Bread, Chocolate, & Immigrant Self-Hatred

Bread and Chocolate (Manfredi on right)

Film Friday

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.

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  • Kelsey

    Interesting. I wonder too.

  • http://www.adventuresinpoker.com Rachel Kranz

    I vividly remember that film, and I’m sorry it isn’t available on Netflix so I could easily watch it again! I know a lot of immigrant literature deals with exactly those questions, including (to go back several generations) the work of Anzia Yezierska, a Jewish/Eastern European immigrant who in real life was involved with American educator John Dewey and whose fiction frequently features a John Dewey type, a blue-eyed blond WASP/ultimate American. Sometimes this figure is the immigrant heroine’s savior, her entree into the new world where women can get an education and all possibilities are open. Sometimes he’s culturally insensitive, often, interestingly, by romanticizing the immigrant world of which she is critical. (“Look at that holy old man studying his books!” one such figure says in one short story. The immigrant heroine says angrily, “I bet his wife is scrubbing the kitchen floor and his daughters are working in a factory to give him time for those books!”) I recommend her autobiographical novel, “The Bread Givers” (for a nice synchronicity about bread, where the Dewey character is a hero) and her collection of short stories,”The Open Cage,” where he comes off more ambiguously.

    Throughout her work, however, is the ambivalence about whether she should celebrate or despise the culture she comes from–as she is working as hard as she can to escape it. How can she celebrate it if it is despised by Americans? How can she escape it if she doesn’t really belong in the WASP world? In the end, she writes movingly about the dilemma of not belonging anywhere, which is as much a class issue as a cultural one: one brilliant story portrays an immigrant mother whose children “make it,” and who feels at home neither within the filthy, uncomfortable poverty she used to know nor inside the sterile life of “Riverside Drive” where she lives with her nouveau riche daughter.

    There’s way more on this written by Latino/as and Asian writers, but I thought it would be interesting to note that a group now pretty much assimilated went through the same pangs. Of course, most of them never expected to go home again, whereas Nino is tormented with longing for the country he wishes he could return to–but can’t find work in. The real question would come if he married–especially if he married a Swiss–and had a child in Switzerland. Would he want that child to feel Swiss or Italian–and what would the child want? My parents were the first in their families to be born in America, and the question of whether or not we were “real” Americans was very much part of my own childhood.

  • Robin Bates

    This is very moving, Rachel. I knew that there must be a history of such ambivalence in immigrant history and it is wonderful to hear some of yours. I’m thinking that such contending forces–the movement of populations, class and ethnic oppression, individuals making choices amongst limited options–are at the core of your own fiction.

    Here’s another scene in the movie that I’m betting you appreciate that is a great comment on free market capitalism. Nino goes around with all his savings sewed into a pocket deep inside his pants. (There’s a Chaplin-esque scene when he tries to take it out.) An Italian millionaire tells him that he’ll never make money unless he risks his money, which goes against Nino’s instincts. So he screws up his courage and gives what he has earned to the man to invest–and then proceeds to lose it when the guy commits suicide the next day over his wife leaving him. The fact that he has all of Nino’s savings in his possession is not on his mind. It reminds me of those people who said we should privatize social security–or were saying that until the economy tanked and people lost billions from their 401K plans.

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