Bread and Chocolate, a 1974 Italian film written and directed by Franco Brusati and starring Nino Manfredi, came when immigration was heating up in America. It reminded me of my own experience of the 1970s, when I was stationed in Germany and seeing foreign “guest workers” doing scut work everywhere, from restaurant help to loading trucks. In front of my barracks every morning, a doleful squad of Turks hopped off a truck to collect good, clean, municipal German trash while a burly German in a truck waited for them to do the drag and hassle before driving on.
In the film, Nino Garofalo (Manfredi) is such an immigrant in Switzerland, and his Chaplinesque adventures provide a splendid view of the north/south conflicts between the guest worker and his tepid hosts. If Dante had nine circles of hell, Nino has five circles of labor. The first is the restaurant, where he is being tried out, and it’s either him or the Turk, a squat nonentity Nino has to beat, because if Nino wins, he gets to bring his family up from impoverished, dead-end Sicily.
Before we get to the restaurant, we are offered a glimpse of the happy, ordered Switzerland Nino aspires to reside in. In a park by a lake, musicians play Haydn’s serenade (it’s actually by Hofmeister, but never mind), the classical order matched by the clean, polite Swiss — the peaceable kingdom and vision splendid of Nino’s hopes. He likes the Swiss. They’re calm, rational, affluent, and ordered; so unlike the screwed-up Italy that offers him nothing. He is at peace enjoying the concert, and brings along a sandwich with a chocolate bar in the middle; an incongruity that symbolizes Nino’s conflicts with this adopted homeland. He bites into it, and it crunches like boots on gravel. The music stops. Musicians freeze. Eyes harden. Nino is frantic; Mamma Mia, what has he done?
But it’s only a pause in the serenade — or is it? They play on, but this bit represents below-surface tensions Nino feels with the Swiss.
He tries to talk to a Swiss Frau. Hopeless. A football whacks him, and he rises to the occasion, kicking it back and trying to interest the boy who kicked it some tips on the game; nein, danke. The ball winds up in a thicket. Nino happily rushes in to retrieve the ball — and finds a dead girl. He’s shocked and runs away, terrified that he’ll be blamed, and bursts out on the shoulder of an autobahn and, eyes wide, flags down a car. Of course it’s full of cops.
The police inspector grills him, and Nino, aware that one slip-up could send him back to Italy, tries to deal with it. He’s released. The police have the murderer: a Swiss priest who is not blonde and blue-eyed, but a Klaus Kinski lookalike. Nino is so unnerved by his interrogation that he has to take a leak, and does so against a wall. It’s comically huge; instead of cry me a river, Nino pisses one.
Back at the restaurant, Nino balances his sanity as he deals with diners and chews out the immigrant help for picking fights with the Swiss or hiding stolen fish in the toilet, acting like a sergeant caught between the officers and enlisted men. Trying to expertly peel an orange with a knife, he is frustrated and steals one already peeled. It’s a war trying to outdo the Turk, and Nino isn’t above tripping him up here and there, because he’s got a lot riding on it. He has interior monologues with his family, who say he’s wasting his time and that he’s a loser.
But dammit, when they get to Switzerland, they’ll see what a paradise it is, this land of affluence and jobs, where trains and everything else runs on time; he can’t wait to be a clockwork man for the watch people.
The inspector pays him a visit — not for the murder, but because he was observed urinating in public; a solid citizen was photographing his Frau, and guess what showed up in the background? Nino is stunned. He asks the restaurant manager to please forgive him. The manager only looks away and silently puffs on his cigar.
Then, Nino is getting on the train to go back to Italy. He’s broken and annoyed by the other Italians on the train: chummy, cocky, singing songs like O Sole Mio; all that sun, sea, and happiness. Nino is almost nauseous when he sees the Turk welcome his own family on the platform.
It’s a haunting scene for Nino, and for me. I thought for a moment that the immigration invasion of Europe was never better shown: Turks coming in and bringing in their families, who in turn bring in more family members, who in turn would . . .
Nino can’t leave; he won’t accept defeat. He jumps off the train, lugging his suitcase. What to do?
