Gianni Agnelli drove a Fiat. But everyone knew he’d had a Ferrari engine installed in that chassis.
I was saying recently how there are some documentaries that aren’t very artful but are important viewing for their message; and others that are the reverse, directorially fabulous but maybe not as content-crucial; and that now and then you get magical ones that are both (I felt this way about HBO’s recent documentary on Ben Bradlee).
From the “top-notch aesthetics, slightly underwhelming content” side of docu-world comes HBO’s Agnelli, a two-hour look at “L’Avvocato,” Gianni Agnelli, the charismatic head of Fiat.
The story of the Fiat corporation is a huge part of the story of modern Italy. This one company was a singular reflection of the nation’s economic and political health for much of the 20th century. When Fiat was in bad straits, Italy was. When Fiat thrived, Italy was one of the top industrial powers of the Western world. For those of you who aren’t Latin nerds, the word Fiat means “Let it be done,” and in modern English the word’s a synonym for a mandate or decree. But Gianni Agnelli maintained that it also contained an acronym: Factory, Italian, Automotive— Turin.
Italy has experienced intense political turmoil in the last 100 years. The world wars, Fascism, Communism, the uneasy coalescing of city-states into a sovereign nation, fluctuating economic prosperity-20th century Italy was a rollercoaster. As an entitled upper-class playboy, Agnelli’s an unlikely proletarian hero, but in this documentary it seems that to the people of Turin that’s what he was. More than once, he ran the company into near bankruptcy but refused to lay workers off: What would they do? Where would they get jobs? How would tens of thousands of unemployed factory workers help the situation? They needed stability; everyone did. In the 1970s, he notoriously pulled Fiat out of the weeds by selling a stake to Moammar Qadaffi. However you look at it, the industrialist was one of the most significant figures in 20th century Italy.
He was also quite the dreamboat.
There is a deep and complicated story here about class and politics in Italy, and the documentary throws a few darts at it. It privileges style over substance to a degree I found annoying, but if style is what you’re into, there’s plenty of it in this film. Through a combination of interviews with family, friends and colleagues, archival footage, and beautiful shots of a lot of beautiful people and places, we get a portrait of a man who, according to his niece, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenburg, every woman loved and every man wanted to be. A drug-gulping, hard-living, thrill-seeking playboy, Agnelli hobnobbed with royalty, movie stars, socialites, heads of state. He was a snappy dresser whose style everyone tried to emulate. He slept with, like, everyone. He skied the Matterhorn, jumped into the Mediterranean from a helicopter, and generally lived life on constant fast-forward, which is easy to do when you have a zillion dollars, a lot of cocaine, and almost no one with the ability to say no to you. He was an aesthete, a charisma bomb, a serial seducer, a bon vivant, and the epitome of Italian glamour. If James Bond had been an industrialist, and not fictional, he would have been Gianni Agnelli.
Oh, he also ran a car company.
Here’s the thing.
I’m sure director Nick Hooker has done a smashing job capturing the glamour and social influence of Gianni Agnelli. The documentary is esthetically stellar, as well cut as one of its subject’s bespoke suits, visually rich and lavishly peopled with those who think he was just the greatest thing ever. When Agnelli is shown on camera as an older man, though, speaking in interviews, you get the clear sense that he was a man of some intelligence and someone who cared about the welfare of his country—in fact, he has a gravitas that’s downright hard to reconcile with the main thrust of the documentary, which is really about how cool he was, how no one could resist him, how the entire world took to wearing wristwatches over, rather than under, the cuffs of dress shirts because Agnelli did. Oh, look: there he is frolicking on a boat with Jackie Kennedy. They were probably doing it, how cool is that? He called people at three in the morning on a whim! Oh, Gianni, you kook. He was doing it with Anita Ekberg; that Gianni! Classic Italian male. Oh, how he charmed men and women alike; oh, how jaunty were his neckties. Oh, his art collection. Oh ,his racecars. Oh, his soccer team. By the end of the documentary—and I am pretty dang sure I was paying attention—I knew he’d run Fiat and that he cared about the company’s survival, but I wasn’t even really sure whether history saw him as a good businessman or a bad one. I knew he’d been a crappy father, an epic philanderer, the owner of the Juventus soccer team, and that people seemed to love him no matter what. I knew he’d made Fiat (previously run by his grandfather, Giovanni) the most important corporation in Italy and that it oscillated between thriving and hemorrhaging during his tenure.
He ran a company that employed a little over 3% of the entire workforce of Italy. He ran that company during a time of much upheaval and instability and political violence. He was a big deal.
I’m not sure I’m clear on why the most important thing about this man was his fashion sense.
The film hints at a real seriousness to this man, under the philandering, absentee-father, thrill-seeking bon vivant. It portrays him as someone who lived with an enviable degree of fearlessness, and there’s something to be gleaned from that. He exuded confidence and he was stylish and charming.
Is it weird that I find it tiresome that most of the documentary is about how he was stylish and charming?
It might be. If style and charm are enough to keep you riveted for two hours, you’ll love this film; it does what it does very, very well. And I now know a lot about what Gianni Agnelli wore and whom he slept with.
There’s a “so what?” element that I am still trying to sort out, though.
Agnelli premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on HBO.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.