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July 20, 2010
James Santella

Bread & Chocolate: Memoirs of a Suspicious Foreigner

This is Mirror’s first guest post! Every now and then select persons will bless us with their most personal musings on film.

James has been a dear friend of mine for years and years. I recall one particularly wonderful afternoon spent getting very drunk on a stone bench in Boston’s Little Italy whilst sharing our delight over Jean Cocteau’s “The Art of Cinema.” We are creative soul mates and must live at least 500 miles apart or else die in the heat of each other’s suns. This is the only reason why James lives in Beunos Aires, Argentina. Together we would cause far too much trouble.

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For the past few years I have been living in Buenos Aires, enjoying a little bit of paradise. This far south, it is easy to remain blissfully unaware of the world outside my adopted city, with news and familial nagging lost somewhere over the equator. I’ve walked the long road of assimilation, navigating the pitfalls of sloppy conjugation and verbal embarrassment. I’ve offended locals and invited muggings with outrageous foreign fashions and for a long time led the life of an outsider. But over time, I have learned the rules while gradually gaining the respect of my Argentine friends. Slowly being accepted as not just another clueless, carpetbagging foreigner means being granted the gift of reluctant relaxation. Gone are the ghastly stares of yesterday, which means I can now go an entire meal without addressing the waitress as pig-fucker and enjoy far cheaper cab fare. But, with the return of of the World Cup, there has been a familiar feeling afoot here in Arcadia.

As a stranger to football culture, it seemed the entire country has been throwing an epic party for a few weeks now, one to which–forgive the cliche–I was not invited. On game days, streets are abandoned. Shops and schools are closed. A makeshift sign on a hospital reads, “emergencies only.” Impromptu parades and fireworks randomly materialize upon the city, in what I assume are signs of victory. These bizarre celebrations leave people jubilant, overwhelmed with a pride that comes from simply being Argentine.

But on a Saturday in early July, Argentina suffered a brutal loss to some Aryan nation and the celebration was abruptly cut short, leaving nowhere for the nationalistic frenzy it created to flow. Left in in its place was a setting ripe for what I like to call Paranoia Abroad. A sudden feeling of an entire foreign nation collectively focusing an evil eye in my direction, a brief moment of unwelcome and a swift return to outsider status. It could be set off by a butchered word or a detected feigned cheer. But there is no mistaking it and the dread that it brings, that for even an instant you may once again become: That stupid American.

In a cruel return to my first months here, once again my world is hostile, once again I am the Paranoid Abroad. I tiptoe with the greatest care and watch my accent, careful not to make a sound that in these dark hours could be mistaken for German. Counter clerks and cab drivers seem to glare accusingly during my desperate trips to the outside world for the essentials of chocolate and rented videotape. With even my slender-wristed friends temporarily forgetting an allegiance to aesthetics, I seek refuge in the only certainty I know: film. I flatter myself with feelings of solidarity with its characters, take personal responsibility for their triumphs, and use specific scenes to convince myself of my own fledgling sanity. Because yes, they are out to get me.

In these desperate times, it is film that remains the only safe place for people like us.

I present:

Franco Brusati’s rarely-seen Pane e Cioccolata (Bread & Chocolate, 1973).

First, observe this title sequence, as it defines the sensation that is Paranoia Abroad. The feeling comes as quick as it leaves, but in these brief moments, whole cities, whole countries, have turned against you! Even the birds.

(And I trust you to watch the whole thing.)

Pane e Cioccolata stars Nino Manfredi, one of Italy’s most brilliant actors, in a story of a “southern Italian worker pathetically out of place in Switzerland, forced by economic stringency to remain there.”

Manfredi plays Nino Garofoli our Latin spiritual guide through a cruel and Anglo-Saxonized world, in a performance strongly evoking Totò, that hero of the low Italian comedy. Scene after scene of Manfriedi’s constant cultural faux pas and social blunders will be all too familiar to those who have ever lived abroad and can recall, with horror, the initial mistakes one makes on their first weeks in a new country.

Nino’s misadventures through a Swiss Alps town are as hilarious as they are heartbreaking. We watch him in all his Italian glory, all cigarettes and tacky clothing, littering his way across the picturesque Swiss landscape. Where every tree and every child is planted and planned centuries in advance, his mere presence seems to be an affront on the Germanic order that holds the country together.

For anyone who has ever been the butt of a WASP’s joke, watching this buffoonish dark Italian break all the rules of the lily-white, polite Swiss society can be quite cathartic. But beneath the film’s slapstick and Chaplinesque exterior lies a more urgent message than mere cultural vindication. As the film progresses, we realize Manfredi’s story is one in a million. He belongs to a world of hungry immigrants who come from all over Europe with high hopes of Swiss prosperity, but find only slightly better circumstances then from whence they came. The director presents us with multiple scenes contrasting the idyllic lives of the Swiss against the near-slavery of the immigrant workers, painfully magnifying the immense economic differences between them. As we watch Nino as envious as he is horrified of his new surroundings, we begin to understand the severity of his situation, and most of the films previous humor wears off.

Insecure Italian-Americans like myself will be delighted with a subplot of the slow unraveling of Aryan appearances. When the dark underbelly of the civilized Swiss surfaces, it reveals a sinister world, finally confirming all your life-long paranoid delusions against the blond-haired and blue-eyed. If you are like me, you will find yourself shouting triumphantly at your screen and your pets, something along the lines of, “I ALWAYS TOLD YOU THESE BASTARDS WERE EVIL!”

An aside: people familiar with Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy could see Pane e Cioccolata as its counter-opposite. Ingrid Bergman’s frigid Katherine Joyce, lost in a world of Italian lust and fertility, even ends up falling victim to the same moments of brief paranoid indulgence.

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James Santella is an amateur occultist and certified beekeeper.  His devotion to Pasolini and rejection of Academia have currently exiled him to Argentina where his culinary work has forced critics to compare him to Dr. Faustus. If in Buenos Aires be sure to visit his Puerta Cerrada. http://scenna-santella.tumblr.com/

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2 Comments

  1. This film is a goddam masterpiece. The best depiction I have seen of the proletarian migrant experience. The scene inside the chicken coop (coup?) with the migrants who insist they are still better off away from home is an absurd, funny, tragic, chilling depiction of shattered dreams and self delusion. Strangely, however, I find this kind of Italian cinema out of vogue in cinephile circles these days. Perhaps the politics are too close tithe surface for hipsters?

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  2. I completely agree with you films like this one and Scola’s “Brutti sporchi e cattivi” have gotten me very strange reactions at cineclubs. Watching this film in a crowd sort of forces you to reveal yourself, which isn’t a very comfortable experience when class is the subject matter. especially if you find yourself surrounded by some pasty ivy league graduates discussing the insensitive portrayal of the swiss!

    watching my families emotional reaction to this film, however was a scary reminder of how life, with a few bad choices, could have turned out for them. (the most shocking part was realizing this was not fiction, and was not in some distant past, but was the 1970s) Luckily they ended up in America getting to raise generations of fat babies.

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