#10 – ‘That’s Happiness’ and the Grey Areas of a Black Italian Bridget Jones
Here we go again with the TV series È arrivata la felicità (That’s Happiness), written by Ivan Cotroneo and directed by Riccardo Milani and Francesco Vicario, whose latest installment aired on 17 December 2015. For those who have not read the biosheet of Tezeta Abraham, our post #4 and later our post #7, the English version of an article wrote by Igiaba Scego for Internazionale, let’s resume some basic information about this TV series and synthesize the reason of our interest in it.
È arrivata la felicità is an Italian television dramedy series, produced by Publispei and Rai Fiction, and created by Ivan Cotroneo, a 47 years old screenwriter, born in Naples, who has developed already a considerable career in film and TV production, working alongside Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, 2009) and Ferzan Ozpetek (Loose Cannons, 2010), authoring successful TV series like Tutti pazzi per amore (2008-12, 4 seasons), and directing his first feature film La kryptonite nella borsa (Kriptonite!), showcased at Rome Film Festival in 2011. The script was developed by Cotroneo, with Monica Rametta and Stefano Bises, the same writing team of Tutti pazzi per amore, in a narrative structure of twelve instalments, each split in two episodes: the series was aired every Thursday night in prime time (21:20 CET), except ninth installment, aired on Monday night, December 1st. First four installments were directed by Riccardo Milani, and the rest by Francesco Vicario.
The series plot is centered on two characters, early 40s, and their respective families, Orlando Mieli (Claudio Santamaria), an architect who runs a studio with his minor brother Pietro (Alessandro Roja), and Angelica Camilli, who manages a children’s store with her best friend Francesca (Tezeta Abraham). When they first met, Orlando is the architect hired by Angelica and her fiance Vittorio (Paolo Mazzarelli) to renovate the villa where they are up to move after the marriage. Angelica is a widow of Gianluca (Ettore Bassi), from which she has had 15 years old twin girls Beatrice and Laura (Giorgia and Greta Berti). Orlando has been abandoned by his wife Claudia (Caterina Murino), for a German man, so he had to face the trauma of separation and to cope with his two sons, 15 years old Umberto (Andrea Lintozzi Senneca) and 8 Pierluigi aka Pigi (Francesco Mura). When by chance Orlando discovers that Angelica in her spare time attends in secret a tango school, the two start to develop a feeling of complicity, as she offers to help him to forget Claudia and to get his life back on track, while he is asked to help her to compete in a tango contest. Of course, this is only the beginning of a love story but happiness will (possibly) come only after a complicated series of misadventures, partly due to the social and cultural differences between the Mielis, raised in a high bourgeois family with radical leftist values and the Camillis, who run a bakery in the popular Rome district of Testaccio.
È arrivata la felicità was quite well received by Italian audience. According the data from Auditel, this TV series has been watched by an average audience of about 4,900,000 viewers (16,50% audience share) that is a good score but not exceptional and possibly below expectations. It is true that in the same arc frame, Ivan Cotroneo’s TV series managed regularly to overcome or balance the numbers of competitors in prime time, especially the 14th season of Il grande fratello (Big Brother, Italian version), aired on Canale 5, and its numbers were in line with those of Rai 1 channel for the time slot 20.30-22.30 in the months of October and November. È arrivata la felicità had also a good success in social media: the Facebook page scored over 25,000 likes, the Twitter account had more than 3,500 followers and found its place in most popular Twitter trends. On the other hand, in this same period, other Rai series – like Il giovane Montalbano 2, Il paradiso delle signore, Questo è il mio paese, Provaci ancora prof 6 - have gone better, overcoming largely the threshold of 5 millions viewers and 20% audience share. So it is not by chance if, although all actors by contract were optioned, there are rumors about a second season but no official news came out.
