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Giuseppina (1959)

Courtesy of BP Video Library

Main image of Giuseppina (1959)
35mm, colour, 32 mins
DirectorJames Hill
Production CompanyJames Hill Productions
SponsorBritish Petroleum Company
ProducerJames Hill
ScriptJames Hill
PhotographyVáclav Vích
MusicJack Beaver

Cast: Antonia Scalari (Giuseppina); Giulio Marchetti (Rossi)

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Giuseppina, the daughter of a filling-station proprietor in Mandriole, near Ravenna, wants to visit a travelling fair, but her father is too busy to take her. But she finds plenty to interest her at the station....

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Giuseppina opens with a montage of the crowds and speeding rides of a visiting fair - a set up which contrasts with the sedate pace that the film quickly relaxes into. This is the opposite of a road movie, with the static privileged over the mobile, and the experience of the place and people visited, not the travellers, centring the narrative.

The form is episodic: a series of travellers pass through a small locale, bringing their tales and aspects of the wider world into a parochial, unchanging space. The polarity of its two main characters is core to the film's charm, with Giuseppi a wise but humble man who values decency and the pleasures of the local, and his daughter Giuseppina a curious ingénue fascinated by the possibilities of the world beyond her limited family experience. Despite her central role, actress Antonia Scalari appears to have begun and ended her film career here.

The light comedy depends on very little use of language, enabling the film to reach a wide international audience. The parade of national stereotypes also provides amusement for a global audience, whether the caricatured individuals are tea-obsessed Britons, snap-happy Americans, or Italians enjoying la dolce vita. While today we enjoy the characterisation and humour of a comedy drama, at the time of the film's release it was considered a documentary, winning the 1961 Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject.

The awards were matched with acclaim in both the national press and trade publications. Giuseppina's popularity with the British public was cemented by its afterlife as a 'trade test colour film', one of the titles used by the BBC to test colour broadcasting. Reports suggest it was transmitted 185 times between 1962 and 1973.

The sponsored documentary film of the era took a range of forms, including at one extreme, this type of strange hybrid of fiction and publicity. Despite the dramatic form, it remains related to the work of its sponsor, being almost entirely filmed in a BP petrol station. The BP shield above the pumps is prominent in a multitude of shots in what we would now understand as product placement. This seems a rather mild interjection of corporate branding in a film entirely funded by one sponsor, though it does contrast with the policy of their competitor Shell, who piously claimed to limit their brand to the credits in the films they produced.

James Piers Taylor

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