La Befana Vien di Notte [The Legend of the Christmas Witch] (2018)

La Befana Vien di Notte is a live-action Italian fantasy/superhero/comedy/adventure/children's movie about Befana. I probably shouldn't assume everyone reading this is familiar with Befana: she's a legendary witch who delivers gifts to the kids of Italy on Epiphany Eve (January 5th). The easy explanation is she's "like Santa," which isn't inaccurate, but feels reductive. There's a lot of debate over just how old the legends are and where they come from: I'm not going to get into any of that here. What's important is this idea isn't invented for the movie, and in Italy this would come across like a big-budget Santa Claus movie.

The problem we ran into trying to watch La Befana Vien di Notte is that this isn't Italy, and the film hasn't received a proper US release. Amazon has a version up, but the language options are limited. There's of course a dubbed English track, but...

Okay, side note. I'm pretty firmly entrenched on the "subtitles or nothing" side of the dubbing/subtitle debate when it comes to animation; however, I recognize that's a complex subject with a lot of nuance. When it comes to live-action, I think things get a lot simpler: if you're not hearing the audio track, you're not experiencing the actors' performances and therefore losing a major aspect of the film. That's a deal-breaker for me.

Fortunately, Amazon does offer an Italian language track and English "subtitles." See those quotes: that's because said subtitles are really closed captioning of the dubbed track. Closed captioning options should always be available, but they make a poor substitute for subtitles for a number of reasons. The most trivial of which is a description of sounds and music - these are a bit distracting but mostly harmless.

The larger issue is that the dubbed translation is intended for American kids, so what makes it into the translation isn't necessarily going to match up with the original meaning. This is most obvious when people refer to the main character - in the English version, she's called "The Christmas Witch" instead of, you know, her name. This is easy enough to ignore (I can hear them saying "Befana"), but if you're not paying attention it undercuts the significance of when characters actually call her a witch.

There's also an introduction added to the dubbed version where Santa Claus provides a primer on who "The Christmas Witch" is. This is particularly bizarre in the "subtitled" version, as the voiceover isn't present, but we're still seeing the translation.

But all that's ignorable. The real issue is that I'm not certain how accurate the translation really was. Dubbing almost always involves some creative manipulation to match the translation with the duration of time a character's speaking. Transcribing the dubbed text needlessly extends this limitation to the subtitled version, so unless you speak the language, you're always sort of operating on faith that the translation is conveying the meaning, as opposed to just filling the space. There are a few moments in particular where characters' motives and plans didn't really add up. Was this a problem in the original script or the translation? Damned if I know! If anyone out reading this is fluent in Italian and has seen the movie, we'd love any insight you have.

Now then. Let's actually start talking about the movie.

I said at the top that this is about Befana, which is true but possibly misleading. The character has been reimagined here to feel more like a modern superhero. She's still ancient, but the rules and mechanics of her powers - and make no mistake, they're treated as powers - have received an update.

First of all, the character isn't literally Befana, and she isn't thousands of years old: her name is Paola, and she's only around six hundred. She was granted eternal life and youth centuries ago by the spirit of Befana on the condition she transform into the witch every night and deliver gifts to kids every year. By day, she works as a school teacher.

Twenty-five years before the main story kicks off, Befana accidentally misses a kid on her rounds. She gets the present to him eventually, but by then he's sworn eternal vengeance. Jump to the present, and Paola is doing pretty well.

Things aren't all great, of course. Her boyfriend wants to marry her, but she's naturally reluctant to get serious because of her secret identity (which he's naturally oblivious about). They are sleeping together, but she always sneaks away without spending the night to ensure he doesn't find out she transforms into an old hag at midnight. While flying home, a kid spying on women showering gets a video of her on her broom, which creates problems for her because...

Actually, let's back up, because I should probably address the fact this kid's movie just introduced sexuality twice in the space of five minutes. For the record, none of this comes up again, there was no onscreen nudity, and Paola's time with her boyfriend was implied, not shown. Still, it's certainly notable a movie that would otherwise more or less qualify for a G rating includes more sexuality than 90% of Marvel movies. Keep in mind, this is a foreign film, and as a general rule, Europe is less hung up about this stuff. If you're the parent of a child and you feel like this is more than you'd like them exposed to... I don't know, get therapy or something: this is fine for kids. Moving on.

At any rate, the video goes viral, which draws the attention of the movie's supervillain, Giovanni Rovasio (Mr. Johnny in the English version). If you're wondering if this is the kid from the beginning all grown up... yeah, obviously: of course it is. Giovanni has Paola abducted and brought to his mountaintop factory where he drugs her to find out where she keeps the letters from kids. At least, I think that's what he's doing. Remember when I said some motives were less than clear in this translation? This is what I was talking about.

Okay, I'm going to explain his situation, as presented in this version, as best as possible. He wants to kill and replace Befana as the seasonal gift giver, distributing toys made in his factory, but he needs her letters, so he knows what each kid wants. Also, he's got toys that look like Befana which contain an addictive powder that will make kids only want his toys, which will put Santa Claus out of a job, too. He sort of promises not to use these if she'll give him the letters, but... uh...

