Christmas on the Nile

English Title: Christmas on the Nile

Original Title: Natale sul Nilo

Country of Origin: Italy

Studio: Filmauro

Director: Neri Parenti

Producer(s): Aurelio De Laurentiis

Screenplay: Fausto Brizzi, Lorenzo De Luca, Andrea Margiotta, Marco Martani, Neri Parenti

Cinematographer: Gianlorenzo Battaglia

Art Director: Maria Stilde Ambruzzi

Editor: Luca Montanari

Runtime: 110 minutes

Genre: Farcical comedy

Starring/Cast: Massimo Boldi, Christian De Sica, Biagio Izzo, Enrico Salvi

Year: 2002

Volume: Italian

Desperate to distract his fifteen year-old daughter from her dream of becoming a scantily clad dancer on television (a ‘letterina’) and so bag a footballer husband, widower and Carabiniere General Enrico Ombrone takes her to spend Christmas in Egypt, accompanied by his Neapolitan adjutant, who hopes instead to persuade the General to marry his ugly sister. Inevitably, a troupe of four ‘letterine’ share the General’s cruise ship, led by their coarse Roman impresario. At the same time, the Roman lawyer and inveterate philanderer Fabio Ciulla has followed his wife to Egypt in the attempt to save their marriage following his 740 adulterous conquests. She is traveling with their son (with whom Ciulla has a fractious relationship) and his new girlfriend (who unfortunately has seduced Ciulla before they realize each other’s identity). Also on board is a pair of childish brothers who find two magical rings in the Great Pyramid, one of which brings extraordinary luck while the other brings great misfortune. Hilarious antics ensue as the three groups work through their own situations and (to some extent) interact with each other and a perplexed local population.

Natale sul Nilo is one of an ongoing series of ensemble comedies colloquially known as ‘cinepanettoni’ (‘film-Christmas-cakes’) produced since 1983. These critically despised but hugely popular films have become part of the annual festive rituals for huge numbers of Italians, and have spawned offshoots as star actors defect to produce copycat films. Given its strong similarity to other films in the series (certainly the more recent ones directed by Neri Parenti) the choice to review Natale sul Nilo is an arbitrary one. However, this entry is reckoned in some sources to have been the highest-grossing of the series thus far and features the classic oppositional pairing (now defunct) of the handsome Christian De Sica (son of director and actor Vittorio) and the rotund Massimo Boldi. In several respects it is a clumsy film: the editing is merely functional and the intersection of the three narrative strands is perfunctory, while minor characters and extras seem barely to have been directed at all. The best bits are found in the comic duets between the grotesque Ciulla/De Sica, a monster of vitality and selfishness (the character’s name is derived from a versatile and vulgar slang verb meaning ‘shag’), and the hapless Ombrone/Boldi, whose ugly but loveably infantile face one always feels an urge to caress. These duets are, of course, examples of consummate professionals engaged in a well-honed craft, even if the dialogue rarely sparkles and (a familiar criticism this) too often relies on expletives to generate laughter. Better examples of the screenwriter’s craft are those moments, appropriately staged in a confined space, when the De Sica persona comes to be trapped by his scheming and infidelities, and can no longer evade the disclosure of his deceptions. In another film of the series he actually appeals to the spectator for help; in this one, confronted with his wife, his son, and the son’s girlfriend’s simultaneous revelation of his treachery, he pauses as if on a television quiz show and asks how much time he has to respond. This moment is as refined a pleasure as the film allows, but films such as this should not be dismissed for a coarseness that is perfectly deliberate, and carefully graded for a variegated audience. If the cheesecake is on show for the daddies and lads in the theatre, then the antics of the two brothers (the comedy duo known as the ‘Fichi d’india’, the ‘prickly pears’) are geared towards the youngest in the room. The content is, of course, offensive. The frank sexism would be better disguised in other film cultures, though the mise-en-abîme of female objectification in the ‘letterine’ plot points to a capacity for irony. There are no substantial roles for women (other films in the series feature stronger female presences, like that of the current blonde starlet Michelle Hunziker), and females are here nothing more than tokens to be exchanged in the homosocial game of patriarchy. More shocking, because more surprising, is the film’s philistine Orientalism and racist attitude to the Egyptians, all male and explicitly described as sexually predatory. This aspect of the film has to be read in the context of anti-immigration hysteria in Italy itself. But still – the scene where General Ombrone uses the swaddling bandages from the only intact mummy in the Great Pyramid to clean himself after a bout of diarrhoea, and so reduces the treasure to dust, will cheer anyone who has ever been browbeaten into a museum. This is a film no better or worse than you or I, and with no wish to improve either of us.

Author of this review: Alan O’Leary