With his aquiline nose, swept-back hair and bare chest bronzed by the Mediterranean sun, Gianni Agnelli came across like a modern-day Roman Emperor. He was sometimes called “the rake of the Riviera,” for his love of fast cars, sailboats, clothing and beautiful women.
But the new documentary “Agnelli,” directed by Nick Hooker and debuting on HBO on Dec. 18, shows Mr. Agnelli, who was the head of Fiat and died in 2003, to have been something rarer: a playboy with gravitas. He saw battle in World War II, and ran his family’s car company, which was once Italy’s largest private business. When Henry A. Kissinger appears on screen praising the shrewdness of “L’Avvocato,” or the Lawyer, as Mr. Agnelli was nicknamed, you realize that, despite the tan, this wasn’t George Hamilton with an Italian accent.
Yes, Mr. Agnelli was a creature of a more chauvinist time. He was an inattentive father. He believed that being discreet about extramarital affairs was the mark of a good husband. And he was unquestionably vain. Nevertheless, as the film shows, modern men can still learn a few things about style and living the good life from Mr. Agnelli.
He Lived Courageously
During Italy’s so-called Years of Lead in the mid-1970s, a communist paramilitary organization known as the Red Brigades assassinated businessmen and political leaders, including the country’s prime minister, Aldo Moro. Mr. Agnelli was surely a target. Yet he bravely drove to work every day in his Fiat compact, exuding strength and calm to his workers and the nation. “He thought that a day when someone tries to assassinate you and fails is a more interesting day than when they don’t,” Mr. Hooker said.
He Set His Own Fashion Rules
One of the funniest moments in the documentary is a montage of men who copied Mr. Agnelli’s sui generis look of wearing his watch over his shirt cuff. For him, it was a practical response to a problem. “The cuffs were very tight on the shirts he had made,” Mr. Hooker said. “He couldn’t fit a watch under.” It’s a goofy move, and the guys who do it look ridiculous. Except, of course, Mr. Agnelli.
He Loved Human Comedy
In the film, friends like Jean Pigozzi and Mr. Kissinger recall how Mr. Agnelli would call them in the early mornings, asking, “What’s new?” He loved gossip, the juicier the better.