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.
“…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.