Italian Directors Protest Proposed Smoking Ban in Films

Gianni Fiorito
One of the many smoking scenes in 'The Great Beauty'

Paolo Sorrentino and others call the law "totally ridiculous" and an attack on freedom of speech.

It’s hard to imagine a classic Italian film without cigarettes. From Clint Eastwood’s rolled cigarillo in every classic Sergio Leone western, to Marcello Mastroianni’s puffing away in Federico Fellini films, smoking is as much a part of the onscreen culture in Italy as it is off-screen.

Smoking has long been seen as a major health problem though in Italy, where 52 percent of two-year-olds are routinely exposed to second-hand smoke, and one out of five babies has a mother who smokes, according to the National Institute for Statistics. While Italy has banned smoking in indoor public places, such as restaurants, it’s easy to circumvent the law as most restaurants offer dining al fresco.

To combat the issue, Italy's Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin is proposing a law to forbid cigarettes in public places, such as beaches, parks and stadiums, as well as in cars with children aboard, and in national TV and film productions, where smoking is considered excessive.

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It’s the latter proposal that has set off Italy’s creative community. In an open letter published in La Repubblica, 20 of Italy’s top film community professionals, including directors Saverio Costanzo, Mario Martone, Gabriele Muccino, Gabriele Salvatores, Paolo Sorrentino and Paolo Virzi, have expressed their outrage at the proposed measure.

They called the proposed law “totally ridiculous” and an attempt to try to dictate how directors tell stories on screen. They also said it is interesting to note that the proposed law is coming out at a time when freedom of expression has been challenged in such a deadly way in Europe, a clear reference to the recent Paris attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine.

“It is in the human nature to be imperfect,” the film industry insiders wrote. “And there is an endless list of masterpieces, in literature and cinema that has perfectly portrayed the life of people. Following the logic behind this law proposal, a lot of other elements of these works would have been banned or limited.”

They voiced their opinion against the “horrible tradition” where the “system rules on the private behavior of the human being, treating them not as citizens but as children to be protected and guided.”

“Cinema, literature, and the artistic expression in general doesn’t need to follow any specific direction,” they wrote, saying that the health ministry’s goal to fight smoking it completely unrelated to how it’s portrayed in cinema. “You don’t ask celery from a butcher,” they wrote. “He will send you to the produce shop.”

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 Movies should “tell about joy, pain, greatness but also about smallness and the magic of the human being. And if to do that at our best would be necessary to fill the screen with clouds of smoke, or with other things much more unseemly, we will continue to do so, because this is our job.”

“Please, behave well and do your job,” the letter concluded in a direct address to the Minister of Health, “while we will do the best to do ours.”

Also speaking out against the proposal, the 100 Autori, an association of Italian filmmakers, made a declaration that the law was unacceptable, arguing that it goes against the one mission of directors in Rome to share stories, ideas and visions from Italy. Calling the law a “violation of freedom of expression,” they demanded that the government immediately scrap the proposed law.