You may have enjoyed a slice of panettone this Christmas season, but have you indulged in a cinepanettone? This cinematic fare is a staple for Italians during il periodo natalizio (Christmastime). These Italian films highlight the highs and lows of all aspects of life in il Bel Paese.
Despite being derided by Italian film critics and cultural gatekeepers — and largely unknown to foreign audiences — the features have remained wildly successful at the box office. Indeed, they have continued to set records throughout the decades. Studios like Filmauro and actors like Christian De Sica and Massimo Boldi have made their fortunes by producing holiday movies set in glamorous locales, from Cortina to Miami.
The films feature simple plots, high family drama, and plenty of slapstick and visual gags. If we could compare them to popular English-speaking holiday films, they would come close to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation mixed with Home Alone. However, they are very much their own animal.
Here are our recommendations for your holiday viewing pleasure.
Vacanze di Natale (1983)
The film that started it all is still the crème de la crème. Director Carlo Vanzina had a runaway hit with Sapore di mare earlier in the year. And he wanted to replicate that success with a film set around the holiday season. He cast Jerry Calà as the Lothario piano man who returns to a ski resort in Cortina d’Ampezzo every winter to tinkle the ivories and seduce any female who falls under his spell. The lodge is soon populated by the Covelli family, Northern snobs, and the Marchetti clan, Southern slobs.
There is no lack of scriptwriting devoted to the clash between the polentoni and the terroni. In the film, their vast cultural divide is bridged by young love and unexpected encounters. If you live for nostalgia, Vacanze di Natale is a thoroughly ‘80s film, opening with Mike Oldfield’s pop rock hit “Moonlight Shadow.” Not to mention costuming its characters in only the finest Moncler, Timberland, and Best Company gear. For those with greater awareness of Italian mainstream culture, the references to Giacomo Leopardi (confused by the Roman paterfamilias as “Leopardo”) and songs by Mina and Lucio Battisti are quite amusing.
Perhaps the most legendary moment in the movie is when a thoroughly exasperated Giovanni Covelli delivers the line — “E anche ‘sto Natale, se lo semo levato dalle palle”. This line has lived on as a popular phrase used by Italians of all ages.
Vacanze in America (1984)
Roughly a year after Vacanze di Natale, Vacanze in America debuted with a similarly enthusiastic reception. It cemented the cinepanettone’s place as a seasonal tentpole. This time, the action shifts to the United States. Here priest Don Buro leads his San Crispino high schoolers on a two-week trip, ostensibly for academic enrichment. Naturally, there is little enrichment that goes on. That is, other than the boys being thoroughly informed on the ways of the secular world. Christian De Sica returns as the boorish Don Buro, Jerry Calà is the degenerate who fails in his hedonistic exploits, and Claudio Amendola is Mr. Nice Guy looking for true love.
All of the stereotypes about Americans are indulged in this cinepanettone without shame. From Elvis impersonators to police shootouts to garlicky Italian-Americans. While the student group finds themselves in the USA, they simply cannot let go of their Italian-ness. When they encounter a group of Torinesi, an impromptu Roma-Juventus match ensues in the middle of the desert. Or when they are forced to make a massive batch of spaghetti in their hotel room because they cannot tolerate American fare. One aspect of the film that may leave viewers a bit bemused is how everyone in the United States seems to either speak or understand Italian. If only it were so!
Vacanze di Natale ’90 (1990)
There is no shortage of repetitive titles in the world of cinepanettoni. Vacanze di Natale ‘90 was followed by Vacanze di Natale ‘95, Vacanze di Natale 2000, and Vacanze di Natale a Cortina. ‘90 is worth highlighting because it was the first cinepanettone film to feature both Christian De Sica and Massimo Boldi.
De Sica, son of neorealist auteur Vittorio De Sica, had already appeared in the first two cinepanettone features. But with Boldi’s arrival, an enduring partnership was formed. Beginning with this collaboration, the dynamic duo would appear in 16 holiday films. The most recent is 2020’s straight-to-streaming In Vacanze su Marte. They are the figures most commonly associated with the cinepanettone genre. Together, their features have grossed $150 million over the last four decades.
In this release, the regional differences between the Roman Toni (De Sica) and the Milanese Bindo (Boldi) clash well. While Diego Abatantuono’s gambling restaurateur from Puglia, adds more campanilismo flavor throughout. There is a lot of focus on classism and how certain groups of Italians rarely mix with those outside their socioeconomic circle. This dynamic makes for great comedy in the tight quarters of St. Moritz.
Visual gags like a giant pair of horns mounted on the wall above Bindo’s head and the hysterical sadomasochistic scenarios that Toni’s grotesque sugar mama forces upon him highlight the tone of sexual silliness throughout the film. Few would argue that Vacanze di Natale ‘90 is among the most hilarious cinepanettoni. But it is necessary viewing to witness how De Sica and Boldi began developing their winning routine.
Merry Christmas (2001)
Originally set between Rome and New York, the 9/11 attacks forced Filmauro to rewrite the script for Merry Christmas. As a result, the events were moved to Amsterdam. After some shaky entries in the late ‘90s, we found this picture to be one of the more polished examples of the genre. Boldi and De Sica had both reached their 50s when it was released. And while they may be showing their age a bit, the material doesn’t feel stale.
De Sica plays Comandante Fabio Trivellone, a very successful airline pilot who has managed to hide his two wives from each other for decades thanks to his masterful smoke and mirrors routine. The viewer quickly realizes that the house of cards will begin to totter during Christmas in Amsterdam. Boldi is cast as – what else – the owner of a panettone factory! He is desperately trying to get his future son-in-law into a romantic entanglement so the impending wedding is called off. But even the best-laid plans are not guaranteed.
There are seriously high levels of cringe with the inclusion of Fichi d’India, a comedy duo who force most of their laughs from slapstick and ridiculous costumes. However, the movie stays above water with the more elevated comedy of Trivellone’s very entangled family structure. This includes preventing Wife #1’s son from pursuing Wife #2’s daughter. Amsterdam locales are utilized to full effect. The red light district and walk-in piercing shops play a key role in the fate of the hapless pilot and panettone producer.
Natale a Rio (2008)
Our final recommendation is one of the more exotic holiday installments. It was produced after De Sica and Boldi parted ways from 2005 to 2020. De Sica partnered with another Massimo (Massimo Ghini) and together they would manage to cobble up six Christmas comedies. One of the biggest draws here is Swiss-Italian model and entertainment personality Michelle Hunziker, who is desperately pined over by her coworker Fabio, played by Fabio de Luigi.
Everyone is going to Rio de Janeiro for the Christmas holidays. But, due to their son’s meddling, divorcees Mario Patani (Massimo Ghini) and Paolo Batani (Christian De Sica) wind up enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the favelas. There are some genuinely funny lost-in-translation moments and plenty of tribute paid to the hedonistic delights of the “bumbum” culture. Ghini and De Sica certainly do not have the same level of chemistry as the original duo. And, although Ghini does not have the naturally clownish look of Boldi, there is a good rhythm between them nonetheless.
In one astonishingly singular scene, they have to give mouth-to-mouth to an unfortunate feline, which ends with Larsonesque results. Much of the same ground is trodden here with mistaken identities, gross assumptions, and the like. Then again, this is a big part of the winning recipe for the cinepanettone. Audiences continue to seek these films out for the familiar faces, places, and the same old shtick.
Make sure your cinematic diet includes cinepanettone this holiday season! It is not high art by any means, but it is a whole lot of fun for the entire family.