30 years of Fantaghirò

Apart from the usual annual preparations for Christmas like the tediousness of gift buying, yuletide menu planning and gift wrapping, there is also the tradition of Christmas movies.

Everyone has their favourite, whether it be a black and white Jimmy Stewart classic, a kitsch Father Christmas tale, the Grinch that stole Christmas or endless tired rehashed versions of Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

Italian’s love going to the Cinema at this time of year. A specific term describes the popular slapstick, feel-good comedy that comes out this time of the year.

For many years the comic duo of Christian De Sica and Massimo Boldi made terrible Cine-panettone movies dedicated to horrible taste and easy laughs that are so popular in the Italian market! It is trashy Cinema to be consumed with your panettone Christmas cake.

After thirty years of annual Christmas movies, De Sica and Boldi have gone their separate comic ways. In 2021 we have Di Sica’s solo offering Chi ha incastrato Babbo Natale? (Who tricked Father Christmas) directed by Alessandro Siani, which promises to satisfy the Italian’s desire for Christmas cheese. Most things are now online, simply because of the limitations associated with going to the Cinema in the time of Covid.

On an interesting side note, one of the most popular movies of the festive season in Italy is Trading Places, a 1983 classic comedy featuring Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis. Una poltrona per due is the most-watched Christmas movie on the peninsular. 

It appears Trading places has become a firm part of Italian Christmas viewing. In 2019 it was watched by two and a half million viewers bringing a share of 14.4% of the viewing audience. During the pandemic ravaged 2020, it was seen by almost three million people.

This Christmas eve, for example, on Italia 1, the programming began with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the classic Gene Wilder version) in the early afternoon, followed by Jim Carrey’s The Grinch and ended with the main feature of Trading Places.

In the last 25 years, this movie has been shown 22 times, always on Christmas eve, a holiday tradition that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

It seems Italian’s are deeply attached to certain Christmas viewing habits.

This year one of Italy’s most loved fantasy television series is celebrating its 30th birthday. Every year between Christmas and New Year, Italy is blessed with reruns of the Italian fantasy cult classic Fantaghirò, which is in another league entirely to any other Christmas time cinema.

Less known outside of Italy and Europe, the series is based on an Italian folk tale.

Scholar Gherardo Nerucci collected the tales of Fanta-Ghirò, persona Bella into a series of short stories titled The sixty popular stories of Montale published in 1880.

Subsequently, the fable was published by Vittorio Imbriani in his La novellaja Fiorentina. But it was rewritten by Italo Calvino into Italian and included in his now-classic anthology of Italian adventures. In Calvino’s collection, Fiabe Italiane Fanta-Ghiro was only three pages long. Still, the fairytale that combines magic and popular mysticism in an all-female story of courage, love and revenge was enough to inspire director Lamberto Bava to adapt it into a series. 

The saga tells of the youngest tomboyish, crossdressing daughter of a warmonger King who goes into battle to bring peace to her war-ravaged kingdom. Over the five different series, through a mixture of encounters with magical creatures, witches, dragons, knights, duels and love, at first sight, Princess Fantaghiro’ goes through an epic journey that would make any Renaissance poet tremble at his knees!

Starring Alessandra Martines, Kim Rossi Stuart and Brigitte Nielsen, the early nineties series has enjoyed widespread popularity and has been dubbed into thirteen different languages. The Fantaghiro’ saga has become a classic of Italian t.v and is openly welcomed with festive affection into Italian’s living room every year. In 2019 when fans saw the series being moved into late night/ early morning programming over Christmas week, they started a campaign to make it available on a streaming service. Now the series is available for free on Mediaset Infinity.

My young son loves the mixture of magic, sword battle and bewitching creatures Fantaghiro’ encounters and is transfixed before the slightly stilted puppetry based special effects. As Christmas movies go, I’m glad there are no references to gifts, Father Christmas or any of the toilet humour of Cinepanettoni. I don’t mind the fantasy of Fantaghiro’ as it is apt to the spirit of the festive season.

The tv series is set in a stylized Middle Ages world dominated by magic, where two kingdoms have been at war for centuries, without any resolution. One of the Kings, played by Mario Adorf, is without a male heir. 

The King’s youngest daughter is a skilled horsewoman, archer and swordswoman who refuses to respect any rules. The rebellious Fantaghirò (Alessandra Martines) is imprisoned for her disobedience. But she is the only one who gives the kingdom, and her father hopes to end the war. That is until she falls in love with Romualdo (Kim Rossi Stuart), prince and heir to the throne of the rival kingdom.

After first moving to Italy in 2002, I watched Fantaghiro for the first time without any idea or context of the series; it was a random discovery made while flicking through television channels during the Christmas holidays. 

Immediately, I was reminded of those beautiful fantasy movies from the ’80s that you watch on lazy Sunday afternoons while on school holidays. Things like the Neverending Story, Labyrinth, the Princess Bride and puppetry inspired adventures like the Dark Crystal.

Fantachirò is a timeless, innocent fairytale filled with epic tales of love, courage, bravery and magic. With super evil villains who seem impossible to defeat but are undone by the endeavours of good, innocent, curious and brave souls. A classic heroic tale that everyone loves, reminiscent of Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole and Wendy’s flight to Nevernever land. A beautiful combination of imagination, adventure and magic.

Over the five seasons, Fantaghirò is portrayed by Alessandra Martines. In the first film, she is an impulsive troublemaker who likes to provoke her father and sisters, but she has a good heart underneath it. From the second film onwards, she is accepted as a fighter who will do whatever it takes to protect her loved ones, even if that means sacrificing her own life. She is deeply in love with Romualdo, who was previously her kingdom’s enemy. They are married in the third film and adopt the orphaned Princess Esmeralda as their daughter.

Fantaghirò has long red-brown hair, which she cuts it short into a boyish bob in the first and second film, but in the third film, she only has short hair. Fantaghirò tries to befriend all creatures and people she meets unless they try to harm those she loves. She is very forgiving and looks past physical appearances. The role launched Martines’ career.

As portrayed by Kim Rossi Stuart, Romualdo is Fantaghirò’s beloved and later husband. After his father’s death, Romualdo seeks to end his ancestors’ centuries-long war against Fantaghirò’s people. He challenges Fantaghirò’s father to single combat. Ronaldo falls in love with her in the first film and becomes obsessed with finding her. He is shocked when he meets her, as she disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place as Romualdo’s opponent.

They will be married early in the second series, but the ceremony is postponed when the Black Witch kidnaps Fantaghirò’s father. Romualdo becomes the Black Witch’s target, and she bewitched him to make him fall in love with her and erase all memories he has of Fantagitro. Romualdo eventually regains his memories thanks to Fantaghirò and the White Witch.

In the third film, Romualdo turns into a statue whilst fighting Tarabas’ men and is only revived near the movie’s end, when the pair are finally married. When Kim Rossi Stuart did not want to return to the role in the fourth film, Romualdo was transformed into the hideously ugly Fiodor, portrayed by Riccardo Serventi Longhi. At the end of the film, Fiodor is changed back to Romualdo. Romualdo does not appear in the fifth movie except in flashbacks.

In the fourth instalment of Fantaghiro, The Black Witch’s castle, the Black Witch (Strega Nera) is, portrayed by Brigitte Nielsen. She is the evil counterpart of the White Witch. She first appears in the second film and wants to destroy Fantaghirò and Romualdo romantic relationship as she obsessively hates their pure love and desires the handsome prince for herself.

The witch lures them to her kingdom by kidnapping Fantaghirò’s father, casts a spell on Romualdo to make him fall in passionate love with her and plots to kill Fantaghirò. Eventually, Fantaghirò manages to defeat her rival, as the Black Witch is turned to stone and smashed.

However, her character was so popular that the director revived her in the following three chapters of the saga. In the third film, her former minions, Bolt and Lightning, decide to resurrect her because Fantaghirò needs her help against Taraba. Because the Black Witch does help Fantaghirò, albeit reluctantly, her evil powers are weakened. In the fourth and fifth films, she constantly tries to get back at Fantaghirò so she can regain her full powers.

Taraba, portrayed by Nicholas Rogers, is a wizard who appears in the third and fourth films. He is initially a compelling villain feared by magicians in every kingdom, but he discovers a prophecy that a royal child no older than ten years will defeat him.

Taraba becomes obsessed with learning how he will be defeated and sends his men to kidnap all royal children, during which the parents of young Princess Esmeralda are killed. He crosses paths with Fantaghirò and falls in love with her, eventually asking her to marry him in exchange for reviving Romualdo, who has been turned into stone.

In the end, Tarabas lets Fantaghirò free from her promise and the two kiss once before Fantaghirò returns to her true love. He redeems himself with Esmeralda by allowing her to see her parents one last time, an act of kindness that fulfils the prophecy of his dark powers’ downfall.

Taraba renounces his evil ways and lives in peace until the fourth film when he is accused of creating a destructive black cloud consuming all in its path. Taraba reunites with Fantaghirò to track down the source of the black cloud and discovers that his father, Darken, conjured it. At the end of the fourth film, Tarabas renounces his love for Fantaghirò and stays with Princess Angelica of Tour.

As you can see, the saga is quite involved, intriguing and utterly addictive. There is a very long list of supporting characters and magical creatures encountered, all of who become lovely additions to the world created around the adventures of Fantaghirò. 

Director Lamberto Bava said the films were influenced by movies like Ladyhawke and Willow, Disney animated movies, and 1950s fantasy cinema. Initially, Fantaghirò was a single film, but the production costs were high, so the production was turned into a miniseries. Fantaghirò was an Italian funded series filmed primarily in former Czechoslovakia; the last two films were shot in Thailand and Cuba.

The series has been shown in more than 50 countries and was dubbed into several languages, including Bulgarian, Czech, Slovak, English, French, Polish, German, Spanish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Russian and Georgian. 

The sixth and seventh films in the series were never realized because of a decline in the viewing audience of Fantaghirò 5 on Christmas 1996. The project for the following movies was shelved. A proposal for another sequel was presented to Mediaset in 2007. Following continuous protests by the series fans who were disappointed with the fifth episode’s ending. Martines, Nielsen and Rogers confirmed their availability, but the project never came to fruition due to difficulties in production and budget concerns. 

Despite the speculation on any revival of this legendary Italian fantasy series, there is no doubt that Fantaghirò remains a festive season favourite and is a solid core memory for various generations of Italians.