Trashy Italian TV and Other Pandemic Escapes

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Four career-oriented men are lounging on the patio of an upscale restaurant in an upscale mountainside locale, really feeling themselves. One works in healthcare; one is a “creative”; one works in sales; and one is an extremely well-paid “contracts” guy, who inherited a lucrative family business. They fully identify with their careers and work pedigrees and are incredibly smug about all the wealth and status signifiers they’ve amassed. As they’re enjoying their meal, the four of them are star-struck: An internationally-renowned entrepreneur just happens to be flying right above them on his private helicopter. They all worship him, mimicking his style and adopting his mannerisms. If they keep climbing through hard work and good networking, their rationale goes, they’ll get there. “Will we ever reach those heights?” one wonders. “Yes, cradled by the noise of those propellers,” another responds, the adoration palpable in his voice.

Their feeling of contentment suddenly comes to a halt when the bill arrives. The guy who came solo refuses to go dutch. “Why did your girl order lobster?” “This chick drank three liters of Cabernet”; “If you screw her, why would *I* have to pay for her meal?” are just some of the objections raised between the three of them. Then, with a jolt of horror, they realize no tax had been added. They throw their napkins in frustration, and then credits roll. 

What might have been the reaction of four wannabe startup guys crossing paths with Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk or mid-career online editors fawning over a Condé-Nast figurehead or the guy who founded The Awl is just a scene from the Italian movie Yuppies, a comedy of manners from 1986 that humorously dissects the rapid ascent of the urban-dwelling professional-managerial class in 1980s Milan. Sets are cartoonish, almost stage-like; costumes are garish (think fur coats or shawls with tails and paws still attached); and elocution is boorish. On a superficial view, most of the laughs come from bizarre sexual situations (everybody wants to have an adventure!) and elements of physical comedy and slapstick. It’s the type of movie that routinely airs at the height of the summer or during the holidays, something that, by Italian standards, is family friendly.

Yet, movies like Yuppies are all I’ve been able to watch in the past three months, when a lack of planning and foresight locked me out of the United States and in my home country, with no return date in sight. 

Being at home meant staying in the place where, two years prior, I had found my mother’s lifeless body, after she was struck down by an aneurysm. And it meant being far from all the significant friendships I had made in adulthood. Plus, my arrival coincided with a second (and then a third, then a fourth) tiered lockdown.

With nowhere to go and with my life on hold, I stopped consuming intellectually rewarding movies and books and listening to music altogether. I did not want to indulge in any of my longstanding passions while on a forced and prolonged stay in Milan, a city where I was never particularly at ease, despite being born there.

Still, I yearned for some laughter. Italian comedies from the 1970s to the early 1990s became my spiritual sustenance. In those two and a half decades, Italy produced a near-infinite trove of movies whose plots are basically summertime flings, comedies of errors set during Christmas, tales of office drudgery, white-collar blues that paint the Italian middle class (and those who strive to move up the social ladder) in a satirical, but ultimately sympathetic manner. I must have watched 20 of those films between Christmas and mid-February.

Unless you’re an edgelord, I need to warn you: Moviegoers coming from more socially progressive cultural contexts than 1980s Italy (where we’ve always been resistant to political correctness and social justice causes) might wince at the vulgarity of these movies. In the 1987 summertime comedy Rimini Rimini, a recent divorcée finds herself in bed with her best friend’s twelve-year-old son, who claims this was not his first rodeo with a friend of his mother: he slept with several of them, in fact, to get money in exchange for his silence, money he would use on leisurely activities. In the 1991 anthology comedy Abbronzatissimi, a blonde, upper-class girl falls in love with an “African” doctor named Mustapha, who taunts her racist parents with descriptions of the lovemaking prowess of his people. In Grandi Magazzini, another anthology comedy (see a pattern here?) about what goes on inside a department store in the span of one day, the wife of a middle manager commits to seducing the department store owner’s barely adult son, who works there in disguise, so that her husband can get a promotion. 

That being said, if you look to trashy ensemble comedies to get some moral lesson, I’d strongly encourage you to reexamine your approach. 

