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.