Gianni Amelio’s docu “Happy to be Different” is yet another example of just how behind Italy remains on the ever-developing discourse of gay identity. Even the title, taken from a Sandro Penna poem, feels achingly old-fashioned, and nothing in this blandly made, superficial survey of Italian gay life from Fascism to the early 1980s counters that notion. Despite some moving interviews and old cautionary footage exposing the pervasiveness of homophobia, the film has no sum to its parts aside from the unsurprising fact that it was tough being gay. Liberal heterosexual Italians will be the main audience.
A March local rollout is sure to be small, and since there’s nothing cinematic here, “Different” will easily find its way into smallscreen rotation. International queer fests may use the docu for program filler, though anyone used to seeing pink-themed pics will come away thinking they’ve watched something made a quarter-century ago.
Amelio, whose late coming out at the end of January sparked a fair amount of local press, interviews nearly 20 older men and one transsexual from across the country of varying classes from across the country (none are identified except for a list in the final credits), interspersing talking heads with newsreels and snide “educational” films warning of the dangers of homosexuality. There’s a half-hearted attempt at a chronological approach, so a few men at the start mention the difficulties of being gay during Mussolini’s regime. However, a brief allusion to the Fascist predilection for idealized male nudes offers no analysis; nor is there a discussion of bonds formed by soldiers during the war (a topic explored in numerous academic texts).
The docu’s overriding impression is of men not so happy to be different, struggling against ubiquitous prejudice, with some fortunate enough to have had the courage to live the lives they wanted (though only one gay couple makes an appearance). A few married in order to blend, such as artist Corrado Levi, while others went into gay-friendly professions like film or fashion, though designer Mose Bottazzi says he never had any “adventures.” Toward the end, one of the participants speaks of being given electroshock “treatment,” yet as with almost all the other interviews, the brevity of such a troubling (though not unusual) statement, with no exploration, minimizes the impact and belittles the experience.
Discussions of the etiquette of gay life form the most interesting element, such as remarks on how sex, always clandestine, was unheard of in the home, while Ciro Cascina speaks of how standardizing the term “gay” changed the way people identified themselves. Pasolini’s muse Ninetto Davoli speaks of the great director, yet there’s no analysis of his role as intellectual gay icon or of the circles he formed, and Visconti is seen in a photo but basically ignored. Including British expat John Francis Lane was an interesting choice, but what’s the point without a discussion of the social differences that have historically existed, especially on sexual matters, between Italians and non-Italians on Italian soil? Similarly, where’s the Catholic Church in all this?
Interpolating old footage depicting homosexuals as perverts, vampires or merely objects worthy of ridicule gives some idea of the stifling social and cultural atmosphere persisting up to the 1980s, with the case of singer Umberto Bindi used as an example of a career probably ruined by intimations of homosexuality. Unfortunately, either the quality of the source material is poor, or the transfer was done on the quick. Graphics appear to have been made with an early version of PowerPoint, and using an instrumental version of Lionel Richie’s “Lady,” surely one of the cheesiest tunes in living memory, doesn’t help the overall feel that “Different” was a rushed affair.