Arrivederci, family-friendly film ratings

Apocalypto Once upon a time, Italy was famous for its bambini and linguini -- lots of kids and loads of pasta. Well, nowadays, there's still loads of pasta. But with the Italian birth rate below 1.3 children per woman, kids are fewer and fewer. Families are shrinking and more couples don't have children. Consequently pressure is building to relax film classifications, reflecting the shift in demographics.

It all started with Apocalypto. The restrictive rating given to Mel Gibson's movie by an Italian national commission started a long and lively debate on the entire censorship system, resulting in a law change that is currently being discussed in Parliament. Apocalypto initially received an adult rating (VM18) owing to the amount of violence shown. Following an appeal and the complaints of many important critics -- who argued that the film's violent images were meaningful and acceptable in the context of a primitive world -- the restriction was reduced to those under 14 years of age (VM14).

It is easy to see this case as merely the occasion to promote a rethinking of the classification system, a mechanism that also determines the use of a movie in other media. For example, a movie restricted to those 18 and over cannot legally be shown on television before 10.30 pm, resulting in a lower fee for movie's producers.

The great strength of the classic Italian classification system is that
it considers a movie not only as the sum of a certain number of
situations and characters, but as a a system of meaning where
the single elements combine to
create a message -- or rather, a world which can attract and influence
the audience, especially the youngest one.

Parent representation

Historically, the Italian commission which evaluates movies has comprised not only industry people but also representatives of parents associations in order to ensure a balance between artistic/economic and social requirements. And it not only sets an age-related classification, but also gives a more general evaluation of movies in terms of cultural and ethical issues. It is the latter function that is now disputed in the name of a shift in social values.

Last year, for example, controversy erupted when a movie dealing with the problem of child abuse and incest (even without showing an explicit image of it) was given a VM14 classification. The Beast in the Heart (lately chosen to represent Italy for the Academy Awards) was a typical example of a movie needing comprehensive evaluation. A simple account of problematic scenes was not enough to give a faithful idea of the effect on young people of Beast's very negative portrayal of the traditional family as a place of violence and abuse, and its suggestion that only new forms of relationship (homosexual, or heterosexual without marriage) are able to heal tragic psychological wounds of the past.

Reaction was swift and concerted. Many people accused the commission of exercising an intolerable censorship, subtly attributing this to the Catholic Church as a major player in the commission's decisions through the parents associations. Not all parents associations in Italy are Catholic, nor are the values at stake here exclusively Catholic. However, it is quite clear that the battle over the rating system is about cultural values as well as economics.

'Science' versus family values

The many difficult cases the commission has been dealing with finally produced (with the "friendly" encouragement of people with an economic or ideological interest) a favourable environment for a political debate about film classification. The solution proposed by the new Minister of National Heritage and Culture envisages an Anglo-Saxon model (close to that of the Motion Picture Association of America) where responsibility for ratings is primarily in the hands of producers, although psychologists and magistrates are supposed to have some input.
The aim of the proposed law is to create a clearer and more precise classification (with a detailed presentation of problematic elements), but the idea of giving the initiative to producers is obviously not without its problems.

To encourage in market players a sense of responsibility towards younger audiences is not a bad idea, but one cannot forget that exposing children to problematic contents without parental guidance may have serious psychological consequences. And, while it is true that the relative smallness of the Italian market is an incentive for producers not to develop too many movies that are not "family friendly", the temptation to present a movie as suitable for any audience (even if it is not) might be too strong to resist.

The great strength of the classic Italian classification system is that it considers a movie not only as the sum of a certain number of situations and characters, but as a whole, a system of meaning where the single elements (which can include violence, drugs and sex, but also behavioural models that are even more problematic) combine to create a message -- or rather, a world which can attract and influence the audience, especially the youngest one.

The presence of parent representatives is in this sense crucial to create a bridge between an abstract or merely artistic/economic consideration of a movie and its "consumption" by the audience. But this claim is implicitly challenged by supporters of the new law, whose abstract approach appears more scientific and less arbitrary. In fact, the "scientific" view arbitrarily disconnects itself from the comprehensive view of entertainment media that responsible parents take.

Demographics and demonstrations

It is tempting to suggest that demographics might have a role in this evolution. Italy is the oldest country in Europe with a very low birth rate (except for immigrants) and this might make it more difficult to advocate for children's best interests.

But the truth is probably a bit more complicated. On the one hand there are many young parents without a strong cultural background who tend to think that the scientific approach takes care of everything; they don't seem to perceive the risks of exposing children to dubious models and sometimes are intolerant of ethical issues being raised. There is, on the other hand, an increasing percentage of people without children, who tend to see the question of movie ratings only in terms of artistic censorship and consequently favour a completely deregulated system.

Thankfully, there have been recent signals that point in another direction. In May a Family Day rally held in Rome amounted to a huge demonstration in support of the family and against legislation aiming to establish "civil unions" as equivalent to the traditional family model. This show of family strength seems to have put new heart into the parents associations, which have become more active on cultural issues.

The main outcome so far is a new Film Festival, explicitly designed for a family audience rather than for critics and cinephiles, that will be held in Fiuggi next July. This event might be the right occasion to discuss the problem of film ratings in a very concrete and pragmatic way, bringing together the different players in this important field and reminding them that any evaluation system must be based on values that contribute to the positive growth of individuals.

Luisa Cotta Ramosino works in the Communication Department of the Catholic University of Milan. She is also a television writer and a regular contributor to the weekly entertainment magazine Il Domenicale.


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