Becoming Italian

At first I was going to title this piece Becoming Fantozzi. But then nobody really wants to become Fantozzi, nor can they since this honour is reserved for the actor–writer who invented and personified him—Paolo Villaggio. Or rather was reserved since not even Villaggio himself can become Fantozzi anymore. He died this year (2017) on July 3rd at the age of 85.

I had never heard of Ugo Fantozzi nor seen any of his films until I moved to Italy in the early 1990s. I cannot remember when exactly I saw my first Fantozzi movie, or which one it was. There were a series of them that came out between the mid 1970s and the late 1990s. The first two, Fantozzi (1975) and The Second Tragic Fantozzi (1976), were directed by Luciano Salce, and most of the others by known comedy director, Neri Parenti.

My introduction to Fantozzi was through cinema and not through the books authored by Paolo Villaggio in which he draws up Ugo Fantozzi’s buffoonish, eternal victim character who will be associated with Villaggio for the rest of his life, and probably long after. I also cannot remember how much Italian I knew when I saw my first Fantozzi film. But many had told me that to understand this type of film and protagonist, you had to be Italian. And so, they assumed, I just couldn’t.

Ugo Fantozzi is an overweight, average-looking man with a subservient, obsequious wife called Pina who constantly wears a pained, resigned expression. She is neither beautiful nor unattractive. The actresses who played her role, Liù Bosisio and Milena Vukotić, brilliantly manage to cast Pina as plainly pleasant and elegant, or pleasantly and elegantly plain—a “simple” woman as Anthony Trollope might have put it. But what is important is that Pina is more refined than her husband, for is that not the measure of success for any Italian man, or any man? To have a spouse who is more attractive than you so that people will be assured that you must have some other valuable qualities, whatever they might be?

Pina lives during the years of the rise of militant Italian feminism, so she, too, must assert her independence by falling in love, in one of the films, with the neighbourhood baker. Predictably, however, while she thinks it is true love and wants to leave her neglectful Ugo for the baker, she realizes the latter was just fooling around with her and that her true love, after all, is Ugo.

Fantozzi, too, has his own extramarital romantic obsession, just one. But the demanding, easily irritated and mature Signorina Salvini (played by Anna Mazzamauro) does not return his affections. Here, the beginner’s learner of Italian that I was could see how, in practice, social conventions were being made fun of through a simple matter of language usage. No matter how old a woman is, the rule requires that she be referred to as Signorina, Miss, the same way an adolescent might be called, as long as she is unmarried.

In those years when political power swayed between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, and the divorce law had already been passed, there was a whole genre of films starring the likes of Stefania Sandrelli, Alberto Sordi, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren and others which portrayed married people allowing themselves an occasional distraction or two from the humdrum of domestic, marital life. But they usually always return to save the marriage. This was another thing that a newcomer to Italy like myself grew to understand. Behind the playfulness, lax mores and seemingly casual attitudes towards marriage, Italians took—and still do take—marriage and family very seriously.

Ugo and Pina have just one child, a daughter, already signalling the zero population growth problems that were to stay with Italy for time to come. Her name is Mariangela, and she is so ugly that she is referred to as a monkey. The actor playing her character is a man called Plinio Fernando who, when he first started in the role, was in his late twenties. No doubt, if such an unpolitically correct characterization were to be shown at prime time to giggling children in the US, it would lead to a power overload on child abuse hotlines and incur the wrath of legions from the Good Parenting Brigade.  But Mariangela takes it all with the good-humour of a chimpanzee because she loves her parents whom she knows love her in return. Above all, she is comfortable with who she is. She loves herself, and seems to be completely unaware and unworried about her looks.

Ugo works as an accountant in a company called Megaditta. It was unclear to me what, exactly, this Mega Company was producing. But rest assured, it was probably a mega quantity, so mega that Megaditta had so many offices and divisions including the Office of Blackmail, the Office of Bribes and the Office of Missing Clerks.

The nature of these kinds of offices was already familiar to me—workers who have little to do but must keep up the farce of productivity, workers trying to one-up each other and ingratiate themselves with an austere, patronising boss who feels superior, even though he just manages and directs but doesn’t own the company. Fantozzi has the kind of boss who cares to use the formal ‘you’ when addressing his employees, but with an insult. So in Italian it comes out as “Thou art a piece of shit”. For someone like me who was being taught the difference between formal and informal Italian, I thought this combination of the polite with the rude or insulting was a kind of subversive rebellion. Then I learnt that it was the way a lot of people actually spoke, including politicians and professors. It was not uncommon to hear people say “Thou art an idiot” or “Communists like thyself are imbeciles.”

