Nothing Underneath & The Paninari

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Carlo Vanzina's 1985 giallo Nothing Underneath contains an entertaining scene in which protagnoist Bob Crane and Commissioner Danesi stop off for a spot of lunch at a fast food restaurant where they discuss the intricacies of the case they're attempting to solve. Twenty something American, Crane feels at ease in the American style eatery but Danesi is clearly uncomfortable with fast food culture. Whilst Crane chows down on a burger and fries, Danesi begrudgingly eats his plate of spaghetti - the only remotely Italian option on offer. The scene injects a much needed bit of humour into the film after a grisly murder and showcases Donald Pleasence's knack for comedy. Initially the scene appears to be nothing more than a chance to highlight the generational and cultural disparities between Crane and Danesi but it also highlights a changing facet of Italian culture in the mid 1980s.

The mid eighties saw several cultural changes in Italy and the emergence of new subcultures and social groups. Nothing Underneath is often considered as one of the best films to depict emerging Milanese culture primarily what is dubbed as Milano da bevere (roughly translating to Milan to drink) - which in essence was Milanese yuppie culture. Although I aim to discuss Milano da bere in a future piece, I'd like to examine another Milanese subculture in relation to Nothing Underneath that is arguably more well known to those outside of Italy - the paninaro culture of the mid 1980s.

In 1985, when Nothing Underneath was produced, fast food was still a relatively new concept to Italians. The small number of fast food restaurants that existed were the domain of young preppy Italians who emulated American culture and fashion through a uniquely Italian sensibility. They were dubbed The Paninari by the press - a name derived from the paninis they ate; the only fast food available when the subculture began to emerge in the early eighties. The Paninari rejected typically Italian practices such as the laborious cooking methods of their parents in favour of American fast food convenience. By engaging in simple practices such as wearing American style clothing and eating American food, the Paninari imitated their American cousins who were the height of cool in the mid eighties. Wearing a uniform of brightly coloured puffer jackets, timberland boots, turn up jeans and American branded sweaters; the paninari embodied preppy Americana whilst retaining their Italian identity by incorporating fashion brands such as Armani and Fiorucci into their looks. Being a member of the paninari set was all about fast living in the vein of the lifestyles presented to Italian youth on American television programmes imported by media tycoon and private television channel owner, Silvio Berlusconi. Like the yuppie culture of Milano da bere, consumerism was a key facet of the paninaro lifestyle - arguably a product of the Thatcher and Reagan politics of the era. Showing your wealth was something to be celebrated and the Italian youth showcased their money through spending their disposable income on designer brands, leisure activities and food and drink.

The Paninaro was a cultural juggernaut launching numerous magazines dedicated to the subculture. The Paninaro culture was so successful that British synth pop duo The Pet Shop Boys released their own ode to the movement with the 1986 song Paninaro which referenced popular Paninari brands such as Armani and Cinque as well as the subculture's obsession with America "New York, New York, New York, New York, uh-uh" and cars, food and travel. The new song helped to establish the paninari on an international level and the paninaro began to come full circle - initially inspired by American culture, the Italian youth movement began to influence and be recognised by others. As with all youth subcultures, businesses sought to capitalise on the trend and before long, the Italian youth's obsession with America was exploited by American businesses with fast food cooperations beginning to establish themselves in Italy in 1985. One of the first of the chains to adopt Italy as a new host country was burger joint Wendys who opened their first venture in  Piazza Duca d'Aosta, Milan - the restaurant that the Wendys scene in Nothing Underneath takes place in.

Prior to international fast food restaurants moving into Italy, the first American style fast food restaurant to open in Italy was Burghy in 1981 which was located in the notorious Piazza San Babila, Milan. As the paninaro culture slowly began to develop in the first half of the 1980s, the young, wealthy Milanese began to flock to Burghy on their mopeds ready to indulge in American convenience food. The appeal of an actual American fast food brand proved to be even more appealing by the mid 1980s and when Wendys, or Wendy as it was dubbed in Italy, opened in 1985 and the paninari soon flocked there. 

In the film itself we observe Danesi and Crane inside the restaurant which is filled with Wendys' signage and packaging. The two men select food from a Wendy's salad bar that also includes pasta and sauces. Salad bars were a fairly eighties concept born off the back of the burgeoning health food industry. In 1985 another well known fast food chain, Burger King, featured model Elle MacPherson in adverts promoting their new salad bar in a bid to appeal to heath conscious Americans. Although Wendys introduced what was known as the "superbar" in the 1980s to some of its American restaurants - a large buffet area with Mexican, Italian and American food; the vast majority of American Wendys served American style fast food like burgers and fries. The inclusion of a salad bar that serves pasta in the Milanese Wendys is evidently a concession from Wendys to Italian food culture. Bar the salad/pasta bar, the other restaurant patrons in the scene and Bob himself are shown to be eating traditional fast food fare such as burgers and chips which is in line with the popularity of traditional American fast food amongst the paninari.

The cultural disconnect between Inspector Danesi and Bob Crane is highlighted through their dialogue about the restaurant and their meal. For Crane, Wendys is an American norm whereas the concept of fast food is completely alien to the retirement aged, Danesi. Danesi laments;

"I'm going to need ten napkins, I can never get used to eating this way"

Then proceeds to stuff a Wendys branded napkin in his shirt collar as he eats his pasta. It's evident that Danesi finds the eating culture around fast food unpleasant and undignified. Whereas the likes of young Americans such as Bob Crane and the paninari enjoy this cheerful no fuss approach, Danesi finds it to be uncivilised and without the pomp and ceremony of Italian eating. Danesi comes from a generation that views mealtimes as important as well as leisurely and there's a real disconnect between the traditional Italian meal and the convenience of fast food. Danesi's aversion to tomato ketchup seems partly based on its poor quality and partly due to its unpleasant similarity to blood. "You know I've never much cared for sauces the colour of blood". The taste of ketchup and Wendys food appals the inspector who asks Crane if he "really likes this stuff?" which again, alludes to the popularity of the food in paninari culture being based on its cultural association rather than its quality.  

The scene ends with Danesi breaking his plastic fork off in his pasta and declaring that he's retiring. A humorous moment that also serves as a reminder that the rapidly changing culture of 1980s Italy leaves Inspector Danesi feeling redundant and out of place. Thankfully, Inspector Danesi is able to solve the film's central case at the last moment proving himself to still be somewhat in touch with the ever changing Milanese cultural landscape at the heart of the film. 

This seemingly comedic scene may feel inconsequential to many Italian thriller fans and in many ways it is - having little baring on the film's plot. However, this scene serves as a nice reminder of a time when the effects of globalisation and the Americanisation of culture was a real issue for Western countries. It shows how foreign a concept like fast food once was and how it slowly began to gain prominence through youth culture. The depiction of fast food on screen may be inconsequential to the film's overall plot but the Wendys scene is perhaps one of the most memorable moments in the film highlighting the societal changes of the time as well as providing us with the wonderful image of Donald Pleasence sucking up spaghetti. Vanzina's depiction of subcultures of the time such as the paninaro makes Nothing Underneath the perfect time capsule film of a long lost culture.

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