At the table with Paul Newman

by Emmanuel Grossi

One of the most memorable and suggestive commercials in the advertising history of Barilla is surely the one of Christmas 1991: a narrative breath deserving a feature film, with wonderful panoramic shooting of the fir woods of Canada and Connecticut covered in snow and a beautiful sound track that flows into the jingle by Vangelis. Santa Claus is riding in his sleigh to bring gifts to the entire region, and the surprise is to discover that he is none other than Paul Newman. The ending brings us back to the domestic hearth with the family all gathered around the table in an atmosphere that through the years warmed the hearts and brought tears to the eyes of the television spectators.

All this would seem to be the perfect and splendid conclusion of a long and fortunate campaign.
However, an unpublished testimony reveals to us that the commercial could have been even more incisive – if that were possible – at least from the standpoint of the cinematic narration and of symbolic values.

Franco Bellino, at the time head of the cinema office of Young & Rubicam, indeed recalls that the original script (to which he worked as contributor as well) narrated a slightly different story.
Santa Claus arrives to the last log cabin with no more presents in his sack, and is invited to enter and to join the family as a guest for lunch by the co-starring boy, and for once he becomes the recipient of an unexpected gift. Only then, when he sat at the table, he would pull off the fake beard revealing to all people present his identity. The invitation thus would take on a universal value permeated by unconditional generosity. The family opened the doors of their home to an anonymous Santa Claus, an anonymous good man, and not to the Hollywood star.
The commercial then would have ended on the extreme close up of his magnetic blue eyes, as blue as those of his new young friend (and, incidentally, like the packaging of pasta). The game of glances and the “chromatic parallelism” remained in the film that was aired as well, but with a lesser degree of intensity. Franco seems to recall that when he went to review the filmed material, that extreme close up scene was not there…

We do not know who was the author of these modifications: Gavino Sanna, tutelary deity of the campaign, and of this short, who was the trustworthy collaborator of Pietro Barilla (who can be seen in the backstage)? Director Bob Giraldi, who would later direct many other commercials for the Company (with Alberto Tomba, Steffi Graf, Zucchero… and even for Mulino Bianco)? The account managers, following indications by the marketing office? Paul Newman himself?
Franco was not on the set during filming as he stayed in Italy to take care of other clients: Alessandra Ferrari was there with Gavino, as she was his producer and personally followed all of the Barilla commercials.
Therefore, the mystery lingers. As well as the regret lingers for a film that in itself was splendid, but perhaps could have been even more beautiful (or at least we could have enjoyed an alternative version which was absolutely unedited).