Now let’s address the topic most relevant for us, that is the role of Francesca, the performance of Tezeta Abraham and the impact of this issue in the public debate. We already remarked, and Igiaba Scego as well, how relevant is for the history of TV series this role, the very first character of a second generation black Italian young woman, for whom the skin color is somewhat in brackets. Yes, in the past we had some few lead roles played by Afrodescendant actors or actresses, like that of Alyssa Calangida in the TV series Butta la luna (2006-09), performed by the former athlete Fiona May of British-Jamaican ancestry, but Alyssa was a migrant character, and her mixed-race daughter was played by pale Chiara Conti. The same applies to Karimu, the Chadian prince played by hip hop singer Valentino Agunu in recent TV movie Le nozze di Laura by Pupi Avati. Only a few years ago, the character of a black female cop in a popular Rai TV series (Don Matteo) was created and then downgraded to simple figuration, provoking a lawsuit from the actress and activist Shukri Said. The political relevance of this role of Francesca, in a popular TV series for prime time audience like È arrivata la felicità is made more clear by the fact that in Italy second generations are still waiting for a new law of citizenship, and a project of reform has been partially approved by Italian parliament. Now that we this has been reconfirmed, we can try to step forward and see how this character has been conceived and developed.
Who is Francesca? The official pressbook describes her as follows (my translation): “Francesca has black skin but she is Italian, born and raised in Rome. Together with Angelica, her best friend forever, he runs a children’s store. A romantic and jinxed girl, Francesca collected a series of love refusals so paradoxical that whoever listen cannot believe them: not by chance the book she is writing on her experiences is constantly refused by the editors as it’s considered exaggerated and unrealistic. Shame they are all humiliations effectively suffered by Francesca in her twenty years of adult sentimental life. But our black Bridget Jones will find satisfaction falling in love with a prince charming that every girl would desire and she would have never imagined”. In this pressbook but also in another publications released from Rai, that is issue 42 of news magazine NEWSRai, by Rai Press Office, we have the list of the entire cast, 21 people, and Francesca/Tezeta (here Tztà) is number 17 and her character is credited as Francesca Gbone, a family name more or less invented with an African flavor.
Naturally, the first articles dedicated to this TV series made reference to this pressbook, included the interview for Vanity Fair Italia dated October 29, in which Tezeta revealed to be pregnant, and her character is named again Francesca Gbone. That very same day, the official Twitter account of the TV series tweeted a graphic image (that one you can see as featured image of this article), in which Francesca is named for the first time Scuccimarra, with a typically Italian family name, diffused mostly in Lazio, Tuscany and Apulia regions. The surname of Francesca is not explicitly evoked until the episode number 22 (installment 10, aired on December 10), in the sequence where we see the front page of the book, still in draft (Diario di uno stronzo: the ‘asshole’ in question is Vittorio, in the past a hopeless ladies man) wrote by Francesca, and we can clearly read Scuccimarra. We could explain this fluctuation with the presumable existence of a first script in which Francesca was called like that but that’s not really relevant. What is really in question here is the status and the origins of this character, and her family background. What could appear at first a good point in terms of definition for the character in the end revealed itself as a boomerang. Yes, we may appreciate the postracial idea of introducing the character of a Black Italian girl with a Roman accent, suggesting she’s really born and raised there, and no matter all the rest. But if you have this character to be developed in a 24 episodes TV series, this choice will inevitably emerge as untenable.
What we know in the end of Francesca? We know she’s Angelica’s forever best friend and her associate in a children’s store settled in Testaccio district, right, but problems start soon. I don’t know if screenwriters or make-up artists thought to make us believe Francesca is more than 30 (in the pressbook are even evoked “twenty years of adult sentimental life”!), but, well, they didn’t succeed, and I’m sorry to be rude but the difference in terms of age between Francesca/Tezeta and Angelica/Claudia is more than clear, so it would have been wiser to explain when and how did they meet and choose to associate, and avoid really awkward passages like that one in which Francesca recalls to Angelica that her hair had become curly already when she (Angelica) had discovered to be pregnant of the twin girls (15 years before: Francesca would have been 15 as well, more or less…). So what we have here is whether a problem of miscasting (was Tezeta too young to play this character?) or rather a script problem. What we know more? Yes, she’s a sort of Black Bridget Jones, for her bad luck with men. Well, even concerning that point we have (at least) another problem: Tezeta is a fashion model and a former participant to beauty contest, and that was her first real acting role. Her photogenic appeal has been in a way downgraded but it’s something that belongs to her neither more nor less than her Roman native accent, so that only her unstructured and moving performance as an eternal and clumsy teen helps us to recognized in her a Black Bridget Jones. Well, her blackness is sometimes explicitly evoked, when mentioning the causes who prevent men from engaging with her, even if not as a paramount element, but it’s really difficult not to read in the behavior of her former (white Italian) male partners the supremacist unconscious feeling to be in their right.
