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Teenage Sex Film Touches an Italian Nerve
New York Times
January 25, 2006

 The National Central Library in Florence nominated it for the 2006 International Impac Dublin Literary Award,

MILAN, January 24 - When the film "Melissa P." hit Italian screens late last year, it caused as much of an uproar as the 2003 novel upon which it was based: "One Hundred Strokes of the Hairbrush Before Going to Sleep," the allegedly autobiographical account of a promiscuous Sicilian teenager that became an international best seller.

Though there's hardly any nudity and the boys-meet-girl plot oozes movie-of-the-week morality, to read the reviews and front-page editorials you would think Italian teenagers had been lining up to watch an underage version of "Deep Throat."

The "Lolita of the new millennium," as Melissa was described in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, was publicly reviled as a negative role model for today's teens. Last week, the psychologist and Corriere columnist Francesco Alberoni cited the "triumphant success" of the book and the film to explain how contemporary sex education promoted sex "without emotions and without love."

Film critics booed, and conservative lawmakers howled when the film's producer, the actress Francesca Neri, got airtime to promote the film during a Sunday talk show popular with families.

Then the original Melissa P., Melissa Panarello, who recently turned 20, dismissed the film as superficial and clichéd. "I'm trying to forget that I'm the author of the book that inspired it," she wrote in an open letter published by Italian news agencies. "It's opinionated and full of prejudices that inevitably deteriorate into pop psychology." Devotees of the novel, which recently sparked new debates after the National Central Library in Florence nominated it for the 2006 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, rushed to Ms. Panarello's defense. Her blog ( was inundated with messages disdainfully rejecting any link between the best-selling book and the movie.

"Why don't you sue them?" Marzia asks in one message, citing various inconsistencies. "In the book you do the whipping. I remember you wore high heels. Awesome."

Despite the bad press, or perhaps because of it, "Melissa P." beat out "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" when it opened in November, and it has become one of the five top-grossing Italian films of last year, with more than 6 million euros ($7.4 million) in ticket sales.

Financed by Sony Pictures International, the movie will be released in Spain next month, capitalizing on the nationality of the lead actress, Maria Valverde, and there are plans to distribute it in other European countries as well as in the United States, a Sony representative said, though release dates had not been set.

The director, Luca Guadagnino, believes that the film struck a chord with young Italians because his liberal reworking of Ms. Panarello's novel skirted the sexual to isolate more universal issues. The book, he said, had done little more than stimulate the reader's morbid curiosity "to know how far she'd go with her body count."

The movie, on the other hand, wanted to "focus on themes dear to me: becoming an adolescent, the powerful possibilities of coming of age," he said in an interview in a chichi Rome cafe. There was no reason, he said, to write a script that would verge on the soft porn, let alone hard. "There's already so much of that in cinema today," he said.

In the end, the ratings board banned the movie to children under 14.

Besides, Mr. Guadagnino's first film, the 1996 short "Qui," was a graphic depiction of the intimate act that made Monica Lewinsky a household name.

"So for me, I'd already done my research on how to use sex and the body," he said. Four films later, "I wanted to explore the world through the eye of an adolescent more than see sex on screen."

Still, the suggestion of sex on screen was used to fuel the polemics, which were unusually passionate, reverberating equally loudly on the pages of communist and conservative newspapers.

But in a country where scantily clad teenagers dancing suggestively are a constant on television variety and game shows, the outcry was pegged by some as hypocritical.

"In the end, the taboo of the film is that Italian girls do things that parents don't want to think about," said the television critic Gianluca Nicoletti. "They don't want to admit to themselves that their children are doing more than staring deeply into each other's eyes."

And like it or not, Mr. Nicoletti said, Italian teenagers are precociously sexual, their emancipation facilitated by their skillful exploitation of new fads like text-messaging (which the critic described as a "national sport"), where the two correspondents can "achieve a level of intimacy much sooner than the courting rituals of the past."

To condemn the film without recognizing what goes on in Italian society speaks of "devastating hypocrisy," Mr. Nicoletti said during a telephone interview.

Mr. Guadagnino has taken the commotion in stride. "The response is in the box office," he said. "This is a pop movie for kids, not a boring movie about kids made for a judgmental audience. It has no pretenses to the art house circuit."

"I was willing to embrace pop boldly, bravely and with no sense of inferiority," he said. "It's not a novel; it's not a speech. This is a movie and it's compelling and entertaining."

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