Everything You Wanted To Know About Italian Sex Comedies But Were Afraid To Ask… A Filmbar70 Guide
As Sleaze Week draws to a close, we thought we would go all out on the sleaze front and bring some more special guests in to wrap things up. So we we got the wonderful Justin from Filmbar70 to tell us all about the joys (and guilty pleasures) of the Italian Sex Comedy. Quite possibly the sauciest and most ridiculed film genre, Justin casts a wry and affectionate eye over the films, the stars and of course the boobs of the time. To accompany this frisky feature, we’ve got an awesome companion piece on Edwige Fenech lovingly written by Jonny from LoveLockandLoad!
Raise that eyebrow cos it’s sex comedy time!
The commedia sexy all’italiana
Sex comedy. The coupling of words that strikes horror into the hearts of even the most hardened Eurofilm fan.
On the surface, the mixture of farce and flesh seems like a winning combination, yet “As funny as a root canal”, “I’d rather have a hernia” and “Excruciating agony” are just some of the phrases encountered while trawling the Internet for information. Explosions of bad taste, eruptions of scatological humour and, most importantly, an unencumbered eyeful of the female form may not be everyone’s cuppa, but bear this in mind – if you watch enough of these things to batter the last vestige of taste and decency from your soul, you’ll find that they take on an oddly compelling veneer.
Throughout the ‘70s, Europe was awash with such product. Sweden always had a good handle on the subject – ‘I am Curious Yellow’ (‘67) pretty much brought the sex film to mainstream attention, but had very little comedy. English audiences were subject to a particularly grotty and drab vibe, due in some part to the demands by the BBFCs John Trevelyan that the makers of such ‘smut’ instil a certain moral and judgmental code. However, these films do provide the viewer of today with sights other than horrible wallpaper, the breasts of Kelly Monteith’s wife and Jon Pertwee getting a lotion rub-down. Due to financial demands, much ‘padding’ was required, usually fulfilled by sticking a camera out of a car window and driving around the streets of Soho, Hounslow and Reading. When viewed as environmental documents, these films have a kind of priceless value. The Germans also used the smoke screen of moral investigation to cloak their sex comedies. The incredibly popular ‘Report‘ films were comprised of a series of interviews concerning all manner of sexy malarkey, followed by reconstructions – a sort of erotic ‘Crime Watch’. There was also something rather utilitarian about the approach, rendering the films ‘practical sexy’.
However, like Robert De Nero, we’re here to talk Italian.
Boobs and Burps – The commedia sexy all’italiana
Italian cinema has always been saturated with sexy imagery. No other nation brings sensuality to the screen to with such vigour than Italy. From cinematography, to set design, to fashion, Italian filmmakers knew how to visually seduce a movie going audience. Most importantly, they focused on the fundamental erotic presence of the female form to create iconic and enduring images, revelled in a voyeuristic reverie with less shame than their European counterparts.
Like the rest of us throughout the ‘70s, Italy was in deep economic, social and political turmoil. Beleaguered with a wave of terrorism, social unrest and governmental deadlocks, it’s unsurprising that sex, when teamed with comedy, would prove a healing tonic during these ‘years of lead’. The art of comedy was always deeply embedded in the Italian psyche, and would come to an apex with the genre known as the commedia all’italiana. Commencing in ‘62 with Dino Risi’s cynical road trip ‘The Easy Life’ and ending with an explosive traffic jam in ‘79 with Luigi Comencini’s ‘Bottleneck’, the commedia all’italiana lifted the lid on Italy’s social, political and sexual maelstrom with often disquieting results. Hugely popular with the domestic audience, this type of bitter comedy gave the viewer the opportunity to confront the turbulent issues of the day with a knowing smile.
It was only a matter of time before humour would combine with more explicit (though never reaching the levels of pure pornography) presentations of sex, after all, most other genres readily featured such material – as the adage goes – ‘Sex Sells’. Taking advantage of the relaxed censorship laws, filmmakers fore grounded the female form as a lure for a predominately male audience. This would give rise (ahem) to a new genre (or filone) in the early 70s, one that drew directly from the commedia all’italiana, albeit rather more escapist in nature.
The Italian Sex comedy or commedia sexy all’italiana, concentrated primarily on visual components to provide substance. Deluged in a welter of fart gags and breasts, the genre was obsessively consumed with the body. Voyeurism was a central to the proceedings – the naked ingénue being spied upon as she showers would come to define the genre. Plots, of course, would be entirely centred on sex, viewed from the male perspective. In a desperate attempt to gain access to the heart (or a lower body part) of an unfeasibly glamorous and unobtainable female, a veritably gaggle of bumbling buffoons, deluded fools and incompetent idiots self-destructed on screen for our amusement. An incredible coterie of comedy forces marshalled to give voice to the powerless and useless, from the pompous persona of Aldo Maccione, to the wacked out antics of Gianfranco D’Angelo, to the king of gurn himself, the diminutive and perpetually abused Alvaro Vitali. Later mega-stars of the genre would include the hapless Lino Banfi, and the rotund Bombolo.
But the sexy comedy would be nothing without a lady to be leered over. From the crystalline beauty of Barbara Bouchet, to the doll-like visage of Femi Benussi, to the youthful vitality of Gloria Guida, a countless number of Euro starlets strutted their stuff to the delight of the male population. Posters would invariable highlight the feminine presence, the most iconic image taken from the ‘73 film ‘Malizia’, one that has seemingly informed the Daily Sport’s editorial policy – the image of a man peering up a woman’s skirt while she ascends a ladder.
‘Malizia’ ranks highly in the genres cannon, and contains a theme that would be later replicated by many a sex comedy – an inter-generational war over the attentions of an exquisite female presence (Laura Antonelli, bizarrely name checked in ‘Ghost Busters’). Here, woman’s sexuality appears disruptive; fanning the flames of desire gives way to deceit and dissent. Ultimately though, the film is about the outdated models of the family and the conflicts engendered by the acceleration of cultural change. A massive success, the film paved the way for many others of its ilk.
If you think that all of this would seem, on the face of it, rather sexist, you’d be right. But things are never as simple as they may first pertain to be. Deep rooted within the fabric of the commedia sexy all’italiana can be found issues of female emancipation and male insecurity. It maybe the case that these elements are dealt with in a manner that cannot be deemed in any way sophisticated and may lack the bite of the commedia all’italiana, but they are present.
To look further at the genre, it is worth taking a brief look at the career of one of its most highly regarded practitioners, a career that charts the rise and fall of the commedia sexy all’italiana itself – Edwige Fenech.
Edwige Fenech – mistress of the commedia sexy all’italiana
The most talented, beautiful and elegant actress to have graced the commedia sexy all’italiana, Edwige Fenech is the genres most venerated star. Fenech commenced her film career during the late ‘60s, appearing in a slew of primarily Teutonic period romps that emphasised her voluptuous sensuality, innate grace and gift for comedy, but it was during the advent of the following decade that her name would become indelibly inscribed into the hearts of cult cinephiles.
Hooking up with the producer / director team of Luciano and Sergio Martino, Fenech embarked on a series of gialli, an off-shoot of thriller theatre that indulged in all manner of stylishly sadistic shenanigans. Sex, glamour and voyeurism were crucial ingredients to this ‘cinema of cruelty’, elements the Martinos ruthlessly exploited by showcasing their leading lady’s erotic allure to the hilt. For such small investments, the Martino / Fenech gialli proved lucrative, but as early as 1972 it was becoming apparent that there was an easier and more certain road to riches. Replacing the cruelty with comedy, the Martinos hit pay dirt, the first example of this being the Fenech featured decamerotic ‘Ulbada, all naked and warm’ (’72).
The decamerotic was a form of medieval sex comedy inspired by the earthy humour found in Pier Pasolini’s adaptations of Boccaccio’s decameron cycle, albeit air brushed to remove the grotesque elements and heighten the sex appeal for mass consumption.
Notorious for its title alone (fully translated as ‘That great piece, Ulbalba, all naked and all warm’), ‘Ulbalda’ was sold specifically on the spectacle of Fenech’s undraped form, a promise duly fulfilled with great generosity Though driven by lewd, scatological humour and an abundance of female flesh, director Mariano Laurenti imbues the proceedings with a lightness of touch, presenting a frolicking, pastoral playground untainted by the neuroses of modern living.
The appetite for ribald entertainment compounded with extensive nudity pushed ‘Ulbalba’ into the financial stratosphere, cementing Fenech’s status as Italy’s favourite sex symbol and secured her position as a dependable marquee name. For better or worse, the film also consolidated her diva nude image. Her thrillers had always been sold with the promise of erotic material, but ‘Ubalda’ explicitly cut to the heart of the issue. From hereon in, the audience perception of Fenech was that of an actress who, within minutes of her appearance on screen, would cast her clothes aside and, in a seeming attempt to improve the nations hygiene, make extensive use of the shower. The films success instantly changed the emphasis of Italian genre filmmaking. Producers and directors would pile on the flesh with abandon, moving away from previous forms to pursue this more lucrative avenue.
