A record-breaking satirical comedy about migrants attempting to reach Europe has provoked a row in Italy, infuriating far-right politicians and their supporters.
Tolo Tolo, starring and directed by the comedian Luca Medici, AKA Checco Zalone, 42, took in €8.7m (£7.4m) on 1 January, the best opening day of all time in Italian cinema.
The movie features a debt-ridden Italian businessman, played by Zalone, who leaves Italy to take refuge in Kenya. The outbreak of civil war forces him to pack his bags and return to Italy with some of his new African friends aboard a migrant vessel.
In early December, Zalone, known for his politically incorrect humour, publicised the film by posting a video on YouTube of a song titled “Immigrato”, meaning Immigrant. In the clip, which featured a series of stereotypes of asylum seekers, Zalone is stalked by an African migrant who begs him for money, enters his flat and flirts with his wife. The footage prompted criticism, with the actor accused of racism and of inciting stereotypes of migrants.
The clip was well received by far-right politicians, who took it as a signal that the film would promote an anti-migrant agenda. A few days after the video’s release, the former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini said at rally: “I understand that they’ve accused Zalone of being racist and politically incorrect. I say long live Checco Zalone. I want him as a senator for life!”
However, Salvini and his extremist supporters may have been disappointed when the full film was released and it became clear that it derides Italian populism and the language of extreme rightwing politicians. Far from promoting an anti-migrant agenda, the film tackles stereotypes and the racism migrants face on a daily basis. It highlights the suffering of the thousands of people who attempt to cross the sea in order to reach Europe. In one scene, Zalone ends up in a Libyan detention centre during his quest to return home.
Following the film’s release, the praise rightwing politicians had showered on Zalone swiftly turned to criticism. One of the first comments came from Ignazio La Russa, a senator in the extreme rightwing party Brothers of Italy, who tweeted: “I’ve just seen Tolo Tolo: zero applause at the end of the film. Besides, it’s boring and of little value.”
Maurizio Gasparri, a senator and member of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, said in a video posted on Facebook: “It is too politically correct. The moral is too far left. Checco, come back as you were, don’t sell out to political correctness in the name of immigrants.” In reference to the video of the song that preceded the film, Gasparri said: “That song was perhaps better than the film.”
In a press conference, Zalone addressed the controversy with irony. “It is not a film against Salvini, because Salvini’s not even in the film. If it’s against him, only he can tell.” He added: “There is, however, a character who is reminiscent of [the foreign minister and leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement] Luigi Di Maio, who dresses like Prime Minister Conte and speaks like Matteo Salvini. I guess I’ve created a modern monster.”
“I wouldn’t have invested €20m to make a film against Salvini,” said Pietro Valsecchi, the film’s producer.
In the first week of January, Tolo Tolo was viewed by 5 million people and made €36m. The film could ultimately take in as much as €80m and become the highest grossing Italian film based on domestic box office receipts, according to the financial newspaper Milano Finanza.