An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog
AOL: In our polemic ‘Against realism’ we argued that Italian Cinema Studies has a set of master tropes – realism, auteurist paternity, national cinema – that need to be challenged. My way of doing this was to undertake a project intended as an alternative model for the discipline, in terms of both content and method. The cinepanettone is the most despised but also the most ignored form in recent Italian cinema: I wanted to show its intrinsic interest and to explore the manner of its discursive construction and circulation in Italian culture. Finding a vocabulary to articulate the appeal and pleasures of a popular phenomenon seemed to me more exciting than yet another celebratory reading of a feted director.
COR: In my work on masculinities in contemporary Italian cinema I found that a range of genres, from the cinepanettone to teen films, from popular comedies to middlebrow political dramas, reveal the same preoccupations with shoring up Italian masculinity, felt to be perennially in crisis, via the figure of the italiano medio. Comedy is a particularly effective means for this, and Italian comedies offer space for what Kathleen Rowe calls the ‘melodramatized man’, the comedy protagonist who ‘appropriates female suffering in the service of a beleaguered masculinity’.The emphasis on male suffering re-centres white heterosexual masculinity as normative, but this happens across popular and culturally valued cinema: we need to study them all together, cinepanettone included.
AOL: Fenomenologia del cinepanettone is a work of Cultural Studies rather than Film Studies. This means I do some aesthetic analysis, some film history, some interpretation, autobiographical anecdote, questionnaires, interviews with everyone from fans to directors, and so on. It also means there is a political motivation behind it. As Luca Peretti suspects, I was interested in legitimating the tastes of audiences who are as despised as the films they enjoy. I may be guilty of cultural populism, but I have been able to point out some obvious stuff about cultural capital and processes of distinction at work in Italy – and in the Anglophone Italianist academy. Your approach is different…
COR: True. I’m also interested in despised categories – how teen audiences, young girls, middle-aged women are rendered abject in Italian cinema – and I do audience and reception work around these despised fandoms which is sometimes methodologically challenging – how do we find out if Riccardo Scamarcio has a gay fanbase, for example? I’m interested in ideological critique, and in reading texts symptomatically, often to point out the re-centring of Italian masculinity in its ‘in-crisis’ mode
AOL: It’s regularly dismissed as televisual, but we should think the cinepanettone qua cinema. What does it mean to see one of these films in the intended context of the Christmas multiplex? Aesthetic analysis often elides this experience in favour of what is available only to intensive and repeated viewings. But the cinepanettoni are designed to be seen in mixed company of all ages and genders, in a context of raucous and contagious laughter. How can we study that experience, adequately and in a non-patronizing way?
COR: That returns us to the question of despised audiences. Think about the attitudes to young female spectators in Italy – seen as either endangered by popular film or as dragging down national cultural life with their poor taste. The paternalistic attitude to the audience is linked to the fact that the intellectual sphere is regularly appropriated by journalists and editorialists who invoke Italian cinema for ‘state-of-the-nation’ laments: another, negative, version of the national cinema paradigm we critique in ‘Against Realism’. The public intellectual looks on in despair at the culture of the nation, from which he (it’s usually a ‘he’) is irreparably divorced, and this is a consistent feature of writing on audiences in Italy by the left since the post-war period.
AOL: Curzio Maltese is one of those hand-wringing public intellectuals who should leave cinema alone. I quote him in the book as saying that the cinepanettone is the Berlusconian form par excellence, like the 1930s ‘white telephone’ films supposedly were to fascism. The assertion is nonsense, but it points to how a despised audience with the ‘wrong’ aesthetic tastes is perceived to be a political threat. The cinepanettone audience is a metaphor for political frustration and a scapegoat for political disappointment.
COR: You see the same thing happening in the critical reaction to the success of the new Checco Zalone film. Much writing about the film makes the usual move of displacing disdain for the film or genre onto the audience, so the typical spectator for the film is the one who doesn’t realise there’s allocated seating, who goes into the wrong screen in the multisala despite the garish signage, who wants a film that doesn’t make you think. This reminds me of the abusive descriptions of the cinepanettone spectator you report in your book, as does the fact that the success of the film is seen to indicate (as one critic says) a nation lost and without faith in the future.
AOL: Of course, we can probably read Sole a catinelle as yet another italiano medio in crisis film, and so link it to a range of other films and genres doing similar ideological work. But we have to account for it without engaging in paternalistic dismissal. I guess the challenge is to relate the success of a film like this to its historical moment without having recourse to impressionistic political diagnoses and reflectionist criticism?
COR: The challenge is to recognise the work a range of films might be doing on behalf of their spectators – including those spectators and critics who profess to dislike Checco and the panettone! Criticism itself is part of the study: we need to work out why certain types of popular film still cause so much critical discomfort. But more audience studies (of any kind) would be useful! It’s an imperative for the discipline…
 ‘Against Realism: On a “Certain Tendency” in Italian Film Criticism’, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 16: 1 (2011), pp. 107-28.
 Alan O’Leary, Fenomenologia del cinepanettone (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2013).
 Stars and Masculinities in Contemporary Italian Cinema (forthcoming, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
 Kathleen Rowe, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter (Austin: University of Texas press, 1995), p. 196.
 See ‘Cinepanettone and society’, Luca Peretti’s critique of Fenomenologia del cinepanettone in this issue’s Critic’s corner.
 Sole a catinelle (Gennaro Nunziante, 2013), released on 31 October 2013, earned more than €18.6 million in its first weekend.
Alan O’Leary is Associate Professor at the University of Leeds (UK). He co-founded the annual Film Issue of the The Italianist with Millicent Marcus (Yale University) and is co-director of the Popular Cultures Research Network and director of the Cultural Studies Research Grouping at Leeds. His monograph Tragedia all’italiana was published in Italian in 2007 (Angelica Editore) and in a revised English edition in 2011 (Peter Lang) and he has co-edited two volumes on the theme of terrorism and representation in Italian cinema and culture. His monograph Fenomenologia del cinepanettone was published this year by Rubbettino. The goal of his current project, ‘Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories’, is to rethink the relationship of Italian cinema to the history of Italy from a descriptive and analytical rather than a prescriptive and paternalistic perspective.
Catherine O’Rawe is Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol. Her principal research interest lies in Italian cinema: she has published studies on Romanzo criminale, on Riccardo Scamarcio and on masculinity in recent Italian films. She is the author of the forthcoming monograph Stars and Masculinities in Contemporary Italian Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan: 2014). She co-edited the volume The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), which analyses the cultural and aesthetic exchange of the transmission of the figure of the femme fatale between Hollywood and European cinema. A further and ongoing area of research is Sicilian literature, where she has published a monograph on the narrative of Luigi Pirandello, and articles on constructions of the Sicilian landscape in the work of Consolo and Bufalino.