The thrillers practically abandoned, Fenech moved fully into the realm of the sex comedy with ever-heightened degrees of success. Most popular to mass and international audiences were the series of ‘authoritarian’ films, where Fenech would step into (and out of) the uniform of policewoman, judge, doctor, and, most lucratively, schoolteacher, the first being ‘L’insegnante’, a veritable storm of political incorrectness. When viewed in today’s political climate, it raises more than an eyebrow, and maybe more problematic to modern taste than the direct sadism or perversions of Fenech’s thrillers. The film presents the female lead as a simple object of lust to be pursued and conquered. Focusing on comedic antics of a literally infantilised male cast, the film relegates the heroine to the position of exasperated stooge, whom the anti-hero, played by Alfred Pea, succeeds in ‘breaking’ through a systematic process of deceit, blackmail and even violence, effectively replication the themes of ‘Malizia’.
Though entirely dodgy by today’s standards, it is hard to levy criticisms of tastelessness at the film whose sole purpose is to outrage. The film had an exuberant, crude vitality that chimed with audiences looking to cock a snoot at the respectable practices of the petite bourgeois who constantly undermined the economic reforms demanded by the working class. A classic of trash cinema, ‘L’insegnante’ pushed the gross out factor and is historically important, but, for the true Fenechphile, the truth is that the film gives her very little to do.
Similar in tone were the series of ‘doctor’ films, where Fenech’s medical professional would encounter resistance in the macho world of the military institution. Piling on scatological elements to a delirious degree, these films are the most crass of her career. If you’ve ever wanted to see flatulence used as a tool of warfare, here’s where to start.
Her aptitude for comedy would be more fully explored in the series of Policewoman films, starting in ‘76 with ‘La Poliziotte fa Carriera’. With an emphasis on the visual, cartoonesque humour of the Bud Spenser variety, these films gave Fenech the opportunity to muck about and get stuck in as much as her male counterparts. She was also to make, in her own words, a ‘quantum leap’ in ‘76, working with commedia all’italiana star Ugo Tognazzi on the film ‘Cattivi Pensieri’. Though still exploiting her propensity for nudity, the film takes a more ironic and questioning stance against such material, an approach more in keeping with that of the commedia all’italiana, and was a sure indicator that Fenech was moving further and further away from the low spectrum of comedy. Never comfortable with being associated with nudity, Fenech fought producer’s insistence on the inclusion of such scenes, finally managing to keep her clothes on for ‘82s ‘The Paramedic’. Fenech would continue to appear in comedies through the end of the 70s through to the early ‘80s, but, disillusioned with the type of roles offered to her, withdrew from cinema screens to accept the offer of television host. Later moving behind the camera, she embarked on a career as producer in the ‘90s to great and continuing success.
Fenechs retreat from the screen pre-empted the collapse of the Italian film industry. The start of the ‘80s found the commedia sexy all’italiana and Italian cinema in general fighting for survival. In 1977 the first luci rosse cinema (red light cinema) opened in Italy. Here, men could consume pure pornography uninterrupted by the childish antics of Lino Banfi et al. But a more dangerous enemy had appeared the year before, an enemy that would debilitate the whole of the Italian industry.
The End of the Affair
In 1976 a law was passed deregulating state control over broadcasting media. An enterprising individual named Silvio Berlusconi seized the opportunity afforded and quickly brought up a multitude of private broadcasting stations, effectively creating a new type of monopoly. Television now became king, and film production would follow in its wake. Cinemas were hit hard, and, as audiences dwindled, producers had an increasingly hard fight on their hands for cash infusions. Domestic filmmaking would continue sporadically into the ‘80s, with the commedia sexy all’italiana marked with increasingly repetitive results. The genre was re-appropriated by American filmmakers, most specifically Bob Clark (who had also borrowed the template of the giallo for ‘Black Christmas’ in ‘74) with the ‘82 film ‘Porky’s’, which lead in turn to a slew of gross-out comedies, a genre that continues to this very day.
Looking at Fenech’s relationship with the commedia sexy all’italiana, it’s not hard to draw parallels with the how the films are now perceived by today’s audience. Entirely dismissed by the critics upon release, yet incredibly popular with the public in the provinces, this disposable cinema would seem doomed for the trash heap. However, the films have continued to ceaselessly make the rounds on late night cable channels, fuelling the guilty pleasure response and integrating themselves rather haphazardly into the fabric of Italian culture. Fenech, who originally rejecting her cinematic legacy has now come around to revising her opinion. ‘Ubalda’, ‘L’insegnante’ have been afforded some critical ‘classic’ recognition, and she has even satirically reprised her iconic schoolteacher role in a television broadcast examining the run up to the Italian elections.
Of course, the films of the commedia sexy all’italiana can now be viewed from a safe distance, with a dash of post modern irony – “Oh look – jokes about date rape. How quaint”. But the absolute disregard for taste, the dismissal of politically correct values and manic, unpretentious glee exuded by these films seem like a blast of fresh air in today’s rather bland climate. Well, fresh air that that has rather been tainted by a fart…
Thanks Justin! You can find out about the weird and wonderful world of Filmbar70 below!