Italy's Popular 'Cinepanettona' Film Series Returns to Theaters Friday

"Natale in Cortina," the latest installment in the slapstick Christmas travel comedy franchise, was set in Italy due to the economic crisis, producers say.

ROME -- Italy’s most reliable film franchise will premiere again Friday with Natale in Cortina (Christmas in Cortina), the latest slapstick Christmas travel comedy that has become the closest thing to money in the bank among Italian film series.

The franchise -- directed since the start by Neri Parenti and now considered the flagship of the so-called “Cinepanettone” genre named for the famous panettone sweet bread loaf popular around Christmas -- rarely attracts attention outside Italy. In many ways, the films’ plots follow the same lines from one year to the next, and serious film critics almost always give the productions a pass.

But despite all that, the series makes a lot of money for its producer, Filmauro, the production company owned by the famed De Laurentiis filmmaking family. Over the last half dozen years, film monitoring company Cinetel reports the films have taken in an average of €22.1 million ($29.4 million) a year. The only thing keeping the regular installments from being a mainstay on Cinetel’s annual top 10 list is that their receipts are invariably split between December of one year and January of the next.

The films have featured many of Italy’s best-known comics and actors since the first installment, Vacanze di Natale (Christmas Vacation), in 1995, but the franchise’s mainstay is comic Christian De Sica, who has played a bumbling protagonist in each the films. Notwithstanding his slapstick onscreen persona, De Sica is from a legendary film family -- he is the son of iconic Italian director Vittorio De Sica, the director of Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), considered by many critics to be one of the best films ever made.

Since 2000, the films have been set in exotic locals: Last year’s version was Natale in Sudafrica (Christmas in South Africa). In 2009, the film was set in Beverly Hills; before that Rio de Janeiro, New York ands Miami; and one installment on a Caribbean cruise.

But this year, the production in staying in Italy: Cortina is a mountain resort in the Dolomites range in northeastern Italy. Producers cited the economic crisis as a reason for staying home this time around, though it wasn’t quite clear if that referred to the studio’s desire to save money by staying on Italian soil, or if they thought a domestic setting would resonate better with cash-strapped moviegoers less likely than in the past to travel abroad for their own vacations.