Wooden Legs

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The near-total flop in the U.S. of Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio this weekend is bad news in Italy. In fact, Italy's leading center-left paper, La Repubblica (Italian-language link), plays the failure in terms of American rejection ("il Pinocchio di Benigni snobbato negli Usa").

The paper's account offers a dolorous description of negative American reviews and empty American theaters, in contrast to the film's colossal success at home. The real issue at play, however, is not lost profits; it is the perceived blow to Italy's cultural standing. Benigni is Italy's best-known filmmaker overseas, and there were high hopes for this project. Success in America, understood in terms of audience embrace as well as the bestowal of American awards, is perceived as culturally validating. Benigni's flop is thus a real disappointment. Although America's global cultural role is usually characterized by its critics as a matter of brutal power, the issue is both more complex and more interesting.

For decades after World War II, Italian filmmakers were greatly admired here, with many directors (Rossellini, de Sica, Visconti, Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Pasolini, Wertmuller, etc.) and performers enjoying significant critical and commercial success. There are still successful Italian films—Il Postino, Cinema Paradiso, Benigni's own Life is Beautiful—but the glory days of American embrace are long gone, and some Italians—including some center-left Italians—seem to miss them.

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  1. I have to wonder whether the reviews would be different if it were subtitled. As soon as I saw the preview that included the horrid overdubbing, I was immediately disappointed. Granted, I like subtitled films much better, as voice actors are rarely as skilled as the film actors, but I think the quality of the overdubbing is getting in the way of a fair review.

    There also seems to be an unwillingness to accept the story as it was originally told, not as it was Disnified. This seems strange, as usually the leftish cognoscenti is quick to dismiss anything betouched of the capitalist Mouse.

    I’m withholding judgement until I see a subtitled version, providing Hollywood ever starts fulfilling the promise of DVD and offers such an alternate version.

  2. If I were Italian, I would be more upset about Artisan’s wretched pan-‘n’-scan-only DVD of Dario Argento’s “Sleepless.” As an American, I’m already prety ticked about it.

  3. Look on the bright side: At least we won’t have to put up with one of Benigni’s Oscar acceptance speeches. I never want to hear the phrase “love juices” uttered by anyone ever again.

  4. I can’t believe that in his laundry list of Italian film makers respected here, Charles left off the most obvious: Sergio Leone. Poll after poll I’ve seen rates his westerns, particularly “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” as some of the best ever made. Well and good for the highbrow set, but let’s also remember those that kept us flat-out entertained.

  5. Interesting comment. The U.S. functions the
    same way in Canada. They complain about cultural
    imperialism, but at the same time no Canadian
    cultural figure is really taken seriously until
    they’ve made it in the U.S.

  6. Even the Italians often don’t realize the value of what they have. It took decades for Mario Bava to begin to receive his due. (Fellini recognized Bava’s ability, however, and swiped a bit of Bava’s imagery for his third of the anthology “Spirits of the Dead.”) In America, however, Bava has influenced everyone from Ridley Scott to Martin Scorsese to Tim Burton.

  7. im with you SANDY…so does a subtitled version of pinocchio exist in LA…anywhere?

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