Saturday 5 April 2008

Merry Christmas (2001)

Cristian de Sica with the nose piercing, Massimo Boldi with the Prince Albert.

There's only one reason to watch the unforgivably offensive and trashy Merry Christmas, and that is the regional stereotyping of Cristian de Sica's über-Roman Fabio Trivellone and Massimo Boldi's über-Milanese Enrico Carli. But the fun of hearing de Sica exclaim typical Romanisms ("Mannaggia la miseria!") or watching Boldi fuss and fret is unfortunately surrounded by low comedy that is so low, so idiotic, and so offensive, we don't expect anyone unfamiliar with the Rome/Milan cultural rivalry to give this film half a cent. It is a film made for a very specific target audience: mostly the young Roman man, probably a little right-wing, probably a fan of Silvio Berlusconi. The film is xenophobic, homophobic and overdependent on toilet humor and cruel-hearted teasing. Why de Sica and Boldi need to surround their genuinely funny and good-natured schtick with so much filth is beyond the PPCC.


Merry Christmas comes from a long line of cinepanettoni - that is, low-brow Italian Christmas movies (as dependably commercial as the Panettone). This is the 20th film in 24 films featuring de Sica, Boldi and Christmas. Other PPCC-seen movies include Natale in India (where the subcontinent is lampooned), Natale sul Nilo (likewise for Egypt), and Christmas in Love (or was it Vacanze di Natale 2000? we get them all confused). The plot of these films is always the same, in that it's not so much plot-driven as gag-driven. After 2000, the gags were reliably the same, and let's say they fall into three categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

Gag #1 is that Cristian de Sica is the Romanliest Roman you've ever seen. Taking much of his schtick from previous über-Roman Alberto Sordi, and banking mostly on his fame as the son of the neorealist Vittorio de Sica, de Sica's career and charm hinges on his hilariously Romanly Romanness. He speaks in the Roman dialect, exclaims typical Roman exclamations, moves like a Roman, thinks like a Roman, often refers to parts of Rome. The PPCC is a big fan of Rome and Romans, so we just lap this stuff up. Mannaggia la miseria! 'ali mortacci tua! It is very funny, but it unfortunately depends entirely on the viewer being familiar with the stereotypical Roman.

We get fun Romanissimo body language.

And again.

Gag #2 is that Massimo Boldi is the Milaneseliest Milanese you've ever seen. Where de Sica is tanned, relaxed, dignified, Boldi is pale, balding and overweight. Where de Sica charms his way into women's apartments and out of police custody, Boldi fusses (and sometimes farts) and is an uptight rule-follower. Where de Sica exclaims "Cazzo!" Boldi exclaims "Cacchio!" And so forth. Once again, these are all just the Milan-Rome stereotypes. We must shamefully admit that we find it funny. And there's a charming quality to Boldi and de Sica together. Boldi often has an endearing naivete, such as the incredibly silly part in Natale in India where he exclaims, "I'm great at birdcalls! Listen to this!" purses his lips, and sounds what is obviously a pre-recording of a tropical birdcall. De Sica, likewise, is wonderful at mixing a sort of gesticulating, Italian dignity with the more vulgar Roman colloquialisms: always referring to Boldi as the formal lei, even as he sends him "afanculo" (the mother of all Italian swear words; featured greatly in The Godfather, we're not telling you what it means though).

The Bad

Gag #3 usually revolves around the subjugation of women, usually at the hands of de Sica's ultimate virility. In Merry Christmas, de Sica's Trivellone (whose name rhymes with Vitellone, which means literally "calf" but, ever since Fellini's film, means Roman layabout and playa) juggles two marriages: one wife is called Selvaggia (Paula Vázquez), which literally means "the wild lady", and one wife is Serena (Emanuela Folliero), which, well, you can guess. The women in these films are almost always setpieces to be moved around at will; they are just the set-up for the men's punch-lines. Notably, none of the films we've seen feature women as anything other than sex objects or family members - and there are no notable women comedians engaging on any fun adventures. Probably because the comedy is so idiotically phallic.

The women are objectified...

...and gays bashed. Biagio Izzo as the (one of many) offending stereotype.

Gag #4: enter Biagio Izzo, who is the Neopolitanliest Neopolitan you've ever seen. Again, we enjoy regional stereotyping in Italian films - as long as it's done by someone who really is of that region, and hence contains a certain amount of tribute as well. Italian culture is, after all, a melting pot of regions that refuse to melt. It's a bit like the good-natured regionalism in Chak De! India, except it would be harder to unite the Italian team under the tricolore. Anyway, Biagio Izzo, in Natale sul Nilo, for example, is much more Neopolitanly - and it's a delight to hear the dialect's absolute refusal to finish words. Everything in Izzo's mouth is shortened and accented - a "sigareta" becomes a "sigaré", "Napoli" becomes "a-Napulé". The problem, unfortunately, is that Izzo often comes third banana to the de Sica-Boldi pair, and so ends up playing trashy residual characters. In Merry Christmas, his role is absolutely awful: he plays an over-the-top gay stereotype, whose hamming is just painful to watch. It's a shame that they didn't use Izzo for what he could bring to the table - the Neopolitanness - and instead had to degrade him into playing to the homophobes in the audience.

The Ugly

Usually involving Bruno and Max, AKA i Fichi d'India. Jokes about Bruno's looks are common.

And then there's the worst of them all, Gag #5, or i Fichi d'India (literally, the Figs of India). These two comedians, Max and Bruno, rarely play real characters - most of the time, their roles in these films are just extensions of their stand-up routine. And we shudder to think what one of their shows must be like. These two play to the lowest common denominator; their gags are uniformly brainless and toilet-centric. So vulgar is their comedy that it drags the tone of an already ridiculous movie down several notches further. In Merry Christmas, they are also racist: at one point dressing up in blackface and speaking in dumbed down "black" voices. What's frightening is how this insulting behavior is normalized in Italian cinema. We saw all these movies in a theatre in Rome, and the Max and Bruno scenes were greeted with laughter. Even for films that are designated "proletariat" and "trashy", this sort of racism would never fly in similar British or American fare (not that those films don't have their own fair share of ethnic stereotyping; e.g. Mike Myers' upcoming The Love Guru, which seem to base its whole plot on an extended Indian stereotypes).

This could be acceptable in a Mr. Bean sort of way.

This one we actually laughed at.

But this one just ruined everything...

And it got worse too.

If you're interested in ugly sociocultural norms in present-day Italy, if you'd like to see what low-brow Italian comedy is like, if you'd like a better understanding of regionalism, racism, misogynism and homophobia in Italy today, you need look no further. This will probably break a lot of romantic ideas people seem to have about the land of Leonardo da Vinci and singing gondolieri, or at least the romantic ideas of Fellinified, de Sica (the father)-ified neorealist Italian cinema. It really doesn't get much worse than this.


Beth Loves Bollywood said...

I have so many questions about regional stereotypes! Tell more! List five characteristics of the three regional stereotypes mentioned in this film?

Somehow I always feel a little bit better when I get proof that Americans are not the only people who portray "non-us" in a negative, juvenile, straw-man sort of way. I know it's human nature - in a bad way, obviously - but it's good to know we're not alone in our inability or unwillingness to be thoughtful and careful at every turn.

In the words of Seinfeld, once again:
Elaine: "I will never understand people."
Jerry: "They're the worst."

a ppcc representative said...

Beth - Ah! More good questions! Hmm, most of the regional stereotypes are mentioned in the review - things like dialect, behavior (Roman hustlers vs. Milanese goodie two-shoes). Within Italy, there's a definite North-South divide, where Northerners (normally anyone north of Tuscany) are considered to be colder, more business-oriented, rule-following, and the Southerners (beginning with Rome and getting more pronounced as your go south) are seen as swindlers, hustlers and the stereotype of hot-headed, emotional Latin lovers. But places like Milan, Rome and Naples also have very distinct personalities, apart from which region they're in - and these, I reckon, are a lot to do with their histories (e.g. Rome and Naples' history under Papal and foreign rule, Milan as the business center).

Alas, don't worry, racism is global. :( I love Italy, but more than once non-white friends had woken me up to the fact that they've felt bad vibes there (one even moved away!).

Anonymous said...

*pops out semi-randomly* I always read with pleasure your blog, mainly for the Bollywood cinema reviews, but I also appreciate your interest into different cultures and foreign movies in general. So, thank you for thay. And for your very enjoyable prose ^^ (aaand... I'm one of the few people who liked KANK along with you it seems. Yay! *huggles* )
ah, you're brave, brave souls to have endured these movies. I'm Italian,, but this hasn't helped me to bear more than a few seconds of a single movie in the series (can't even remember which one). .
They're scandalously popular here in Italy :/ . Here's a good chunk of viewers who like them and buy the cinema tickets. And that's the reason Boldi and De Sics jr. have been churning drivel after drivel as this: money power. Who needs dignity and effort to produce good/insightful/mind-opening/not-gawd-awful movies when you can earn lot of money by feeding the lower instincts of the masses via recycled jokes, offending stereotypes and some female T&A (and bring the children to watch along with you, so you 'educate' them instead of dishing out the tickets for some kid-friendly movie )? As simple as that :/ .
Give me Mr. Bean with his head inside a turkey any day, I beg you ;__; . I'll give you all the italian politicians - no exception made - in exchange for Rowan and John Malkovic ( he can be King of Italy XD )

Alan O'Leary said...

Excellent introduction to the cycle of films (as it recently has become), even if I don't agree with all your assumptions, and think we need to inquire further into the make-up of the audience and into the nature of the prejudice and stereotyping in these films (which after all may just be less disguised than elsewhere). Check these out (in Italian):
Francesco Piccolo, ‘Una tonnellata di equivoci’, in L’italia spensierata (Rome: Laterza, 2007), pp. 91-129
Christian Uva, ‘La politica nel “panettone”: i film di Neri Parenti’, in M. Picchi and C. Uva, Destra e sinistra nel cinema italiano: film e immaginario politico dagli anni ’60 al nuovo millennio (Rome: Edizioni Interculturali, 2006), pp. 165-72

a ppcc representative said...

alan - Never got around to thanking you for the readings! Love it when comments are challenging and helpful.

Alan O'Leary said...

thanks ppcc! you might be interested in the cinepanettone project blogged here: