“Docupanettone or Populist Documentary?”
Cristina Formenti (University of Milan)
Set during the summer of 2016, Giovanni Totaro’s Happy Winter (2017) is a largely observational documentary about the Italian vacationers who choose to spend their holidays at Mondello beach, near Palermo in Sicily. Here, more than 1,000 small cabins are set up each year, and the beachgoers make them into a home away from home, replete with interior decorating. Thus, the film focuses on a very specific reality: its action takes place in just three, circumscribed spaces – the interior of the cabins, the beach, and the sea. Some aerial shots obtained with a drone and positioned at the beginning and end of the documentary suggest that the microcosm here presented is a cross-section of modern-day Italian society. However, it presents, in fact, only a segment of the Italian population: the populists.
With this film, Totaro aimed at creating the first “docupanettone.” That is, he wanted to create a documentary version of the national-popular, farcical Italian comedies known as “cinepanettoni.” The latter, which started emerging in the 1980s, are commercial films riddled with regional stereotypes and crass situations that are released in local theaters over Christmas – the word cinepanettone, which originally brought with itself a pejorative connotation, is the result of the merging of the terms “cinema” and “panettone” (i.e., a typical Italian Christmas cake). More precisely, as he has often repeated during interviews, Totaro wanted Happy Winter to prove an entertaining documentary that, by exploiting “the irony and force of the real,” took over from the now-tired cinepanettoni the task of describing “the identity of the nation.”
Happy Winter is traversed by melancholia for past times, contains no actual coarse situations, and mixes dramatic and comedic tones. Therefore, at first impression, it appears closer to a documentary version of those cinematic comedies known as “commedie all’italiana” (“comedies Italian style” in English) that were produced in Italy between 1958 and the late 1970s than to the more contemporary cinepanettoni. On closer inspection, however, it effectively showcases several connection points with the cinepanettoni – which is quite interesting for a documentary considering that local film critics have often accused such fiction films of offering a poor representation of Italy. Like many cinepanettoni, Totaro’s documentary is an ensemble film that revolves around a holiday vacation, albeit a summer one rather than Christmas. It features a character, Toni Serio – the aspiring politician in search of votes – who, with his politically incorrect statements and clichéd behaviors, seems to step right out of a cinepanettone. Also, viewing cinepanettoni is, for many Italians, part of an annual Christmas ritual precisely like going to Mondello beach to spend the summer is a yearly summer ritual for Anna, Grazia, Piera, Toni, and the many other protagonists of Happy Winter.
Moreover, only by looking at Happy Winter through a docupanettone perspective, can one fully comprehend the inclusion of brief “musical moments” within a film that otherwise strives to position itself as an observational documentary. (Totaro even shot many scenes without his crew so as to intrude on the reality he was filming as little as possible.) Take, for example, the sequence revolving around Gruppo Italiano’s song Tropicana. It is conceived almost like a music video, with a few shots of a group of girls dancing a choreographed routine. The fact that pop songs have a pervasive presence in Italian summers would not be sufficient to justify the insertion in the film of this clearly orchestrated sequence. However, as a bearer of entertainment with a view to making Happy Winter a docupanettone, this sequence is more understandable.
Finally, like the cinepanettoni, Happy Winter is a film that tries hard to be national-popular. It does so through its summer holidays setting, musical choices, its focus on figures from the middle and lower classes facing financial difficulties (with whom those Italian cinemagoers who would typically not choose to see a documentary can easily identify), and – most importantly – by voicing populist discourses. For instance, in his improvised rallies to fellow beachgoers, Toni insists on the xenophobic idea of immigrants being the cause of basically all the difficulties Italians face daily. The same character also states that politicians should not have a college degree because, if they have not studied, they have fewer instruments for stealing taxpayers’ money and favoring their personal interests over those of the Italian population (a concept aligned with the idea of politicians having to be ordinary people that has allowed the populist movement 5 Stelle to thrive in the country). Such populist discourses are also amplified through most of the other characters. The only figure that detaches a bit from them is the street vendor of drinks and snacks. For instance, he is heard saying to his son that he should obtain some school diploma to have a better life. Yet, this character represents a minority within the film, and his presence and statements alone are not sufficient to counterbalance the otherwise pervasive populist discourses. In fact, despite its attempt at elevating itself to a portrayal of Italian society as a whole, Happy Winter offers only a very partial view of it.
Since Totaro chooses to avoid judging his protagonists, and basically amplifies only figures that are bearers of populist positions, giving very little space to alternative views, he ends up with a film that is a docupanettone, but in a derogatory understanding of the term. Contrary to its director’s intentions, in its attempt to be national-popular by all means, Happy Winter does not critique the cultural crisis that Italy has been facing in recent years alongside the economic one. On the contrary, it glorifies such cultural impoverishment, thereby inadvertently configuring itself as an example of a populist documentary.