He goes to Elena for help. Elena is a next-door neighbor, a Greek woman Nino is attracted to as he despairs of not seeing his wife and family. She’s a cut above him in that she’s educated and a political refugee from the Greek government of that era. He cautiously flirts with her while being slightly confused about political problems. He just wants to work in perfect Switzerland. He is always fascinated by the piano music coming from her apartment. Elena will be a running theme; Nino has no chance with her, but they keep connecting with each other.
Nino talks himself onto her couch, but must hide when her boyfriend, a proper Swiss man, arrives. In the closet, he looks in horror at another pair of eyes staring back at him. Mamma mia!
When Elena and Herr Swiss leave, he discovers the eyes belong to Grigory, her son, whom she also has to hide. Nino tries to break the ice. Grigory is as unreceptive as the football boy in the park, and as Nino chats, the boy offers him a glass of wine to shut him up as he plays the piano. Nino is stunned, caught in this woman’s complicated world — but a couch is a couch.
Nino goes to the industrialist, an Italian he served at the restaurant — not very well, because when he seated the man and his latest girlfriend, Nino pulled the chair out too early, causing the girl to drop to the floor. The industrialist, however, saw the joke in it, and bonds with Nino. At breakfast, a trio of Italians serenade the man and Nino is awed by his spacious mansion. The Industrialist warns him that riches are a trap. Nino would happily jump into such a trap. He enjoys the lakeside view, as well as another of the Industrialist’s mistresses — this one blonde, topless, and with an American accent. All of this shows the stability of life in Switzerland. This is Nino’s second circle of Swiss hell.
The industrialist envies Nino’s naïveté and happiness. He is too cynical and beset with problems. He just laid off 10,000 workers. If Nino is a kind of Charlie Chaplin, and this segment a ‘70s take on his film Modern Times, then there are also differences. Modern Times also showed injustice and drudgery, but its action took place in a vibrant, quarrelsome world of cops and strikers and factory labor: a life of animation. Here, life is sterile.
The industrialist’s life of solitary luxury is a cage he’s come to hate. When you’re born rich, the industrialist tells Nino, you can only lose your own money. He tells Nino that he’s lucky he hasn’t a lira. Nino rolls his eyes. Some luck, he shoots back.
The industrialist takes Nino to the airport to meet his two sons, dutiful and barely audible in their private school blazers. Nino tells the industrialist they’re handsome kids; they look just like foreigners, which they might as well be, as they launch into spirited American English almost out of earshot. The weekend with Dad ends as an American school chum drives up in a chauffeured limousine, and they’re off with him.
Nino sees pain in the industrialist’s eyes that flips to anger as he berates his wife (probably American) for turning the boys against him and for blaming him for screwing up the factory. In a fit of rage, he tears up the photo of the pretty but empty family. Oops! It’s Nino’s family, and a frantic Nino runs all over, snatching up the pieces like a man chasing butterflies.
The industrialist is horrified. He realizes he needs Nino, and offers him a job as his valet. The next morning, a delighted Nino, in his best suit, arrives to begin his job, but the industrialist is still in bed. Nino finds that he’s overdosed on pills and frantically tries to revive him, inadvertently setting off the controls on the electric bed, causing it to vibrate in Chaplinesque chaos as Nino grabs water, coffee, anything.
It’s too late. The industrialist is dead. Nino rages; he’d given all his money to the industrialist to invest. What will happen now? Nino shout and slaps the corpse as the musicians arrive and begin their morning serenade, which ends on a final, sad, plucked string.
Back to Elena. She listens patiently as he pours out his problems, and admires him as he gives himself a foot bath. They look at each other. They touch. Kiss. The photo of Nino’s family, painstakingly taped together, falls into the basin and comes apart, and then Nino frantically plucks it out of the water. It’s touching, funny, and hopeless. He has to leave.
Nino goes back to a friend at a worker’s barracks where he’d worked before: a grim colony of Italian men laboring in smoke and almost prison-like confinement. Perhaps it’s the kind of dark, satanic mill the industrialist owned and where he recently gave thousands the sack, but his friend and fellows don’t concern themselves with that. They need paychecks. Nino’s friend is a squat, broad man of the earth. They and the others bitch about the Swiss, but Nino defends them. Look, he tells them, the Pope uses them for his Papal guard; they must be good for something.
