The Italian island of Pantelleria covers just over 32 square miles. It sits in the sea like a pebble flicked off the soccer ball of Sicily after it was struck by Italy’s boot. It’s a place of great natural beauty, all hot springs and vistas of the Mediterranean, with a population of scarcely more than 7500 people.
But people don’t form most of the inhabitants here, because the volcanic island is also home to the greatest number of Fiat Pandas per square mile. It’s an unusual phenomenon that’s led Fiat to release a documentary about the people and the Pandas of Pantelleria.
The documentary is called Pandelleria, and if you’re looking to broaden your horizons with a foreign-language film, then skip the Oscar-winning documentaries and give this 30-minute short a look.
“What’s with all the Pandas, you ask?” says one of the documentary’s subjects, a winemaker and mechanic. “We disassemble them every day, we have a million Pandas [on] the island. We have only Pandas here.”
Perhaps not quite a million, but Pantelleria is truly infested with Pandas. All three generations. Watching a boxy 1980s Panda 4×4 getting flung down a rural gravel road in truly Italian fashion (carrying a cargo hold full of grapes for the wine press) helps the viewer start to understand why this is. Pandas are small, economical, easily repaired, and surprisingly tough. Just the thing for life on an isolated island where self-reliance is key.
The documentary was directed by award-winning Italian filmmaker Giovanni Troilo, who previously won acclaim for his portrayal of the people of Rome and those who live in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. The film features a series of vignettes of farmers, foragers, mechanics, a restaurateur, a beekeeper, and even a spiritual guide to show how the Panda is simply a part of everyday life on the island.
Tourists to Pantelleria are all but guaranteed a Panda-centric experience. This is because the only model of car that local rental agencies stock is—you guessed it—the Panda.
Introduced in 1979, the Panda wore bodywork penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro. It was among his most beloved designs.
Simple, square, and powered by a pint-size engine, the original Panda—like those that followed it—was unpretentious and practical. More than four million Pandas were sold throughout the first-generation car’s 23-year production run. Three generations in and more than 40 years later, the Fiat Panda remains one of the best-selling vehicles in Italy.
The message of Pandelleria is less about the Pandas of Pantelleria and more about the life of the local islanders. Rather than taking center stage, the Panda serves as a constant backdrop. On Pantelleria, Panda ownership is like the sun, like the saltwater, like the wine and music at the end of a day’s work. It’s not just a car, it’s a part of life on Pantelleria.
Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and photographer based in North Vancouver, B.C., Canada. He grew up splitting his knuckles on British automobiles, came of age in the golden era of Japanese sport-compact performance, and began writing about cars and people in 2008. His particular interest is the intersection between humanity and machinery, whether it is the racing career of Walter Cronkite or Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s half-century obsession with the Citroën 2CV. He has taught both of his young daughters how to shift a manual transmission and is grateful for the excuse they provide to be perpetually buying Hot Wheels.