Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bread and Chocolate



Bread and Chocolate (Italy, 1974)
Dir. Franco Brusati
Hen’s Tooth Video; $24.95, DVD

This feature film, directed by Franco Brusati and released in 1974, tells the story of an Italian immigrant in Switzerland and the discrimination he faces as he tries to survive. The film represents the “commedia all’italiana” genre, meaning Italian-style comedy.

The central character is Nino Garofalo, played by Nino Manfredi, a guest worker from Naples who works as a waiter in a Swiss café. From the moment, Manfredi appears on screen eating a sandwich in the park while watching various Swiss people enjoying their holiday, he reminds one of American actor Jack Lemmon. He has the comic facial expressions of Lemmon, and the ability to portray a range of emotions—humor, fear, confusion, regret, et cetera—with a simple look into the camera. Director Brusati uses the actor’s face throughout to convey the bewildering misfortunes, trials, and tribulations of the poor immigrant character, a man whose hair is too dark, whose skin is too olive toned, and whose mannerisms are never quite right to fit in with Swiss society.

The comedy in the film ranges from the sly to the more obvious. Nino loses his work permit through a series of accidental incidents culminating in a charge for public urination. There is a good dose of black comedy here, too, as when Nino stumbles upon a murder in the park for which he is paraded in front of the magistrate. Nino’s life is one of inopportune moments and misfortunes, all of which Manfredi plays with a subtle patience that moves toward exasperation as the movie progresses.

Elena is the Greek woman who supports Nino, one of a number of people he encounters in his travails as an immigrant worker. Johnny Dorelli is an Italian industrialist who becomes Nino’s friend and benefactor, and whose suicide due to financial stress sets off one of the funnier set pieces in the film. Brusati ably stages tragedy with comedy, such as in the suicide scene, where the audience can feel Nino’s discomfort and unease while also finding humor in his facial expressions and mannerisms.

The film also presents a number of cultural cues, portraying the Swiss as cultured and high-mannered while the Italians are the lower class workers who fail to understand fully the snobbish attitudes they experience in their guest worker roles. The Neapolitan chicken farmers who offer Nino a place to stay offer us a commentary on the “hillbilly” nature of the Italians in another culture. They are rubes who live, literally, with the chickens, and Nino finds them too rural even as he finds he does not fit with more polite society in the city.

In an attempt to blend with his new country, Nino dyes his hair blond to look more Swiss. In a comically played scene, it is not just his olive skin that gives him away. He is caught cheering for Italians in a soccer match while in a bar. For this heinous crime he is arrested and deported. The scene demonstrates clearly that Nino does not fit in anywhere: in Switzerland, he is too ethnic and lower class; or back in Italy, where he cannot find steady employment and respite from misery. He rides the trains back and forth between the two countries, listening to the other migrant workers and passengers sing of sun and sea. Manfredi conveys the sadness and confusion of the character in this scene.

His misadventures lead Nino to decide he would rather live illegally in Switzerland than in Italy with nothing. He does not feel he belongs anywhere, the proverbial man without a country. It is a powerful and sad epiphany for the character. Brusati gives us this in the final image of the film. Nino is on a train headed back to Italy when the train enters a tunnel. The camera lingers on the darkened entrance. A figure emerges on foot, suitcase in hand. Nino has decided to try once again to live in Italy. There he is with his symbolic burden, the suitcase.

The source of comedy is often pain. In watching a character experience difficulty, embarrassment, ridicule, loneliness, heartache, and discomfort, we are able to live out our own fears of just these same emotions. Nino Manfredi and Franco Brusati create for us a man caught between to worlds, neither of which he fits. Like the character of Nino in the opening scenes of Bread and Chocolate, we wander through the picnics in the park, outsiders looking in on a world we can never fully inhabit. We feel Nino’s pain, and we understand the poignant humor of the marginalized, the outsider doomed to always look in the window and never come inside.

Photo: Crossed Flag Pins

2 comments:

awyn said...

What an enticing, wonderfully descriptive review. How did I miss seeing this flick? You definitely got me hooked on this one!

Paul L. Martin said...

I missed this one initially as well, but luckily the film class enlightened me. The thing that stays with me after viewing is the way the director mixes humor with poignant sadness. The film surprises you with its subtlety and charm. Let me know what you think when you see it, Annie.

Take care