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Seven classic films to watch for an Italian Christmas
What to watch over this year's quieter than usual Christmas holidays – whether you're in Italy or just missing it.
Published: 18 December 2020 15:05 CET Updated: 25 December 2021 07:19 CET
Italian Christmas cinema is a whole genre of its own. Photo: Jeshoots.com via Pexels
Vacanze di Natale (Christmas Holidays)
Let’s just get this out of the way, shall we: this 1983 farce is the original cinepanettone or ‘cinematic Christmas cake’, the name given to a particular genre of Italian Christmas comedy that’s every bit as sugary, festive and familiar as a loaf of panettone.
They’re less Hallmark romcom, more Carry On film, with visual gags, double entendres and questionable attitudes aplenty. Good taste it ain’t, but they at least have the advantage of being easy to understand even if your Italian is limited.
Vacanze di Natale is the mother of all cinepanettone, a culture-clash comedy about rich Milanese colliding with a rough and ready Rome family over a ski break in the Alps.
Other classics of the genre – most of which star the same two comedians, Massimo Boldi and Christian De Sica – include Natale sul Nilo (Christmas on the Nile), Natale a New York (Christmas in New York), and Natale a Rio (Christmas in Rio). Yes, there’s a formula.
Natale in casa Cupiello (The Nativity Scene)
At the exact other end of the spectrum is this classic family drama by Neapolitan playwright Eduardo De Filippo, written in 1931, adapted for Italian TV in 1977 and now appearing in a new version this year on Rai 1.
‘Christmas in the Cupiello house’, as its original title translates, tells the story of the Cupiellos, two parents in Naples whose children’s desires threaten to pull the family apart. Things come to a head on Christmas Eve, as the father of the family attempts to demonstrate to his son the importance of the traditional presepe, or nativity scene.
Tune in to Rai 1 on December 22nd for the new version, or find the 1977 classic online.
La Freccia Azzurra (The Blue Arrow)
This lovely 1996 animation, based on a fairy tale by Italian children’s author Gianni Rodari, was repackaged for American audiences as How The Toys Saved Christmas – but watch the original to find a story based around ‘Italy’s Santa’: La Befana, the witch who brings Italian children gifts the night before Epiphany (January 6th).
La Befana (who was turned in the American version into a kindly grandma with a toyshop) falls ill the evening she is due to deliver her presents, allowing her dastardly assistant Scarafoni to step in. He secretly plans to sell off the toys – including the Blue Arrow of the title, a model train – to rich kids, but the toys have different ideas and conspire to deliver themselves to the children who deserve them most.
Set in a town based on Orbetello in Tuscany in the 1930s, it’s elegantly animated, beautifully scored and very, very charming.
Regalo di Natale (Christmas Present)
If you’re looking for something more substantial than a cinepanettone, this 1986 psychological drama is more main course than dessert.
Four old friends and one wealthy acquaintance meet for a game of poker on Christmas Eve. As the rounds unfold, we learn why each player is determined to win, and why their friendships have turned sour.
It’s comic too, but with depth and an intriguing narrative that make it a compelling alternative to the usual festive fare. If you enjoy it, there’s a 2004 sequel: Il rivincita di Natale, or Christmas Rematch.
La Banda dei Babbi Natale (The Santa Claus Gang)
This good-natured comedy from 2010 stars comedians Aldo Baglio, Giovanni Storti and Giacomo Poretti, a well-known comic trio who have been making films together for more than 20 years.
Here they play three hapless pals from the same bocce (boules) team in Milan, who end up in jail on Christmas Eve after being mistaken for a gang of burglars who, like them, are dressed in Santa suits. They find themselves recounting the various personal tribulations that have brought each of them there in order to convince the chief inspector (perennially likeable Angela Finocchiaro) that they’re innocent.
It has plenty of what Italian comedy does best: lots of silliness, self-deprecation, and a warm heart that never slides into total schmaltz.
Darker but possibly even funnier is Parenti Serpenti (literally ‘snake relatives’), a black comedy from 1992 that lays bare the cynical truth about many family Christmases: everyone’s terribly glad to see their relatives, so long as it’s only once a year.
The family in question have reunited at their parents’ home in Sulmona, Abruzzo, and the celebrations are going smoothly until the elderly mother announces over Christmas dinner that she and their increasingly senile father no longer want to live alone, and their four adult children must decide which one of them will take them in in exchange for a share of their pension and inheritance of the house.
The children and their spouses end up competing among themselves to prove why they’re unsuitable to look after their ageing parents, airing long-hidden grievances and secrets in the process.
Don’t watch if you want your cockles warmed, do watch if you have a dark sense of humour – or if you want to be reminded why big family Christmases aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be.
Trading Places (Una Poltrona Per Due)
Why is a Hollywood movie on this list – especially one that isn’t exactly considered a Christmas classic in English-speaking countries?
Because this 1983 identity swap comedy has wormed its way far deeper into Italian hearts than arguably anyone else’s. It became a fixture on primetime TV in Italy in the late ’90s, airing almost every Christmas Eve on Italia 1, and continues to attract millions of viewers each time, regularly beating more recent festive offerings.
Most people say it’s essentially because Italia 1 worked out it was cheaper to buy the rights for an older movie, and the viewing public are creatures of habit. But is there more to it?
