italys raucous holiday classics are not your standard hallmark movies

Gleefully vulgar, the genre known as “Cinema Panettone” once dominated Italy over the holidays. Italian revelers recently flocked to the alpine town where many of the films were set.

On a recent evening inside the Hotel de la Poste, an alpine hotel in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy’s most ski-and-be-seen winter destination, a boisterous party celebrated the birth of a cinematic era.

Forty years earlier, the libidinous, up-chalet down-chalet comedy “Christmas Holiday,” set in the lodge, was released. Nominally about a plain but lucky-in-adultery piano bar singer and the wealthy Milanese, salt-of-the-earth Romans and tuxedoed bons vivants who surround him, the film previewed decades of gleefully vulgar, broad and formulaic Christmas comedies that earned a fortune and came to be known, after the cakes Italians devour during the season, as “Cinema Panettone.”

To celebrate the anniversary, the film’s producer, writer and stars carved up an enormous panettone the size of a fire hydrant and participated in a weekend of cinepanettone-themed festivities.

Revelers in fur, sequins and ski sweaters reading “Cortina” or “Mountains and Champagne” danced to “Dance All Nite,” “Maracaibo” and other Italian ’80s classics on the movie’s soundtrack. They sang along with the film’s protagonist at a raucous dinner cabaret performance. They hit the slopes and raced down a slalom, trying to finish a slice of panettone before reaching the finish line.

“He’s still chewing,” Chiara Caliceti, the weekend’s emcee, shouted. “He really ate the panettone!”

Cloying Hallmark Christmas movies set in European cities may be all the rage this year, but in Italy, they do not come anywhere close to the cultural juggernaut that once was cinema panettone.

A giant panettone and a nine-liter bottle of prosecco to celebrate 40 years of “Cinema Panettone” in Cortina.Chiara Negrello for The New York Times
A slice of pannetone.Chiara Negrello for The New York Times

For three decades, the films dominated the Christmas season — until their stars aged out, streaming platforms took over and tastes and industry economics shifted. Never deemed fit for consumption abroad, they were for fans who cherished a slice of Italian culture during the hedonist and carefree turn of the century. For critics, though, they reflected the consumerism and showgirl sexism of the Silvio Berlusconi era that, like a shameful secret, was better kept in the family.

A dozen years after the films ran their course, their producers and fans are seeking to capitalize on nostalgia and rehabilitate them as cult classics that raised to an art form Italy’s love of cuckolding high jinks, toilet humor and the folkloric swearing that results when Italians from different classes and regions collide.

“The intellectuals keep telling us they are lowbrow. It’s low, but they don’t understand: They are low on purpose,” said Claudio Cecchetto, 71, an Italian music producer who presided over the hotel’s dance party. “These are super intelligent people who decided to go low. People just want to have fun. I mean what the hell.”

“Christmas Holiday,” which many middle-aged Italians can quote from memory, was followed by “Christmas Holiday” 1990, 1991, 1995 and 2000. The films were often set in Cortina and premised on guests coming from different means and parts of Italy to curse and court one another in ski lodges.

A boisterous party celebrated the birth of a cinematic era.Chiara Negrello for The New York Times

The 2000s marked a move to exotic locales — Christmas in Rio, India, South Africa and New York — and often offered a smorgasbord of physical gags, sophomoric spoofs, bare breasts and racial stereotypes. “Christmas on the Nile,” released in 2002, is considered by connoisseurs to be the height — or depths — of the genre. It featured a mummy-wrap-as-toilet-paper gag. In 2009, screens reserved for “Christmas in Beverly Hills” forced “Avatar” to postpone its arrival in Italian theaters.

“They’re designed for communal viewing,” said Alan O’Leary, a cinema studies professor and the author of the “Phenomenology of Cinemapanettone,” who said they were purposefully broad to attract, and crack up, generations of the Italian families who went to the movies together after Christmas.

He said the exaggerated representations of regional archetypes in a relatively young and fragmented country continued the work of “telling Italians that they are Italians,” and more than anything reflected Italy’s Christmas “carnivalesque period where you overindulge in things.”

No matter how far afield the cinema panettone films traveled, Cortina d’Ampezzo, with its icy streets lined with a luxury mall’s worth of brands (Rolex, Moncler, Fendi, Fendi Kids) has always been considered its ancestral home. For a weekend in December, the town, which will host part of the 2026 Olympic Games, became for many the Olympics of Italian trash.

Aurelio De Laurentiis, a film producer, during an interview regarding the anniversary of the first cinepanettone film in Italy.Chiara Negrello for The New York Times

In a quiet corner of the hotel bar, waiters in white jackets attended on Aurelio De Laurentiis, the powerful producer of “Christmas Holiday” and the more than 30 cinema panettone films that followed. His assistant and everyone else called him “il presidente” because he was the president and owner of the Naples soccer club. After a plate of pasta, he crossed the room to shoot a promotional spot for a single-day theatrical rerelease of the movie on Saturday, but the camera lights kept flickering, causing him to repeatedly start over.

Back at his corner table, he said the “historical” movies captured Italy of the era, when Mr. Berlusconi was conquering the country. Mr. De Laurentiis said that the movies had success because they were essentially “instant” films rolled off a cinematic conveyor belt, and that he stopped after three decades because they ran out of exotic locales, and he got distracted by his soccer team. Contrary to those who say the sexist romps could not be made today, he thought that they were just what the joyless post-#MeToo era needed.

He said he would like to try to make such a film, suggesting a crass and vulgar name for a holiday #MeToo movie.

“This could be a good title for a movie,” he said, explaining it would be “based in sincerity.”

Mr. De Laurentiis, pleased with himself, asked his assistant what he thought about the proposed title.

“Bellissimo,” the assistant said.

Jerry Calà, who starred as the randy piano bar player in the 1983 movie, also lamented that “this politically correct moment is destroying comedy.” He said young people were rediscovering cinema panettone movies precisely because they hungered for bad-taste transgressions.

The director Enrico Vanzina arriving at a 1980s-themed ski race in Cortina.Chiara Negrello for The New York Times

But the screenwriter of the original film, Enrico Vanzina, rejected the label “cinema panettone” for the 1980s Christmas movies he worked on, which he said were grounded, after a period of surrealism, in real and gaudy Italian life.

Mr. Vanzina comes from a family of moviemakers. His late brother directed the original “Christmas Holiday,” and his father, known as Steno, directed some of the most beloved comedies from the midcentury golden age of Italian cinema, known as the La Commedia all’Italiana.

During a panel discussion in the shadow of the giant panettone, Mr. Vanzina stewed when Lucia Borgonzoni, the right-wing under secretary for culture, appeared on video feed to pay tribute to the “famous cinema panettone that I grew up with.”

“I was pissed off,” Mr. Vanzina, who has long white hair, said of the official’s ode, which, in a later written statement, cut all references to cinema panettone.

As he commandeered a small table reserved for bottle service, Mr. Vanzina argued — like many Italians — that these are the films Italians actually loved. He said they evolved from the great tradition of Italian comedies, including “Holiday Vacation,” a 1959 film also set in Cortina and featuring Vittorio De Sica, the great Italian director of neorealist masterpieces, and the father of Christian De Sica, who became the king of cinema panettone movies.

The entrance to the Hotel de la Poste, where the event was hosted.Chiara Negrello for The New York Times

“It’s not the La Commedia all’Italiana, it’s its degeneration,” said Teresa Marchesi, a film critic at the left-leaning Domani newspaper. She said that as movie ticket prices rose and mass audiences stopped going regularly to the theaters, the films applied a lowest common denominator equation of vulgarities, slapstick and skin to appeal to a lucrative market of poor families who could splurge at Christmas.

She said cinema panettone took off as Mr. Berlusconi and his television channels eroded Italian values and offered a new “political and cultural model” of success measured in opulent wealth and buxom arm candy. “It is absolutely not a mirror of Italianness — it is a projection,” she said. “It’s his Bunga Bunga done in film.”

That festive spirit imbued the Hotel de la Poste, where fans paid hundreds of euros a plate for a dinner and concert by Mr. Calà.

“‘Maracaibo’!” the audience screamed, pleading for their favorite unbridled party song.

“‘Maracaibo’ is at the end,” Mr. Calà said, a guitar hanging from his shoulder. “Don’t break my balls, eh?”

Mr. Calà, who had a heart attack this year, worked through the campy canon of Italy’s singalong hits, dabbing his bald head with a blue handkerchief and making lewd jokes about short skirts. Behind him, a digital screen beamed the film’s original poster, featuring ski bunnies tumbling together in a snowball. Then it suddenly changed to footage of an environmental prize awarded to F. Murray Abraham.

Mr. Calà soldiered through, and the room exploded when he finally played “Maracaibo” (“Rum and cocaine, Zaza”). He plugged the movie’s limited-engagement rerelease, then marched offstage and through the clamoring crowd with a dazed expression.

As he reached his friends and family in the next room and tapped his chest, waiters came around with heaping plates of panettone. Mauro Happy, a 60-year-old publicist at the adjacent table, happily partook. “I’m in love,” he said in a muffled declaration, “with cinema panettone.”

Central Cortina.Chiara Negrello for The New York Times

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