House of Gucci missed one essential thing to be great

Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/ Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

It seems like many anglophone critics have readily applauded the latest murder-thriller House of Gucci (directed by Ridley Scott and starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, and a handful of other household names) with some journalistic bees buzzing about Oscar nominations. Others have found it more of a mixed bag, with some moments of redeeming brilliance and some of extra-hammy mellow drama.

Here in Italy, however, the bag is not mixed, with the general consensus that House of Gucci is absolute merda. (Does this review seem more authentically Italian to you now that I’ve peppered in an Italian word? House of Gucci would say assolutamente.)

The words that came up the most when reading and watching Italian reviews of House of Gucci were “offensive,” “farcical,” and “ridiculous.” Obviously, this film wasn’t made for an Italian audience (in fact, I could only find it playing in one theater in my city), but I totally understand why Italians aren’t embracing this one. It would be difficult not to find such a blatant fetishization of “Italianness” a bit offensive. The hand gestures, the cringe-worthy exaggerations of characters that made them seem like cartoons (yes, Jared Leto), the heavy, forced accents, and the hot-blooded machismo culture paint a one-dimensional and ludicrous picture of a country full of diversity and contradictions.

Photo by Fabio Lovino (Copyright: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc. 2021)

They seem to want to pay homage to the Godfather with Pacino and others personifying mafia-via-Hollywood characters that would be perfectly believable as Southern Italian immigrants in New Jersey but have nothing to do with a family with Florentine roots living in Milan. By the way, Milan is significantly closer both geographically and culturally to Switzerland than Sicily (where the mafia was born) or from Naples (from where many American mafiosi emigrated). And Milanesi have their own distinct accent, their own gestures, their own diet, and even their own way of walking that has nothing to do with any part of Southern Italy.

When not confusing northern Milan for the Mediterranean island of Sicily, the film is portraying the landscape in postcard-ready shots somehow bizarrely bathed in a golden light no matter the actual season or hour of the day. It reminds me a bit of Eat, Pray, Love, for which, legend has it, production assistants went door-to-door offering to pay the local residents to hang their laundry from their windows, in order to make Naples feel more authentic (whatever that means). But at least Eat, Pray, Love knew it was selling a fictional fantasy, and the non-Italian actors weren’t pretending to be Italian.

(Copyright: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc. 2021)

In one Italian review from IGN (hilariously subtitled “It’s-a me, Gucci!”) the reviewer describes how she reached her breaking point while watching the film:

I’m the farthest thing from patriotic because it’s a sentiment with which I don’t identify, but after 2 hours and 38 minutes spent listening to people speak to each other like Mario and Luigi, obsessively gesturing, asking for espressos instead of coffee [***in Italy, an espresso is “a normal coffee”***], and continuing to use Italian words in English sentences in a completely random way just to seem more exotic, I reproached them. [Translation mine]

Of course, it doesn’t help that no one is Italian in the film. And please don’t give me the origin crap. If you grew up in America speaking English as your first language and eating peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, you are American. Origins don’t mean shit. My grandparents are from Poland and I even lived in Poland for a year during my Fulbright Fellowship, but I would never dare claim to be Polish because I grew up in America. I doesn’t matter how many Polish soups my grandmother made me or how many stories she told me about Sosnowiec in her signature mix of Yiddish, Polish, and whatever English words popped into her head, I still grew up speaking English in an American society.

The closest thing to a true Italian involved in the production (and by “true Italian” I mean someone who has at least lived in the country and speaks the language), is one of the screenwriters who grew up between London and Milan. Given that this is his first full-length feature credit, some reviewers wondered out loud if he was hired as the token representative, an attempt of claiming legitimacy as “Italian-approved.” By having one real Italian on set, maybe they hoped it could shield them against accusations of inaccuracy and offensive stereotyping (it didn’t). Anyway, I hope that’s not the case because this screenwriter is fantastically talented and deserves this big break regardless.

Despite all these major issues (and there are obviously many), this film still could have worked if it had just done one essential thing. I know this because there’s another program with all these same issues. The forced accents, the hammy over-the-top gestures, the blanket statements about Italians as if Turin shares the same culture as Taranto (hint: it doesn’t). It’s chock full of stereotypes and completely exploits “Italianness” to charm at-home viewers. Furthermore, there’s not one single Italian actor in the production. It’s even set in the 1980’s with plaid and pastel suits, overly accessorized and sparkling dresses, and oversized vintage eyeglasses.

And Italians love it.

The one-hour special is called CIAO, 2021! and it aired on New Year’s Eve after the wild success of it’s prequel CIAO, 2020!. The sketch show features small family scenes, political romps, and endless musical performances, all in the style of 1980’s trash television with every performer pretending to be some steroidal version of a classic Italian television personality from that era: the misogynistic host, the bottle-blonde human sex doll, the male singer that’s 50% hair and 50% sunglasses, a guy inexplicably walking around dressed as Julius Caesar. It’s bizarre. It’s also wonderful.

Vechernyj Urgant, Ciao, 2021! Youtube

The host of the show, Vechernyj Urgant, plays Giovanni Urganti and his co-host, Alla Mikheeva, plays Allegra Michele. Even the musical guests receive new Italian names: Dead Blonde becomes Bionda Morta, the Russian-Tajik singer Manizha becomes a pornstache-wielding Manigi. While all the actors and performers are Russian native speakers (or members of a Russophone country), they perform the entire special in Italian with Russian subtitles.

Vechernyj Urgant, Ciao, 2021! Youtube

These are not anonymous performers either — these are mega-celebrities who took the time and effort to translate their hit songs (or write original pieces) and learn to perform them in a language most of them never studied, all for 3 minutes of screen time on a variety show.

Which brings me to House of Gucci. If the film really wanted to be Italian, why didn’t it simply make the film in Italian?

I don’t believe that Americans are so lazy they wouldn’t be willing to watch a film with subtitles. (If need be, of course, you could also easily break up the Italian with scenes in New York or Paris, since the Gucci family obviously worked quite a bit abroad.) As for the actors, I don’t know how many millions of dollars they negotiated in their contracts, but even if it’s $100,000 that’s enough for them to invest the time and money into learning a script in Italian. I’m the farthest thing from a red-carpet actress, but in high school I performed Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit) in the original French for the measly payment of a B+ in my AP class. I think a megastar should be willing to do it for the price of a new villa in Napa Valley.

Lady Gaga told Vogue that she dedicated three years to the project, living as Patrizia Reggiani for a year and a half and speaking with an accent for nine months. If she really wanted to become Patrizia, you know what she could have done in three years instead of adapting a Soviet version of an Italian accent? Learn Italian.

CIAO, 2021! is a bit of a shitshow at times and certainly much more camp than House of Gucci was going for, and the accents a bit too Russian to be credibly Italian. But the passion and dedication permeate through the screen, making the whole show feel like a love letter to Italy. House of Gucci feels more like a middle finger.

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If it involves words, count me in. Currently living in Bologna, Italy. www.elisezell.com

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Elise Wanger Zell

Elise Wanger Zell

If it involves words, count me in. Currently living in Bologna, Italy. www.elisezell.com

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