It is not just the boss or people in authority who use language in an inappropriate way. Fantozzi and his colleagues, too, can’t get their subjunctives and conditionals right. This was very encouraging for someone like me who was trying to learn Italian. Even Italians struggle with their own language.

Fantozzi’s work environment mirrored the typical Italian bureaucracy that a newly arrived immigrant like myself had to deal with first-hand when getting permits, handing in applications and so on—the minimalist architecture of newly-built post-war buildings, being sent from one office to another to get something simple done, pessimistic clerks who wore long faces, were sometimes rude and had a cant-be-bothered attitude. It might be the picture of laziness and dysfunction, which sometimes it was. But you could also feel that, somehow, work was being done and the system was working.

While we are expected to see Fantozzi as a cog in the capitalist system caught up in the master-slave dialectic, he also has his rebellious moments of agency. In a famous scene in The Second Tragic Fantozzi, he becomes a sort of revolutionary leader who gets back at his boss for forcing employees to sit through a screening of the Kotiomkin Battleship (a parody of the Sergei Eisenstein silent classic, Battleship Potemkin) when they would much rather watch an important soccer game. In a courageous outburst, Fantozzi dares to speak what is on the minds of all his colleagues. He declares the film to be “incredibly shitty” and gets a hero’s ovation. He destroys the film reel, takes hostage of his boss and subjects him to punishment by making him kneel on a tray of chickpeas. But of course the occupation of the film room by rebels is short-lived and ends when the police arrive. And the boss gets his revenge by making the workers re-enact the scene, over and over again, of the baby carriage rolling down the Odessa Steps (with Fantozzi as baby in the carriage) since the original film has been destroyed. Popular culture will not so easily triumph over high culture, even later during the Berlusconi era.

Fantozzi films are usually classified as comedy, but what they also do is create anxiety. They are portraits of the ‘average Italian’ who has a modest house, a small Fiat, a child or two and a television. But he finds his job and family life boring, and he becomes an awkward, ridiculous caricature when he aspires to the things that wealthier people do and have—lovers, vacations, visits to spas and ski resorts—but he can have these things only on a more economical, smaller scale. Yet, you are never sure if this average Italian is better off if he cannot quite completely remake himself in the image of the rich. The films create anxiety because there is no way out, no upward mobility for the bureaucratic class. There is no illusion, no fake fantasy. If the films try to show us how people learn to be satisfied with what they have, there is also this feeling that the unattainable grapes are never sour and will always be desired.

What would a Fantozzi film look like today? For one thing, Pina would probably be a workingwoman, not a housewife. The number of children she would have might still be low or non-existent. And Mariangela would probably be more bitter. The film might focus not on how hard, or little, people work, but on how hard it is today to get a job to begin with. Suddenly, the mundane existence of Fantozzi and company has become the new Italian dream.

Finally, what about Italy’s immigrants and the children of non-Italian residents who were born and raised in Italy? Were there any in Megaditta? I don’t remember seeing them. When do they become average Italians or just plain Italian? In a film today, would we see them working in companies, hospitals and schools, speaking excellent Italian with all the formal forms and conditionals in the right place? And not just as impiegati or clerks but also as managers, directors and owners? Even if the ius soli and ius culturae Citizenship Reform that is awaiting government approval were to facilitate citizenship and integration for hundreds of thousands of Italian-born and long term residents in Italy, the fact is that there is already a growing number of so-called immigrants in the professional and skilled Italian workforce; much as many Italians of right-wing persuasion would like to see them stay in the factories, fields, detention and deportation centres, or not even be on Italian soil.

Nobody steals jobs if all are competing for them on the same terms. After all, all Italians—whether of migrant origins or not—are babies in the carriage of survival, rolling down the steps of global capitalism and a difficult, complicated geopolitical order.  However, if one thinks that only certain types of jobs should be reserved for certain types of citizens, then that is another story that a reform won’t solve. Never before have the first words of the first article of the Italian constitution held more meaning: Italy is a democratic republic founded on work.

I don’t know whether you have to be Italian to understand Fantozzi films. But you do have to understand Italy to be, or to not want to be, a Fantozzi.

Masturah Alatas is a writer and teacher who lives in Italy. She can be contacted at:

Masturah Alatas is the author of The Life in the Writing (Marshall Cavendish, 2010) and The Girl Who Made It Snow in Singapore (Ethos Books, 2008). She is currently working on a novel about polygamy. Masturah teaches English at the University of Macerata in Italy, and can be contacted at: