“Parenti serpenti” (the English title is “Dearest Relatives, Poisonous Relations”) is a dark comedy directed by Mario Monicelli, based on a play by Carmine Amoroso and filmed in Sulmona, was released in 1992. Initially snubbed by audiences upon its release “Parenti Serpenti” became a cult classic over the years, thanks to its sarcastic and ironic portrayal of the Italian society and family. In many households, in Italy and Abruzzo, it has become a tradition to watch the film during the festivities.
As a timeless classic, it combines laughter, bitterness, and irony to shed light on the sanctity of family, as well as the squalor and selfishness inherent in human behaviour.
Sulmona, Christmas Eve. At the home of the elderly couple Grandma Trieste (Pia Velsi) and Saverio (Paolo Panelli) the four children with their respective families arrive: the two daughters Lina (Marina Confalone), a librarian in Teramo, who suffers from colitis and nervous stomach diarrhoea (as we learn from the narrator, her little son Mauro) married to the vulgar Michele and Milena (Monica Scattini), a depressed housewife and wife of Filippo, and the two Trieste sons – the communist Alessandro (Eugenio Masciari), husband of the lively Gina (Cinzia Leone) and the youngest Alfredo (Alessandro Haber), a bachelor teacher in a girls’ school.
Everything seems to be going well – between lunches, pots of lentils, bingo, and midnight Mass – when, as in the best tradition of every family during Christmas lunch, chaos erupts. Out of the blue, Grandma Trieste announces that she and Saverio can no longer live alone and would like to move in with one of their children. Whoever takes them in, will have half of their pensions and inherit the home in the centre of Sulmona. No one, predictably, wants to take them in, but everyone would like the comfort of their pension, furniture, and, of course, their apartment. Amidst quarrels, envy, accusations, pettiness, the tragedy unfolds in a hilarious way, leading to a surprising final solution.
Filmed in Sulmona
The film was almost entirely shot in Sulmona, a town in the province of L’Aquila, but initially, the setting was planned to be Lanciano, in the province of Chieti, the hometown of the screenwriter Carmine Amoroso. The location was changed, but many references to Lanciano remained: we hear the characters talk about bocconotti and there is a scene with a La Squilla procession. Sulmona lovers will enjoy the footage of the city from the 1990s, nostalgic scenes of festive meals with fried capitone (eel, a traditional Christmas Eve dish), tarallucci to snack on before dinner, aperitivi in the city’s grand cafes.
Macho and crude jokes, sexism, old-days stereotypes blended with the complexities of Italian family dynamics (often idealised by foreigners) make this dark comedy thought-provoking and still relevant. The title of the film is a short version of the Italian saying “Parenti serpenti, cugini assassini, fratelli coltelli” (“Snake relatives, killer cousins, knife brothers”), which implies that while the family is traditionally associated with virtues and values, it is not uncommon for antipathy, jealousy and envy to arise between relatives. It is precisely within the family that nasty fights, legal wars and even tragedies can happen causing deep scars.
“Parenti Serpenti” is available on Netflix in Italy and on YouTube (both only in Italian).