This past week I showed the third film in a “Fences” series I have been running. (The previous films, also receiving posts, were Grand Illusion and Touch of Evil.) Franco Brusati’s 1976 gem Bread and Chocolate got me thinking about the way that our own immigrants view themselves. Is there the same self-hatred?
The film is about an Italian immigrant worker who wants to repatriate and move his family to Switzerland. At the start of the movie he is competing with a Turkish worker who wants the same future. Whoever proves the better waiter at a restaurant will get to stay. The other must leave.
Nino Garofalo (played by Nino Manfredi) has a hint of Charlie Chaplin about him and there is a fair amount of slapstick in the film. Like a number of Chaplin films, especially City Lights, melodrama mixes with comedy, and at times one isn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. This is especially true in the most memorable scene, which occurs in a chicken house.
Nino has lost out to the Turkish worker but has found a job as an illegal immigrant butchering chickens. As he walks into the converted chicken shack where the workers live (the rent is free), they show him a special skill they have developed: they can strut and crow like chickens.
It’s funny and horrifying both: living on the margins of society, they have all but become chickens themselves. Then, to accentuate this point, Brusati shows us a party of young Swiss men and women on an excursion in the idyllic mountain streams that run by the chicken house. They are portrayed as Teutonic gods and goddesses, striding nude in majestic and soft focus splendor in scenes that could appear in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The Italian workers press their noses against the chicken wire gawking at them.
Nino is filled with self-loathing. He wants to be associated with the Swiss, not with the Italians. He wants to distance himself from the traits the people ascribe to his countrymen (spontaneous, dirty, easy-going, sexually forward). One of the most painful scenes occurs immediately after the chicken episode: he dyes his hair blond and tries to pass himself off as Swiss.
He cannot maintain the poise, however. Watching the Swiss play the Italians in a televised soccer match, he manages for a while to tolerate the racist barbs thrown at the Azzurri—in fact he joins in—but he can’t help but celebrate when the Italians score. On the way out of the bar, he sees his blond reflection in a mirror and smashes his head against it. He is thrown out of the country.
Then, miraculously, he receives a six-month work visa. An immigrant friend, now married to an immigration official, has found him a reprieve.
At first, feeling tired and broken, he rejects it. But the film’s last shot proves not to be the last shot. Initially we think we have seen the last of him as his train disappears into the tunnel taking him from Switzerland to Italy. His defeat seems final.
Only then, after the camera rests for a few seconds on the tunnel mouth, we see a small figure emerging, suitcase in hand. It is Nino, his hair now both blond and black, coming back for more. We don’t know how to feel.
It is his mixed feelings about both Switzerland and Italy that make this such a disconcerting, and such an interesting, film. The Swiss are cold and unfeeling yet he wants to be one of them. The Italians are more interesting but he is embarrassed by their company. It’s not a pleasant mixture—the two don’t go together as nicely as (Italian) bread and (Swiss) chocolate—which may be why the film is not yet available on Netflix. Brusati’s film is not, say, the German film Mostly Martha, where German reserve and Italian spontaneity come together in a happy ending. Bread and Chocolate makes one think a lot more.
This time, while watching, I thought about how our own Latino and Latina immigrants must see both the United States and themselves. Do they reject their own cultures and idealize those of America? How does the anti-immigrant feeling evinced by parts of America enter into how the newcomers see themselves? Is there this same mixture of envy and self-loathing?
I don’t know the answer. But now I wonder.