An Italian Studies Scholarly Blog
A man and a woman are thrown around inside a giant tin of Montana beef which is rolling down a hill. The movement shakes off the woman’s clothes, leaving her in underwear. The tin falls in the Tiber, and, as it floats along, the man sleeps with the woman before he is rescued and driven home by his wife. Physical humour, prominent brand placement, narratives of marital infidelity, and the display of a starlet’s body: you could be forgiven for thinking this is a scene from a cinepanettone, but it comes from one of the opening scenes of Lo scatenato (1967), a 1967 commedia all’italiana starring Vittorio Gassman.
In his recent book, Alan O’Leary examines the critical discourses which dominate in discussions of the cinepanettone. In particular, he highlights a frequent critique of the films’ content, especially in accusations of ‘volgarità’, linked in part to their ‘umorismo spicciolo e sessuale, e […] nudità (femminili)’, and a disdain for the films’ audiences, or at least for the passive and acritical spectatorship which the films supposedly require.
These critiques bring to mind earlier debates on the commedia all’italiana. ‘Volgarità’ and a lack of engagement of the spectator both appear in this judgement from Lino Micciché, writing in 1981: ‘con le debite eccezioni (rare, però; e comunque in schiacciata minoranza), la “commedia all’italiana” fu volgare nei segni quanto nel senso e tese più a soddisfare il qualunquismo che la capacità critica dello spettatore, più a propugnare cinismo che scetticismo, più a favorire lo sberleffo che la dissacrazione’. Replace commedia all’italiana with cinepanettone in this sentence and it could quite easily be a recent quote on the cinepanettone such as those cited by O’Leary.
Micciché continued: ‘La realtà è, a mio avviso, che nessuna rilettura, nessuna revisione, nessun ripensamento possono mutare il giudizio, culturalmente negativo, che a suo tempo la stragrande maggioranza dei film di quel filone meritò’ (a quote which brings to mind Roy Menarini’s take on the cinepanettone – ‘sono film non redimibili’ – cited by O’Leary). Fast forward two decades later and, writing in an introduction to the edited screenplay of Una vita difficile, Micciché modified his position somewhat (although not without reservations), describing commedia all’italiana as ‘forse sottovalutata quando era fenomeno attuale, forse sopravvalutata quando è divenuta realtà retrospettiva’.
The softening of Micciché’s stance echoes the wider fate of commedia all’italiana in Italian culture. An initially mixed (critical) reaction has evolved into a collective nostalgia towards commedia all’italiana films and their actors. Within academic circles, certain commedia all’italiana films have been brought within the canon of Italian film history (especially titles such as La grande guerra (1959), Una vita difficile (1961), and Il sorpasso (1962)). This scholarly recuperation has involved a process of canon formation whereby a small number of 1960s ‘classics’ – the ‘debite eccezioni in schiacciata minoranza’ mentioned by Micciché, the sort of films which appear in edited screenplays – have been discussed as emblematic of a much wider and more complex cinematic phenomenon. This restricted commedia all’italiana canon is partly based on excluding precisely the kind of films which most lend themselves to accusations of ‘volgarità’, or, put another way, the kind of films which might show most clearly some of the lines of continuity between this now cherished genre and the critically despised cinepanettone.
The cinepanettone’s reliance on sexual themes and imagery is not a recent turn; an emphasis on sex and the female body has been a key feature of Italian film comedy since at least the 1950s (if not before). A critical response bemoaning the ‘volgarità’ of this emphasis on sex and female nudity predates the cinepanettone as well. In 1965, for example, Sandro Zambetti published an article in Cineforum strongly critiquing recent commedia all’italiana episode films for their ‘caratteristica comune e dominante […] della volgarità e dell’erotismo più triviale’.
Commedia all’italiana regularly used beaches and nightclubs as spaces which allowed for the narratively motivated display of female nudity, either in bikini shots or frequent striptease scenes. Other more inventive ways, such as the giant rolling meat tin in Lo scatenato, were also found to remove the (female) characters’ clothes. In Adulterio all’italiana (1966), Catherine Spaak’s precarious pearl dress unravels, revealing her underwear.
In Operazione San Gennaro (1966), a woman disguised as a nun smuggles stolen jewellery under her habit, which is ripped off by Nino Manfredi, leaving her in wimple and underwear.
In Cuori solitari (1970), Ugo Tognazzi and his wife attend a seance where a hypnotised woman pulls open her dress. Four decades later, Natale in Sudafrica (2010) sees Belén Rodríguez strip down to her underwear to save Massimo Ghini and Giorgio Panariello from quicksand. Whether one finds these scenes ‘volgare’ or otherwise, the point is that the cinepanettone quicksand sequence fits within a wider comic filmmaking tradition of the narratively motivated striptease.
A reliance on sex and the female body is just one of many lines of continuity between commedia all’italiana and the cinepanettone. Others might include the use of episodic narratives, cross fertilisation of TV and advertising stars, frequent narratives of deception and mistaken identity (especially in relation to marriage and sex), location shooting, and the importance of soundtrack.
The historical and industrial contexts of commedia all’italiana and the cinepanettone are of course vastly different, and there are significant differences in their comic content (commedia all’italiana relies much less on scatology than the cinepanettone, for example). However, both are comic genres built around the star performance of male comedians with an emphasis on sex (and an associated middle-aged masculinity in crisis) and peppered with images of semi-naked women. Despite the very differing cultural prestige of the two genres, in their representation of sex and gender at least, they display more continuities than differences.
 Alan O’Leary, Fenomenologia del cinepanettone (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2013), p. 14.
 Lino Micciché, ‘Linee e tendenze del cinema italiano’, in Film 81, ed. Lino Micciché (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1981), p. 12.
 Ibid.; Roy Menarini, Il cinema dopo il cinema: dieci idee sul cinema italiano 2000-2010 (Genova: Le Mani, 2010), p. 80, cit. in A. O’Leary, Fenomenologia del cinepanettone, p. 28.
 Lino Micciché, ‘Nota del curatore’, in Una vita difficile: risate amare nel lungo dopoguerra, ed. Lino Micciché (Venice: Marsilio, 2000), p. 13.
 Sandro Zambetti, ‘“Un male” che investe il cinema italiano’, Cineforum 5:41 (1965), p. 8.
Natalie Fullwood is Tutor in Italian at the University of Leeds. She received a PhD in Italian Studies from the University of Cambridge with a thesis focusing on space and gender in commedia all’italiana. She has published in Italian Studies and Modern Italy and is currently working on a monograph based on her doctoral thesis (under contract with Palgrave MacMillan). Her research interests include Italian film and popular culture, film comedy, cinematic space, and representations of gender and sexuality in film.