Having said that, things get even more complicated if we consider how the character evolves in her story line, that is in direct connection with that of Angelica. The mechanics of the plot seems dominated by a logic according to which each character is attracted by his/her very opposite and each moment of apparent balance is soon troubled by an unforeseen event, even if the happy ending is never really questioned. As in Tutti pazzi per amore, the realistic base register is counterbalanced by a surrealist note, introduced here by two narrative tricks, one external and one internal to the action. The external expedient is a self-presentational mode, with direct-camera address, used at first by the main characters and later by the majority of the others, Francesca excluded. The internal one is accessed by some characters in particular conditions, moments of difficulty or of revelation: Angelica visualizes his dead husband Gianluca, Orlando sees her distant wife Claudia, Francesca and Vittorio hear the sound of violins announcing their falling in love. It’s this mechanics of attraction for the opposite that justifies the paradoxical liaison between the queen of broken hearts Francesca and the former Mr. Never Vittorio, after he has been left by Angelica at the altar.
If this evolution responds to some internal criteria and appears in a way self evident, the color blindness scheme imposed apparently to the plot translates into the erasure of any kind of information involving the past of Francesca and her family background. We see even a couple of times Francesca coming and going from her apartment in Garbatella district, once reached in the middle of the night by Vittorio, but nothing, she appears to be living alone. Maybe this attention of mine to this particular aspect will appear more comprehensible if we consider that almost every single character in this choral TV series has at least a relative evoked and involved in the plot, with the exception of Francesca, Cristiana (Myriam Catania, Pietro’s historical fiance) and Claudia Lo Russo (the escaped wife of Orlando), but in those cases we may understand that the screenwriters didn’t want the viewers to get attached to characters bound to be excluded from the plot. But why avoid the presence of at least one single relative of Francesca at the engagement party with Vittorio and behaving as she would have fallen on the Earth directly from Mars, if not for fear of exorcising and unveiling the normality of that same condition – the simple fact of being a second generation young girl – which the authors wished in theory to promote? It is as if Cotroneo & co. thought that in Italy there is a space in the public arena for a discussion on the rights of LGBT subjects and even on surrogate motherhood (an important lateral story lines follows the birth of a baby with two mothers, and the biological one is the minor sister of Angelica, Valeria) while the issue of second generations immigrants may be evoked only erasing the first generation migrant subject or the concrete condition of children with an African or Asian ancestry adopted in an Italian ideal typical white family.
Many other issues could be evoked here, for instance the process of reduction to stereotype of the Southern, subaltern subject, evoked through the character of Nunzia, a Neapolitan beautician Pietro falls in love with, and of leftist radical activist subject, written down as it is connected to two female characters depicted as compulsively devoted to their ideological beliefs as Cristiana and Orlando’s mother, Anna (Edwige Fenech). These other quick references represent other finding raised when one tries to analyze the global ideological agenda of the authors, very attentive to promote an idea of society open to new forms of social agency without frightening a prime time audience still very divided when it comes to enlarge the range of subjects (LGBT, second generations, refugees, Roma, and so on) entitled to demand the respect of their legitimate rights. All of this to say that in the end we hope that a second season of È arrivata la felicità may see the light but at the same time we hope as well that the authors may bet more on the sensitivity even of prime time audience regarding touchy questions, especially now that they have become familiar with these characters.
Contributors: Leonardo De Franceschi
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