“Summer of our Discontent”
Kris Fallon (University of California, Davis)
It took first-time director Giovanni Totaro several summers on Sicily’s Mondello Beach to capture the world that he presents in Happy Winter. By contrast, it took just a few months for the Covid-19 pandemic to (temporarily) wipe it out. Indeed, looking back at Palermo circa-2017 from the vantage point of the summer of 2020, the immediate and inescapable impression is how far and how fast the world has moved in a short time frame. After months of social distancing, sheltering in place, and ubiquitous face masks, the sheer proximity of bodies on screen makes the landscape seem alien. Through the gauze of several months of pandemic-inspired anxiety punctuated by several weeks of outrage around the murder of George Floyd by the police, the relaxed leisure of summer vacation on display here presents a nostalgic reminder of summers past. Given the devastating extent to which the pandemic ravaged Italy’s northern regions, one can only imagine that this summer will be a little different for the inhabitants of the tightly packed cottages that line the beach in colorful, geometric rows. But a closer look reveals that this response isn’t just the product of our particular vantage point. Indeed, looking back with a nostalgic longing is an endemic dimension of the film itself, tightly woven into the form and content of the portrait that Totaro assembled in a pre-pandemic Italy.
Unlike the treasure hunter whose frustrated search punctuates several scenes throughout the film, we can uncover this nostalgic gesture relatively easily on Mondello Beach. In amongst the cheerful music and dancing, the endless card games, and the lazy pace of summer, one finds anxieties both individual and collective, from the “old wounds” that Mauro describes to his partner as he tries to get back in the water to the frequent references to the stagnant Italian economy. Across the board, what seems to confront and concern this miniature community is a version of the problems confronting both the West and the global community more broadly: a vanishing middle class, decreased living standards, rising sea levels and climate change, overpopulation, economic austerity, etc. We see miniature versions of all these things: a heavy storm floods the beach, prompting an evacuation to higher ground, as the beach vendor frets over his family’s future. In this context, carefree leisure is an illusion, and the annual renovations and decorating to transform these sheds into temporary homes feel a little like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. To confront these challenges, the denizens of Mondello even have a proto-authoritarian candidate campaigning for Palermo city council, proposing various kinds of economic stimulus alongside a staunch ethno-nationalism (“No Gypsy campsites, no immigrants in general.”) One can almost hear echoes of “build that wall” or Brexit in and amongst the surf, claims that current problems come from the outside community and that locking them out can return one to the glory of the past and make things great again.
This sense of nostalgia for a prior moment is even part of the formal makeup of the film itself. Shot with an entirely observational approach that eschews intertitles, discursive interviews, or voiceover to help us along, we’re left to glean insights from bits and pieces here and there, not unlike the aforementioned treasure hunter. The style evokes 1960s and 70s documentary and the work of the direct cinema school, a time when the observational mode was à la mode. Though far from absent in documentary of the past few decades (indeed, see June’s Docalogue discussion of Honeyland), this level of authorial subtlety has receded to the background against more overt modes of address. In part, it’s not hard to see why. Given the resemblance between Mondello’s temporary beach cottages and the itinerant refugee camps that dot the route between Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, it’s fascinating that Italy’s largest camp, Carla di Mineo, is just a few hours away. It’s hard to imagine that a simple title informing the audience of this wouldn’t dramatically alter our perception of these people and their particular kind of angst. It’s also hard to imagine that, if such an intertitle were given, we would take these people seriously, which is exactly what the film wants us to do. Instead of such heavy-handed tactics we’re given a subtle kind of irony, a gesture here and a look there, with the distinct possibility that we might miss the point entirely. As always with the observational mode, it’s a question of perspective; the film does provide one, but different audiences with different backgrounds will reach their own (possibly widely divergent) interpretations.
All of which is to say that looking back nostalgically to 2017 from a crisis laden 2020 is simply to look back on a reality very similar to our own, even if it seems to be radically foreign. Different crises dominate, but there is a similar sense of lingering anxiety over what the future may bring. We, of course, know exactly what’s coming, leaving us with a desire to warn these relatively carefree beachgoers about what lies in store, if not to avert the disaster then just to enjoy their moment in the sun a little longer, before masks and other pandemic accoutrement bring it all to an end. But they remind us nonetheless, not just of the world before the pandemic, but also of the fact that the past, however nostalgically we view it, wasn’t the carefree time that we imagine it to be. These layers of nostalgia – the character’s, the film’s, our own – build upon one another like additions to a sandcastle, each providing an unsound foundation for the next, and all subject to the indifferent tide of the future. Whatever challenges confront us in the moment, something worse could be on the horizon.
Hindsight, in this case, isn’t quite 2020.