His friend puts on a show for his fellow workers, coming out in drag, singing and strumming. It’s absurd, but the mess hall roars with laughter, and then a younger worker is brought into the act: a depressed young man far away from his fiancé. Dressed in drag, he’s funny and talented, but his soft features remind men of their absent wives and girlfriends. Nino is brought in, dressed up as the mama, and they caper and sing, and all is tra-la-la . . . until the young man breaks down. He can’t take this anymore. He wants to go home. It’s all bullshit.
The hilarious droops into the pathetic. Nino packs his suitcase.
At the railway station, he pushes his way onto the train while squeezing his sedan of a suitcase on board, shrugging off the usual Italian songs of sun, happiness, and Bella Italia. Yeah, right. Then, as the train is ready to depart, and he sees Elena. She beckons for him to come.
He squeezes his way out of the coach. She’s found a job for him in the country. It isn’t perfect, but it’s what Nino needs. Overjoyed, he agrees to take it just as the train pulls off — with his suitcase, which he frantically chases after.
He somehow gets it back, lugging it as he does his best to impress an old man who is the overseer at a chicken farm. The man looks like a Humpty-Dumpty with frizzled hair as he shows Nino the ropes: where chickens are killed, plucked, and prepared. Hands are bloodied. Walking through the plucking room, Nino and his suitcase emerge in feathers.
The workers are all short, and Nino stands like the Tower of Pisa over them. They live in an abandoned henhouse. After all, it’s free, and Nino is assured he’ll grow into it. They all have. The workers dine together. They crow, cluck, peck, throw out their chests, and strut. Nino is too astonished to be horrified. They’ve become their product, and are damned happy about it. It is, after all, a job. In Switzerland.
Then comes what is to me the most poignant part of this wild, raucous, sad movie. Swiss young people ride up on horses. The man assures Nino that it’s the children of the owner and their friends. Penned up in the hen house, their faces pressed against chicken wire, the workers stare as the Swiss enjoy a beautiful lake. They stroll, kiss, shed their clothes, and swim, contemplating beauty like the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as we hear a delicate oboe solo, almost like the opening scene of the movie with its quartet and the placid Swiss by a lake. We see blonde hair and firm, naked bodies, tall and poetic on horseback, while the runty Italians stare. The Commedia dell Arte meets Wagner.
Nino, like his fellow workers, are transfixed by the Swiss. It is a defining moment in the film and our age of the relations between north and south. People come to northern Europe to work, compelled by conditions in their homelands, but there is another draw to the north as well: it’s orderly, rational, blonde, quiet, poetic, and beautiful. The southerner can’t resist it; in fact, the world can’t. Despite the south’s inefficiency and resentment against the north and its economic power, the south can’t take its eyes off the Nordic types. They are beautiful and serene.
If the Swiss as like the Eloi in Wells’ The Time Machine, the Italians are the Morlocks, but hardly savage and brutal; they’re rather penned up like chickens who are awed by the swans.
This scene evoked for me how Germany seemed fated to rule during the Second World War. After Hitler’s victories in 1940, most of Europe was ready to accommodate themselves in one way or another to German rule. As one Frenchman said, to his people they were like blonde gods. And yet Hitler, and Germany, blew it. We defeated them. Yet, Germany and northern Europe are still the predominant economic powers, now filled with guest workers. It recalls the Taverni brothers’ film Padre Padrone, where a Sardinian farmer keeps his son in illiterate servitude. When the Germans come looking for guest workers, the son’s hopes of finding freedom up north is ended as the father drags him away from the recruiters and back to herding goats — goats who shit in his milk pail.
While the chicken workers stare with wonder, Nino has an epiphany. The next circle of hell arrives when he emerges from a restroom, blonde. He’s dyed his hair, carefully sweeping it back from his forehead and donning a suit. He puts his head up, shoulders back, and struts with pride. Nino is now Swiss, although he seems a bit silly.
