Italy's box office smash holds up mirror to nation's worst habits

'Quo Vado?' has made more money at the box office than any previous movie by poking fun at Italians' perennial affinity for cushy public-sector jobs.

Tony Gentile/Reuters
man watches an advertisement for Italian movie 'Quo Vado?' in Rome last month. In its opening three days, 'Quo Vado?' took in almost as much as "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" did in its first three weeks in Italy – a record-breaking 22 million euros.

It’s a slacker movie with a uniquely Italian twist, and it’s taking the box office by storm – by tweaking some of the country's worst traits.

“Quo Vado?”, meaning “Where Am I Going?”, is a slapstick comedy about the Italian obsession with securing a cushy job-for-life in the public sector, with minimum work and maximum perks.

It tells the story of Checco Zalone, a balding, 38-year-old civil servant who goes to any lengths to hold onto his beloved posto fisso – an easy nine-to-five job – in a dull provincial government office in the sun-baked southern region of Puglia.

For decades, finding such a job was the dearest wish of millions of Italians. But the quest has been eroded by years of austerity government budgets and by the reformist efforts of Matteo Renzi, the prime minister, who wants Italians to embrace more competition and innovation.

The film's nostalgic longing for the carefree days of the posto fisso has clearly touched a nerve among Italians.

Bigger than Star Wars

"Quo Vado?" opened on Jan. 1, and has since become the highest-grossing Italian movie ever, outpacing “Star Wars – The Force Awakens”, which opened around the same time. Watched by more than 8 million Italians, "Quo Vado?" has earned more than 60 million euros ($66.7 million) at the box office.

It lampoons some of Italians’ less appealing traits: a somewhat elastic view of the bounds of legality, a tendency to jump queues, chronic impatience while driving their cars, and a reluctance to fly the nest. Checco, played by well-known comedian Luca Medici, still lives at home with his parents, and his mom waits on him hand and foot.  

“The reason the film has done so well, I think, is because it satirizes all our worst vices as Italians and lets us laugh at ourselves,” said Filippo, a graphic designer, as he left a showing of the movie in Rome this week. “It makes fun of this kind of craven behavior.”

Pietro Valsecchi, the film’s producer, told a movie magazine, “Checco represents all of us, our qualities as well as our faults.”

'The job-for-life is sacred!'

The yearning for an easy public service job is still very much alive and well here, despite the best efforts of successive governments to slim down a bloated bureaucracy.

When the region of Umbria advertised 94 public administration jobs at the end of last year, a staggering 32,000 people sent in applications.

As a corrupt politician declares in the film: “Il posto fisso e sacro!” – “The job-for-life is sacred!”

Even Mr. Medici, the star of the movie, said he had yearned for a cushy government sinecure before making it big as a comedian.

“Until 10 years ago, my biggest aspiration was a public service job,” he said in a recent interview. “I did a course hoping to join the police, but luckily they rejected me.”

Stranger than fiction

Cast-iron contracts make it extremely hard to fire Italian public servants, no matter their faults.

That was vividly illustrated recently by a scandal over absenteeism among council employees in a town on the Italian Riviera.

Dozens were found to be clocking on for work but then shirking for the rest of the day. Some of the officials in San Remo went shopping, others ran second businesses such as flower stalls while taking their regular council salary, and the more audacious simply headed to the beach.

In the most startling example, a municipal police officer, who lived in an apartment above his office, was covertly filmed clocking on for work in his underpants before heading back to bed. On other occasions, he sent his wife or young daughter to punch the clock. 

The grainy black-and-white image of the portly policeman standing in his underpants in front of a time-punch machine became a symbol of Italy’s ongoing struggle with the thousands of taxpayer-supported fannulloni, or slackers.

The officer, Alberto Muraglia, was sacked by the council last week for misconduct. But, in the true spirit of “Quo Vado?”, he has vowed to contest the decision through his lawyers and to win back his job – anything to hold onto his posto fisso.

“I’ll admit, I was a bit sloppy. I made a mistake, but I swear I was on duty nonetheless,” he said. “My attire was not suitable, I admit. But I didn’t mean to do anything bad. I was the security officer for the building and that’s where I live.”

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