Italy appoints a sex-comedy star to its most prestigious cultural body

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“AT FIRST, I thought it was a joke,” admitted Lino Banfi. Small wonder. Mr Banfi had just been told that Italy’s populist government had decided to appoint him to what is arguably his country’s most illustrious cultural body: the Italian National Commission for UNESCO, the United Nations agency for education, science and culture.

Mr Banfi, whose real name is Pasquale Zagaria, is an actor. That obviously does not make him unworthy to sit on the commission. But, far from being his country’s leading interpreter of, say, Goldoni or Pirandello, Mr Banfi is famous for his parts in movies that belong to a genre known as commedia sexy. His counterparts in the English-speaking world would be Mel Brooks or Benny Hill.

Hugely popular until the 1980s as many Italian sexual taboos were being challenged for the first time, commedia sexy films usually involved a middle-aged man becoming improbably entangled with a beautiful younger woman who would shed most of her clothes at some point in the proceedings. As often as not the middle-aged man was the rotund, balding, diminutive Mr Banfi, now aged 82.

The leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, chose to announce the actor’s appointment on January 22nd at an event intended to launch his party’s most vaunted item of legislation, a new benefit for the poorest Italians. Mr Banfi said his first moves would be to lobby for UNESCO to give World Heritage status to grandfathers like himself and to his home town of Canosa di Puglia.

The second proposal is a good deal less absurd than the first: Canosa is one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in Italy and an important archaeological site. But the actor rather spoilt the impact of his suggestion by telling Corriere della Sera, a daily, that some of its ruins were ancient Egyptian.

Some in the opposition, particularly on the left, were apoplectic at the naming of Mr Banfi. Commedia sexy was not only sexist, but, by the standards of today, politically incorrect in other ways: one of the farces in which Mr Banfi starred, released in 1979, relies for many of its laughs on the delusions of the inmates of a mental hospital.

Even Matteo Salvini, leader of the nationalist Northern League, which is yoked to the M5S in Italy’s two-party coalition, balked at the comedian’s appointment. He said he would have preferred the honour to go to Andrea Bocelli, an opera singer.

None of this is likely to upset Mr Di Maio, who is seeking to revive his party’s fortunes in time for the European elections in May. The M5S has been losing ground to the League in the polls and needs to recover its popularity in the poorer south of the country, which is where it fared best at the general election last year. Mr Banfi, like Mr Di Maio himself, is a southerner.

His appointment may also have offered a glimpse of what Europe’s new populists have in store for the arts. The choice of Mr Banfi appeared to be a deliberate middle finger to Italy’s intellectual elite—the cultural equivalent of President Donald Trump’s recent serving of hamburgers to his guests at the White House.

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