Yeah, I don't think all of this is right. I'm not really clear what Giovanni is doing, but I don't think it's that. He definitely still wants vengeance against Befana, and toys and letters are part of his larger scheme, but I suspect there's more to it than survives translation. 

Again, if any Italian speakers could shed some light on this, I'd be grateful. 

Let's set all that aside for a moment and turn our attention to the A-plot about a bunch of kids trying to rescue her. Okay, that's not fair - both plots feel pretty equal in time and narrative significance. Also, I don't think this was a bad choice, just an odd one considering how much effort went into grounding and humanizing Befana.

At any rate, the other storyline centers around a bunch of her students, with one, Riccardo (or "Chris" in the English version) being the most significant. He's sort of a dorky kid who has a crush on a classmate and is bullied by her ex, both of whom wind up being part of the team. There are more, as well, and all are helpful by the end, but...

Okay, to the movie's credit, they did a decent job compiling a diverse cast: one kid is Asian, one is black, one is overweight, and the male/female ratio is 50/50. The problem is as often as not those traits define them. The Asian kid is academically brilliant, while the overweight kid is always thinking about food. For better and worse, the kids have a Goonies vibe, and unfortunately, that extends to stereotypes.

They go on a bunch of adventures before eventually being captured by one of Giovanni's henchmen, who puts them in a trash compactor. Riccardo saves them by using a previously established pocketknife to break the gears.

This all occurs simultaneously with Giovanni having Paola tied to a Christmas-themed pyre and lighting it (the movie's already established fire is her kryptonite, since she's a witch). This probably would have worked if Giovanni hadn't delayed: instead, the clock strikes midnight, and she transforms into Befana, leading to a chase through the skies. Giovanni tries to shoot her down from a flying hoverboard outfitted with missiles. If there was any doubt this was mimicking superhero movies, this sequence should remove any doubt. Eventually, Befana hits a tree and is knocked unconscious. She wakes up the next day to find herself captured again.

The kids meanwhile reach the factory, where they battle a bunch of drones armed with tranquilizer darts. They free Paola, only to all be immediately captured again. Using the kids as leverage, Giovanni finally convinces Paola to give up the location of her hidden letters. He takes Paola, leaving the kids behind, where they're rescued by Paola's boyfriend, who stumbled upon her secret sanctum while looking for her. Also, he's wearing a dinosaur costume for some reason that's either lost in translation or entirely cut from this version.

The kids follow to the mountaintop where Paola and Giovanni went and overpower his henchmen (he only brought two, so this isn't entirely unreasonable). Paola and Giovanni have a brief fight of their own and eventually fall off the edge together, leaving the kids to believe they died (keep in mind, it's daytime, so Paola has none of her powers). Everyone's sad, but then presents show up in everyone's stockings on Epiphany morning, the kids pair up romantically, and they see Paola with her boyfriend the next day.

There's also a mid-credits scene implying Giovanni survived, as well, and wants vengeance. More vengeance, I mean, since that was already his deal to begin with.

I've got more than a few issues with this, but as a whole I enjoyed it quite a bit. It's a flawed movie, no question, but I can't help but admire how completely it leaned into its cross-genre premise. This really feels like a modern superhero movie centered around Befana, and in the opinion of this Christmas nerd, that's worth celebrating.

Also, the opening of the movie showing her flying around, going down chimneys, and delivering gifts looks fantastic. It's clear they prioritized their budget on a handful of big effects sequences, so there's not a lot of Befana after that (really just this sequence and the chase), but what's here is genuinely impressive. More importantly, this version is a cool character in her own right. Paola works as sort of Yuletide Bruce Banner.

The kid's adventure plot certainly wasn't as compelling, but it wasn't boring, either. Some of it felt like filler, but it was solid enough to keep me engaged.

The villain was campy and over-the-top in a fun way. I didn't love him, but I certainly thought this made better use of the concept than the similar character used in Santa Claus: The Movie. Would I have appreciated a slightly more menacing threat coupled with some compelling fights? Sure. But this was aiming for a younger audience, and frankly probably didn't have the budget.

The actual issues were mainly related to pacing. Having the villain capture Paola and the kids, then threaten those kids to pry information from her twice was a bit redundant. When Befana escapes from the pyre, I was ready for the movie to wrap up. Instead there's an extra act tacked on that more or less repeats the same beats from the previous section. I liked a lot of the stuff later (the drone fight in the factory was fun), but there had to be a way to restructure the script into something more streamlined.

Likewise, the boyfriend feels really extraneous. The scene where he discovers Befana's lair is redundant given we've already seen the kids find the same location. They could have trimmed back his role or cut him entirely without losing anything valuable.

Ultimately, this is one of those movies I'm tempted to recommend solely because I love it exists. If you're anywhere near as obsessed with Christmas folklore as I am, this thing is worth tracking down. The problem is, if you're not... this is really just fine. It's not bad, which is honestly pretty remarkable, but it doesn't really set itself apart anywhere outside of its premise.

But, God, what a premise. I really hope this gets an official US release with a better translation - I'd buy a blu-ray in a heartbeat.