention of neorealism for, say, half a decade. Let us see what such a moratorium might allow us to reveal in its stead, what our silence on realism might allow us to reveal about other modes and genres’. I would like to put an addendum: we should not study Italian cinema (especially early cinema and cinema from recent years) without putting it in a complex inter-medial network. We should not study cinepanettone or any other form of Italian commercial cinema without constantly putting these films in industrial and artistic relation to: television (in its multiple components: shows, commercials, news, etc.); theatre (for example the Bagaglino, a famous comic theatre company that ran for over forty years and which has some points of similarity with the cinepanettone); the radio (in fact the choice of the songs for the soundtracks, which are so important in these films, is strongly linked to the emergence of the private radio stations of the 1980s, most notably Radio Deejay); and the Internet. All these different elements need to be discussed together, perhaps starting from cinema – and in the case of the cinepanettoni from the very ritual of cinema-going – but they absolutely need to be in relation to each other, especially as today cinema is no longer the principal ‘producer’ of the collective and popular imaginary.
 Alan O’Leary, Fenomenologia del cinepanettone (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2012).
 Ibid., p. 18
 Ibid., p. 123.
 Ibid., p. 27. For a discussion on Brunetta’s writing, see ibid., p. 47.
 Ibid., p. 91.
 Ibid., p. 141.
 Sole a Catinelle, directed by Gennaro Nunziante with the star Checco Zalone, was distributed at the end of October 2013 in more than 1200 copies, a number absolutely exceptional for an Italian film. See http://www.repubblica.it/spettacoli/cinema/2013/10/29/news/zalone_dei_record_1200_sale_mai_prima_d_ora-69747505/
 Alan O’Leary and Catherine O’Rave, ‘Against realism: on a “certain tendency” in Italian film criticism’, Journal of Modern Italian Studies 16:1 (2011), pp. 107-28. This moratorium is part of an ongoing discussion on the lack of study on popular cinema and non-authorial cinema in the Italian Film Studies.
Luca Peretti is a PhD candidate in Italian and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. He has published articles on cinema and terrorism, on the director Paolo Benvenuti and has contributed to the book Antisemitismo, Antigiudiasmo e memoria. Un approccio pluridisciplinare, ed. Giuseppe Capriotti (Macerata: Eum, 2009). He co-edited with Vanessa Roghi the volume Immagini di piombo. Cinema, storia e terrorismi in Europa (Milan: Postmediabooks, 2013), and has worked as research assistant for a project on cinepanettoni led by Alan O’Leary (University of Leeds). He worked as journalist, as archivist and researcher for the forthcoming Italian Museum of the Shoah, and organized several film festivals across Italy.