(2017) Documentary (HBO) Gianni Agnelli, Maria Sole Agnelli, Henry Kissinger, Lee Radziwill, Jackie Rogers, Vendeline von Bredow, Anna Mucci, Nicolo Caracciolo, Cristiana Brandolini,,Gianni Riotta., Valentino, Diane von Furstenberg, Jennifer Clark, Reinaldo Herrera, Isabella Ratazzi, Giorgio Garuzzo, Alain Elkann, Valerio Castronovo, Taki Theodoracopulos, Ginerva Elkann. Directed by Nick Hooker
Certain people come along in life who by force of personality become symbols for both good and ill. Our current President, for example, is a symbol of things that depending on your political persuasion may either fill you with hope or with disgust. Malala Yousafzai has become a symbol of extraordinary courage and for women’s rights. Jackie Kennedy, in her day, became a symbol of elegance and grace.
Gianni Agnelli from the late 1950s onward acted as a symbol for the Italian people. Known affectionately by his nickname “L’Avvocato” (the advocate), he was the grandson of the founder of Fiat Motors, which at one time employed 3% of the Italian workforce. He was groomed to become the CEO and helped revitalize postwar Italian industry in a time when Italy was in ruins. He also stood up to Red Brigade terrorists who in the 1970s kidnapped and assassinated the Italian Prime Minister as well as one of his own executives at Fiat.
During the 1950s and 1960s Agnelli was the symbol of Italian sophistication and glamour. It was an era immortalized in films like La Dolce Vita and Agnelli certainly was symbolic of that epoch. He threw fabulous parties, hung out with glamorous people (including Jackie, designers Valentino and Diane von Furstenberg, diplomat Henry Kissinger and actress Anita Ekberg). He liked to drive fast; while he drove a Fiat, it was equipped with a Ferrari engine (Fiat purchased Ferrari in order to keep it out of the hands of an American automaker).
Agnelli was a great believer in the American system as was his grandfather, who took many of the ideas Henry Ford used to make Ford Motors more efficient and used them to modernize his own. Agnelli saw America in it’s splendid postwar prosperity and knew that was the route Italy had to follow. However, the road wasn’t without bumps; his grandfather was forced out of Fiat after being falsely accused of collaborating with the fascists; even though he was exonerated the ordeal essentially killed him. During the 70s, Italy had a strong communist movement going on, spawning the Red Brigade; Agnelli saw this as potentially catastrophic to Italy in the same way fascism had been. He remained a strong proponent for capitalism and democracy during that time, even though it painted quite the target on his own back.
The documentary is a bit on the long side, dividing the life of Gianni Agnelli into five distinct periods. Most of the focus is devoted to the La Dolce Vita years during which time Agnelli was a fashion icon as well as a notorious ladies man (there were rumors he had an affair with Jackie Kennedy between the death of President Kennedy and her marriage to Aristotle Onasis). In many ways that was a fascinating period in his life but in many ways it’s more of a People magazine portion of the film rather than a Wall Street Journal portion which comes later. We get a lot of the glitz and glamour but what we don’t get is a lot of context. He is clearly revered in Italy and particularly in Turin, not only for refusing to lay off workers when his company was hemorrhaging money but also for owning the Juventus soccer club which is only slightly less important a religion in Turin as Roman Catholicism.
There are a lot of interviews with relatives (two sisters, several nieces and nephews), staff (his personal assistant as well as the groundskeeper and chef on his Italian estate) as well as friends both famous and not. While some of the interviews give us insight into the man, a lot of them cover the same ground. The adage “women wanted to be with him, men wanted to be him” is used both directly and indirectly dozens of times during the film. We get it.
I did like the archival footage, some of which are compelling historical documents; that seemed to work better for me than the endless interviews. There is no doubt that Gianni Agnelli led a fascinating life and was an important person in the 20th century particularly in Italy but the filmmakers don’t seem very inclined to get beneath the surface of the man who was clearly intelligent and forceful and get into the things that motivated him to make some of the decisions he made. This is one of those documentaries that could have used a lot less fluff and a lot more meat.
REASONS TO GO: Agnelli was the personification of Italian glamour at the zenith of La Dolce Vita. There are interesting insights to Italy’s postwar political history.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many talking heads. As interesting as it is, the film runs far too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a budget of $210 million U.S. this is the most expensive film ever made in France – to date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No Score Yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Men Who Built America
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Murder on the Cape