WARM REFUGE OR SNAKES NEST?

Schermata 2015-03-06 alle 14.45.12

Broken, tragicomic, cruel but inescapable. Family in Italian cinema, is a love-and-hatred place nobody is able to live without.

 

It has multiple meanings – a social institution, a structure of feeling, a cultural discourse – but family undeniably lies at the core of Italian life. Figures validate the perception of Italy as a country of “mamma’s boys”, reluctant to cut the ties and leave the nest: approximately 70% of young adults between the ages of 20 and 30 still live with their family, compared with 35% in France, 28% in the UK, and only 18% in Sweden. Beyond these numbers, family actually works as a powerful agency that crucially shapes the individual and affects his or her relationship with society.

 

It is unsurprising then, that Italian cinema has widely dealt with family as a topic, investigating its cultural features and power structures, and chronicling the struggle to maintain its traditional stability in the context of wider social and economic transformations.

 

Romanticised media clichés most often represent the classic Italian family as La famiglia del Mulino Bianco‘the family of the white windmill’, like the one of a popular commercial – a perfect and happy group of smiling people. However, if the family is a microcosm of the wider society, then it is also supposed to express the underlying anxiety and distress of this society. In fact, cinematic representations of the family often expose its cracks and dark sides and its overall inability to adapt in an evolving socio-cultural environment.

 

For some reason, when it comes to the topic “family in Italian cinema”, the first film I think of is Marco Bellocchio’s iconoclastic Fists in the Pocket (I Pugni in Tasca, 1965). Within the cramped space of a small middle-class apartment, a man plans to kill his family members: the pathetic blind mother, the retarded younger brother, the incestuous sister, the cynical older brother. Family is thus presented as a distressing source of hypocrisy, mediocrity and morbidity, one that produces repressed and unhappy individuals. Certainly one of most devastating family portraits ever in Italian film history, Bellocchio’s work shockingly investigates the disillusion and discomfort that lies behind traditional blood relations.
Another fierce critique, this time disguised as a brilliant black comedy, is Mario Monicelli’s 1992 Dearest Relatives (the original Italian title is Parenti Serpenti, or ”snake relatives”). The film narrates the tale of an old couple who invite their children and grandchildren to their home to celebrate Christmas together. As the parents realise that they are getting old, they ask their four sons to decide which of them will take them to live at their place. When no one is willing to take care of the old couple, they decide to plot a criminal scheme to solve the problem. Beyond its funny façade, the film says a lot about the disintegration of the traditional Italian family and, in particular, the fading of filial piety in contemporary Italian society. A gentle and occasionally funny touch is adopted by Italo-Turkish director Ferzan Ozpetek, a filmmaker who lightly tackles urgent concerns of pressing social relevance in his Loose Cannons (Mine Vaganti, 2010). Through the tragicomic vicissitudes of a young man who wishes to reveal his homosexuality to his family, the film playfully comments on the traditionalist ideology of Italian families and their inability to adjust to evolving social patterns. 

“…the film says a lot about the disintegration of the traditional Italian family and, in particular, the fading of filial piety in contemporary Italian society.”

 

More generally, the difficulty of the family to stay at pace with the cultural, ideological and material developments of the wider society is a theme often explored in Italian cinema. We can see an early example of this in Luchino Visconti’s 1960 classic Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco e i Suoi Fratelli). A Southern rural family moves to the northern metropolis of Milan to seek a better life in the midst of the socio-economic boom of the 1960s. But it will be an uneasy task for the family members to adjust to the logic of such a big city caught in the chaos of momentous changes, and their inability to adapt will finally result in moral and existential downfall.

But is there a glimmer of hope after all these bleak considerations? Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders (Le Meraviglie, 2014) is one of the most touching and delicate family portraits in the recent history of Italian cinema. Through the story of a teenager and her wish to emancipate herself from the constraints of a secluded rural world, the film sensibly illuminates the dark and bright sides, and the underlying turmoil that enlivens the mechanisms internal to every family. In its affecting swing between love and hatred, the protagonist’s relationship with her parents finally reveals the institution of family in all its rich contradictions – as a generative yet mutilating organism, simultaneously a cruel monster and warm refuge.

 

Symbolically structured as a place for incomprehension, existential instability, and rejection of inherited moral values, family in Italian cinema is indeed represented as the ultimate fallacious entity. But between strong ideological denunciation and fake traditionalist optimism, there might still be room for some heartfelt hope.