I’d argue that Trading Places – or ‘One Armchair for Two’, as it’s known in Italy – is actually the perfect Italian Christmas film: a bit slapstick, very ’80s and deeply cynical (think A Christmas Carol but where Scrooge doesn’t abandon his money-grubbing ways, just teaches Bob Crachit to game the system too). Our two heroes – a down-and-out hustler played by Eddie Murphy, who in a bizarre social experiment ends up stepping into the shoes of wealthy banker Dan Ackroyd – triumph by being that most Italian of qualities, furbo(‘crafty’ or ‘smart’).
Parts of the film haven’t aged well (the N-word, blackface, jokes about sexual assault…), but if you can ignore those it remains a satisfying screwball comedy (as well as an excellent demonstration of how insider trading works, which you can’t say about too many Christmas movies). You can catch it on Italia 1 this year, as usual, at 9:30pm on December 24th.
Other Hollywood Christmas films that are firm favourites in Italy include Mamma, ho perso l’aereo (‘Mummy, I missed the plane’ – Home Alone), Mary Poppins (watch the Italian version just to marvel at the ingenious translations), Gremlins, and Il Grinch (you can probably guess that one).
Five of Italy’s most magical Christmas markets in 2021
Even though Covid cases are rising in Italy, most of the country's Christmas markets will open to spread some festive cheer and fill our hearts (and bellies) with glad tidings. Here's a rundown of five of Italy's most magical Christmas markets.
Published: 17 November 2021 17:40 CET Updated: 28 November 2021 07:57 CET
In 2020, many Christmas markets in Italy had to close or were scaled back because of the pandemic restrictions. This year, at least at the time of writing, lots of markets are set to open in the coming weeks.
Some have safety measures in place, such as mask-wearing and the requirement to show a green pass, so remember to check the rules before you travel.
‘I mercatini di Trento’ is one of Italy’s most famous Christmas markets. Set in the northern region of Trentino-Alto Adige, which borders Austria and Switzerland, Trento is full of that mountainous frosty glee that warms the cockles of your heart.
Every year, visitors are attracted by the artisanal goods, the abundant offering of seasonal gastronomical treats and the cosy atmosphere of a historic centre decked out in twinkling lights.
More and more stalls come to Trento each year, meaning there’s always something new to see, buy and eat every time you go.
The city’s two main squares welcome visitors with their cosy lodges, where you can watch live demonstrations and listen to traditional music. And with the snow-peaked backdrop and fresh air, Trento puts on a Christmas market to remember.
Christmas decorations on display in a market in central Bolzano. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP
Bolzano, South Tyrol
Another Christmas market not to be missed in the north of Italy is the spectacular display in Bolzano, arguably one of the most beautiful in Italy.
This festive extravaganza located in the region of South Tyrol is claimed to be Italy’s biggest Christmas market and, after almost two decades of the event, always has something new to delight return visitors.
New for 2021 are some stalls dedicated to grappa and beer with tastings of South Tyrolean spirits and craft beers, while for wine lovers, there’s a dedicated wine lodge offering tastings of the local labels.
Those delicious yuletide aromas of pine, cinnamon and mulled wine fill the streets, while squares are bathed in a romantic glow when the stalls come to town and transform the city into a spellbinding winter wonderland.
What better time to sample a local strudel, feast on some salty speck or indulge in some alpine homemade sweets?
Christmas lights during the “Luci d’Artista” (Artist’s Lights of Salerno) (Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP)
The northern mountain cities don’t claim complete ownership of Italy’s best Christmas markets, however.
One of the most eagerly awaited Christmas events can be found in the southern region of Campania: the illuminations called Luci d’artista (Artist’s Lights) in Salerno.
After being cancelled last year, the display is back for 2021 offering visitors a show of real works of art made in lights.
Due to the pandemic measures, access to the city will be restricted, especially on weekends when buses will be limited.
Strolling around the city, you can see this world-famous spectacle as you go, while also taking a tour of the Christmas markets, located on the city’s seafront. All in all, it makes for an unusually marvellous Christmas shopping experience right on the coast.
How much more romantic and magical can you get than a Christmas market in Italy’s city of love? In fact, the market’s organisers describe Verona as, “The city of love, the city of Christmas”.
Even Romeo and Juliet’s tragedy lights up with the seasonal colours, sounds and smells. The city’s streets and squares transform into a dreamy setting for festive shopping and socialising: handicraft products in glass, wood, ceramics and many food and wine specialities tempt and delight.
The entrance to the city will be illuminated by hundreds of lights, creating what they call “a Champs Elysees effect”, continuing through all the streets of the historic centre. All the sparkles and glow are set against a backdrop of the famous Roman Arena and the unmissable Christmas star in front.
There will be more than 100 exhibitors this year and for 2021, the market will run in collaboration with the “Christkindlmarkt” of Nuremberg in Germany, bringing a heartwarming fairy-tale atmosphere to the fair city.
The lake setting and Christmas atmosphere make this a unique festive market you’ll look back on for years to come – and where better to get excited about the exchanging of Christmas gifts than Italy’s so-called city of toys ‘la città dei balocchi‘?
Starting with the Magic Light festival, its projections and lights transform the city’s building and squares into an open-air gallery. Meanwhile, delightful wooden huts create a Christmas village, offering local specialities, gifts and mouthwatering dishes.
There are also numerous refreshment and tasting points giving visitors the chance to sample menus typical of the area. And the unmissable giant ferris wheel is worth a whirl too.
If you want to work off some of those festive chocolates, waffles and gingerbread hearts, you can get your cheeks rosy at the ice rink in Piazza Cavour.
Plus, you can’t miss (literally) the traditional Christmas fir tree, illuminated by thousands of lights.