My all-time favorite product of this cultural milieu/era is the Fantozzi saga. Written by the comedian Paolo Villaggio, who also starred as the title character, it debuted in 1971 as a collection of short stories about a group of middling salarymen working in a “megacorporation,” a job Villaggio himself did before getting into show business. The result is a cringey, yet heartwarming satire where Fantozzi and his friends have to fend off grotesque office interactions, friendships that are both transactional and long lasting, and a lackluster domestic life. The books were a hit in the Soviet Union, and, in 2012, earned Villaggio the Gogol Prize. The struggles of the protagonist, Ugo Fantozzi, are mundane, but are an accumulation of minor indignities, akin to death by a thousand papercuts. The main characters, played by leading stage actors, all have distinctive outfits or features, reminiscent of masks from commedia dell’arte. Fantozzi always wears a basque and the rise of his pants is so long that the waist reaches his armpits. His wife, when dolled up, displays a bad reproduction of the Farrah Fawcett ‘70s hairstyle. Fantozzi’s friend wears coke-bottle glasses, while his longtime office crush, Signorina Silvani, dresses like a 1940s starlet with some Carmen Miranda sprinkled in.

Each of the 10 movies in the saga has a similar structure. One episode deals with his loveless marriage. His plain wife does not love him but only pities him. She never tells him “I love you,” only “I hold you in high regard.” One episode involves a recreational, after-work activity organized by his best friend (the most famous of which is a camping trip where they’re chased by their personal raincloud). Another episode details his brush with high society, most notably, a dinner party where he and his friends don’t know how to consume the very elaborate dishes. An episode deals with lowly employees fraternizing with executives who are reviled for the way they treat their underlings but whose wealth is mythologized (owning armchairs made of human skin, went a workplace rumor). Finally, we always see Fantozzi trying to have his way with Signorina Silvani, a longtime office-crush who always takes advantage of his devotion while revealing the deep pits of sadness of her own. At the end of each attempted tryst with her, he reaches the same conclusion: He might not have what he wants, but, in his family and among his friends he has what he needs.

Then, in the 1988 chapter Fantozzi Retires, he and his colleagues finally do retire. Given the office’s toxic environment, they all envisioned this as the end of their low-grade misery. Yet, with their days devoid of any routine or obligations, they grow more and more despondent. More and more of their former coworkers end up dying, and when they meet, it’s usually for a funeral. Fantozzi becomes a hypochondriac and ends up buying a coffin … in installments. Signorina Silvani sports a noose in the middle of her dining room. As a temporary solution to their malaise, they end up paying their former employer under the table to allow them to work again. 

I had watched these movies whenever they aired on TV since I was 10 years old, and while I approached the films just for mindless fun, I remain surprised at how current they felt. Those who pride themselves on being in intellectual circles scoff at the coarse, vulgar, and low-hanging-fruit humor of these movies. But, I bet that not only do they secretly enjoy them whenever they air, but they also see more in the films than a group of buffoons carrying out crass physical comedy. 

Despite the display of wealth or, in the case of the lowlier characters, the unabashed thirst for material class signifiers in a way that fully screams “1980s” or “Eurotrash” (see also Berlusconi and Trump), I detected some universal dimension to these unpretentious movies. 

The self-described yuppies (why would you willingly call yourself that?) that appear in the movie of the same name, in Abbronzatissimi, and in Rimini Rimini, constantly try to find ways to “bill, bill, bill” in a way that is so zealous, so grating and ultimately so desperate that is similar to the American fetishization of “the hustle.” Following this script, every word you utter or write, and every action you take is stage-directed for maximum impact and … deliverables. Turns out, we have not evolved much.

I found myself identifying with the sense of displacement Fantozzi and his colleague feel when his cohort retires. When we all were told to shelter in place after COVID hit, those privileged and lucky enough not to have pressing health or economic concerns were encouraged to pick up a creative or intellectual hobby. Soon, though—barring more serious circumstances—few knew what to do with themselves. Turns out that your annoying coworker whose microwaved lunch leaves a persistent stench in the office, the jerk who hogs the power outlet at the café, or the Brooklyn mom who insists on doing storytime with her toddler in the quiet area of your local library were all better than living alone in a real-life version of a time loop. 

What these anthology and ensemble comedies gave me was a newfound appreciation for human relations. Even when they’re cringeworthy, at least they give you memories to treasure. 

While I watched most of these movies on the Italian Netflix and Prime catalog, rest assured that they’re easily searchable on Youtube but I don’t want to encourage piracy on an official platform.

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