I fell in love with the Vespa when I lived in Italy 40 years ago. My two years there left me with many great memories, but one was certainly the ubiquitous little scooter zipping through traffic everywhere I went.
So when the television movie “Enrico Piaggio: Vespa” aired, showing us the creator of the scooter and his struggles to develop it, I simply had to watch. I was fascinated to learn the Vespa almost disappeared from Italian life by the early 1950s, until Piaggio made the pivotal decision to interest director William Wyler to feature it in his film “Roman Holiday.”
Who among us—of a certain age—can’t instantly recall images of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck zipping around Rome on that Vespa? It was a historic success for product placement.
And that’s where I started to go sour on the Enrico Piaggio movie. The overwhelming presence of corporate power is the real protagonist of the story. And is clearly victorious.
The movie jumps back and forth between 1952, when “Roman Holiday” was being filmed, and the early years immediately after WWII. Piaggio is “ruined” when his airplane factory is bombed. He can’t rebuild because once the war is over, there’s no further need for his planes. He must do something else.
So he decides to make a scooter.
Piaggio has difficulty getting a loan for a variety of reasons but does finally succeed in rebuilding. All goes well until the creditor demands repayment. Piaggio is almost destroyed again but is able to save the day by…selling one of his Rafael paintings.
It’s not that Enrico Piaggio didn’t face obstacles, and it’s not that he didn’t create a great product. It’s the framing that’s the issue. He was able to do these things because even after a devastating war he still had enough capital to ensure him options. He had resources that others don’t have.
And the film depicts him as better than others because of his achievements. While he may have accomplished something that others with the same resources didn’t, the fact remains that he didn’t do it from sheer strength of character and moral superiority. He did it because he was raised in a rich, privileged family, was given a strong education because of his privilege, was given management experience because his father owned the factory before him, and still had enormous resources even after his country was devastated by war.
That difference isn’t trivial.
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Piaggio makes several disparaging comments about “communists” and “union workers,” and the implication is he could have achieved so much more if he didn’t have to deal with such petty grievances. When things are at their lowest and his unpaid workers take over the factory, Piaggio is distressed the workers don’t have more faith in him. If those small-minded people could just be patient and give him a little more time, they’d be fine.
Piaggio’s depicted as a hero of the working class because he hired these workers in the economic aftermath of the war so he could build his Vespa, which of course brought Piaggio far more money than it ever brought to any of his workers, however nice their union pay might have been.
There’s also no real discussion that part of Piaggio’s wealth came from building warplanes for the bad guys. You know, Mussolini and Hitler. Remember them?
This all isn’t to say that Piaggio was a villain. According to the film, he took a bullet to prevent the Germans from taking his workers to Germany against their will. Of course, one can’t help wondering if even then he wasn’t thinking more about himself. After all, the loss of those workers would directly affect his own income. Regardless, the heroic act itself, according to the film, consisted of little more than smoking a cigarette.
We also watch Piaggio nobly give up other women in order to marry a war widow. A rich war widow, of course, but the important thing is he sacrificed sexual freedom to marry her.
Yeah, I guess that makes him a good guy.
We also see him give a kitten to the widow’s daughter while he’s courting the woman. The movie consistently gives us these simplistic, uncomplicated visions of good and evil, attempting to manipulate the viewer. Piaggio’s so good, according to this account, he could probably be canonized.
It’s this lack of complexity that makes the pro-corporate writing throughout the film so irritating. It’s a “feel good” drama showing that no matter how bad things might get, corporations and capitalism are always there to save the day.
Day after day, year after year, as I watch capitalism destroy the world, I need a more complex storyline in the films I watch, even when they praise a fossil fuel-using product I actually do like, made famous by an Audrey Hepburn movie I all out adore.