Fun-loving seventeen year-old Niki and her group of female friends are in the last year of high school, but they enjoy life, love, fashion, and sport, mostly leaving serious study to their male counterparts. Thirty-seven year-old workaholic creative director in advertising, Alex, by contrast, finds himself abandoned by his girlfriend of many years just after he has proposed, and he is left in the company of some rather washed-up men in midlife crisis who constitute his depressing friendship group. When Niki’s path crosses Alex’s, as he distractedly bumps his 4 x 4 into her scooter, an unlikely love story unfolds from their hostile clash. Initially distant, Alex is pursued by this rambunctious, energetic schoolgirl. She breaks down his defences, inspires him to find new creativity in his work, to recover a joyous spontaneity in living, and to take bold decisions about his lifestyle. At the same time the tender relationship between the two of them is exposed to the mockery of friends, parental disapproval, Alex’s own desires to conform, and the return of his former girlfriend, apparently repentant. In a world of romantic misadventures, can the two lovers ever really bridge the decades that divide them?
Recent years have witnessed unprecedented recognition of mass female film audiences’ desires in Hollywood: from the Sex and the City films to the Twilight saga. That recognition has been accompanied by debate about the quality of these films, debate that rages far less powerfully around the mass products created for male or mixed audience tastes. These films have created shockwaves in Italy too. However, there has been a similar scenario unfolding with Italy’s home-grown cinema, as the recent case of films based on the bestselling teen books by Federico Moccia demonstrates. It is equally likely that what occasions the outpourings of critical scorn on Moccia’s products might be a general disregard for any kind of collaboration with female audiences’ supposed desires, although Moccia’s fanbase is not necessarily only female.
Scusa ma ti chiamo amore saw Moccia return to film-making after a long break and pick up on the success of the previous film adaptations of his work by others and their broad teenage fan base (Tre metri sopra il cielo/Three Steps Over Heaven (Luca Lucini, 2004); Ho voglia di te/I Want You (Luis Prieto, 2007)). With takings of 12.6 million euros the film came eighth in the Italian 2008 box office overall, beating Gomorra/Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone), and fourth out of all Italian films made that year. Initially it seems that the typically Italian cross-generic appeal of the film accounted for its success, as its clearly multiple address combined the male midlife crisis narrative of L’ultimo bacio/The Last Kiss (Gabriele Muccino, 2001) and many other films of the last decade with earlier Moccia narratives of teen romantic suffering. Inspired by the classic formula of films like I dolci inganni/Sweet Deceptions (Alberto Lattuada, 1960), the film taps into a popular history of the cross-generational romance (in a certain gendered configuration). The film’s weaker follow-up Scusa ma ti voglio sposare/Sorry, But I Want to Marry You (2010) achieved a still-respectable box-office ranking of 26th in the 2009/10 season (over 6.6 million euros). Amongst many criticisms, Scusa ma ti chiamo amore provoked accusations of a suspect predilection for turning the camera on attractive young girls, whilst the film a prolific Moccia made between the Scusa products, Amore 14 (2009), which examines the sexual curiosity of a group of 14 year-olds (in fact played by 19 year-olds), was subject to even sterner treatment.
However, in the light of recent theoretical work, it is possible to read the films as typically postfeminist products (Negra, 2009), in which feminism is re-packaged as commodity, but not without retaining a trace of its original substance. These films can promote, through their protagonists, a saccharine image of ‘acqua e sapone’ femininity, which has in turn produced an understandable vein of ‘anti-Moccia’ sentiment amongst certain Italian teen audiences. The films do also, nonetheless, create a mainstream space for the exploration of female friendship, anxieties about early sexual experience and female commitment, and articulate female protagonists who take initiative, albeit within a strictly delimited personal sphere. In the criticism of the films’ commercial appeal, it is easy to forget that these protagonists’ concerns, by contrast with the earlier largely male-focussed tradition, now address in part the female audiences of Twilight, who seek pleasure in their film-going, a pleasure that may express itself in complex and sometimes critically unpalatable ways. If sexuality is the key mode through which manifestations of feminism are now filtering into the popular, we should engage with representations of that sexuality in more depth. Much more needs to be done to understand what female audiences really want, but Moccia’s oeuvre to date has demonstrated that caring even a little bit can be very lucrative.