Five minutes before Perfetti Sconosciuti [Perfect Strangers] was due to start, I looked it up on Wikipedia. I’d seen the trailer, but couldn’t work out whether this was a comedy, a drama, or something else entirely.
As it turns out, I needn’t have bothered, Wikipedia was no help at all. It told me I was about to watch a comedy, but no comedy I’ve ever seen has left me feeling so traumatised and disheartened (except for possibly an Adam Sandler one I watched some years back, but that’s for different reasons entirely).
Briefly, the story revolves around a group of seven friends, three married couples and one bachelor. They’re having dinner at one of their houses, when one of them suggests playing a game to test how well they all know each other. They all put their phones on the table, and for the duration of the dinner, every message and call they receive, they have to share with the whole group. I won’t say any more than that.
On reflection, I simultaneously loved and hated this film more than perhaps any other I’ve ever seen. It is, insofar as I understand anything about cinema, an excellent film. Not too short, not too long. Interesting plot, slightly preachy at times but forgivably so. Interesting twists, really effective claustrophobic effect to the set. All good.
It contained jokes too (which is possibly why Wikipedia mistakenly thought it was a comedy), and funny ones, at least to begin with. Like photo editing tools where you adjust the contrast on a sliding scale from 0-100 and watch the photo go from blindingly light to entirely black, so too this film started out light and fluffy and ended up very black indeed.
As the revelations and scandals started picking up pace, I found myself wondering “how is this ostensible rom-com going to have any sort of happy ending? What Houdini-esque magic trick is the director about to pull off? And… what would even qualify as “happy” under these circumstances?” I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s ambiguous as to whether the film had a happy ending at all. For my money, it was the most depressing ending of all the available options.
The reason I bring Perfetti Sconosciuti up is that every time I watch a film like this, I think about how much more “Italian” it is than any of the art-house, Oscar-nominated, cinema d’auteur, slow-building, pensive, soulful, DULL films that Italy has long been associated with.
If it were up to me, I would take The Great Beauty, Human Capital, and every narcissistic, self-congratulatory, faux-ironic film Nanni Moretti has ever made (which is most of them), tie them all to a large concrete block, and drop said block into the Bay of Naples. They will teach you the square root of sod all about Italy, Italian culture or Italian life.
Take the aforementioned Oscar-winning La Grande Bellezza. Boasting the most impressive use of cameras this side of London’s CCTV network, La Grande Bellezza is essentially a remake of Fellini’s 1960 classic La Dolce Vita, spruced up for a HD generation. Just how similar are they? Watch the trailers here and here, and decide for yourself.
To summarise the two: in Fellini’s original, a gossip journalist [Marcello Mastroianni] spends a week among the rich and famous in Rome, with beautiful sweeping camera shots on display at every opportunity, all in black and white, whilst in the 2013 version, Toni Servillo plays a retired author who spends a night among the rich and famous in Rome, with beautiful sweeping camera shots on display at every opportunity, all in super high-resolution. Much of the latter is based on flashbacks, and the nods (which are more like prostrations) to the former are so obvious and frequent that you half expect Servillo’s character to call up a memory of himself splashing in the Trevi Fountain with Anita Ekberg.
The films Italians themselves watch are the exact opposite of these vanity projects: crude, often offensive, low-brow, mass-market comedies. Why? Because Italians recognise something of themselves in them. That’s why anybody wanting to learn more about Italian culture should watch them too. Here are three more such films, like Perfetti Sconosciuti, to show you what I mean:
Benvenuti al Sud
This is probably my favourite film of all time, in any language. I’ve seen it five or six times in the past three years. I’ve written an essay on it. I can quote large parts of it. In truth, it’s not even an Italian film. It’s a carbon-copy Italian remake of a French film, bienvenue chez les ch’tis, in which a postman from the north gets transferred to an office in the south, and hilarity ensues. It is fairly amazing how this film needed almost no adjustment to fit Italy perfectly. To understand Italian society and stereotypes of north and south, this film really is the only thing you need.
Pranzo di Ferragosto
The English-language trailer for this film informs the viewer that it is brought to you by the team behind multiple award-winning, super hard-hitting, marathon Mafia expose and all-round depress-a-thon Gomorrah. This is technically true, but the two films could not be further apart. The plot centres around a henpecked house-husband who has his arm twisted into hosting four old ladies at his house for Italy’s traditional festive mid-summer holiday lunch. It is a light, gentle, soothing balm, which is barely longer than its trailer at just over an hour.
In all of his films, Checco Zalone plays an exaggerated version of the italiano medio, or average Italian. Quo Vado deals with the Italian obsession with the posto fisso, a public sector job from which you cannot be removed, as well as the clash of cultures when Italians go abroad (which has become very topical in Italy in recent years). Films like this rely on the audience recognising themselves in the stereotypes and the depictions, otherwise the humour just doesn’t work. The fact that three of Zalone’s films occupy the top three slots in Italy’s all time top grossing-films should indicate to you how well he gets and delivers the Italian mentality.
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-The Wandering Jew-