He nods to people and speaks to them in German, getting good replies. He’s no longer seeking the vision splendid; he is the vision. Nino enters a Gasthaus with pride. A blonde woman is at the bar, sees him, and keeps looking. Nino enjoys this, and then goes into a club room. He orders a beer in perfect German, but with an unshakable Italian accent (thank , or bitte schön, Nino pronounces as “beeta shurrna,” with Neapolitan delicacy). Then he is served by a dark-haired Italian, and for a moment, he blinks . . . but he goes on. Live the vision!
A football match is on TV, avidly watched by the crowd. It’s Switzerland versus Italy. Uh-oh. Nino tries to be a good soldier. As Italy loses, he controls himself, shifting like a man sitting on a fuzzy pole. He jokes with his fellow sports fans, but their catcalls at Italy are making him roll his tongue. Then, Italy comes back and scores a goal. The crowd cries foul. Nino is on his feet, cheering.
Nino takes their derision and holds his own. But he leaves the room, because he needs to take a breath. He looks at himself in the mirror. That blonde hair. That strength. Beauty. Vision. His eyes widen, and he dashes his head in the mirror.
The crowd pulls him away from the mirror. They’re irritated and try to get him to a hospital, but he can’t risk it, and fights back. One of them tosses him out on the street, his fall broken by garbage bags. Nino is stunned, bleeding, and shocked.
The blonde girl, who hasn’t taken her eyes off him, comes out and offers help. Nino, embarrassed, swats her away. But it’s okay, she says; I’m not one of them. I’m one of you. She whips off her blonde wig, and a cascade of black hair tumbles out. “España!” she cries in triumph.
Nino groans. “Would you believe it?” he cries, and passes out.
The last circle of Swiss hell sees Nino led to the train by a policeman, but it’s a different Nino. Bandages cover his face. He has tried to wash out the blonde hair, leaving a black/blonde mix that almost looks like a clown’s wig. The black suit is gone. Now he wears a plaid shirt, tie, baggy jacket — a clown costume. He totes that Cadillac-sized suitcase and shouts at people, pinching a Frau’s behind and kicking over a trash can. He stops to urinate against a pole, but is pulled back by a cop. Nino is delighted, a tramp run wild.
Elena appears, anxious and confused at Nino’s attitude and scruffy appearance. He explains that he doesn’t care anymore. He sees how trying to make it in Switzerland was all bunk. He’s ready to go back to Italy, almost happy to be kicked out. After that night before the mirror, he sees life in a way he never has before. Yet he is concerned about Elena. Don’t compromise, he warns. Don’t sell yourself out to your Swiss boyfriend.
Elena explains that she doesn’t love the man, but that he is a good friend. The marriage offers security and a better life for Grigory. Nino shrugs that off. Elena pulls a paper out of her pocket. Her boyfriend worked magic with the bureau, and Nino has a six-month extension on his visa. Surely he can find something. She almost cries. Choose to live wherever you like, but choose to live.
No. Nino has had it. He looks at the paper with a tinge of sadness, but like a drunk off the wagon, he grabs the paper and crumples it. He’s free. That’s what matters. Yet, yet, Elena . . . no. He has to get away from her and what she represents — this echo of Switzerland. Elena is worried, but wishes him the best. The cop leads Nino to his train, and Nino tries to embrace him, delighted at the man’s embarrassment at being hugged.
Once on the train, Nino sets his suitcase down and snuggles in. He’ll face his family and begin again. As the train rolls south, a man plays his guitar and sings. Yes, of happy Sicily; all we need is the sun, the warmth, the blue sea, a pretty girl . . .
That look comes to Nino again. The train rolls on, chugging away, and enters a tunnel. A pause. Nino emerges from the tunnel with his pet suitcase, eyes haunted, a zombie as he pounds the tracks, like Chaplin in so many movies, but walking not with a shuffle but with a determination as he heads north to do battle.
Brusati has made a comedy with spots of pathos, and it is to his credit that he doesn’t make the northerners out to be bigots or cruel. Switzerland is a hierarchy, and the guest worker is there to play a role. Nino is more than willing to do this, but something isn’t right. He has dignity and humanity, and will always be Italian.
In Bread and Chocolate, the Swiss never really come across as individuals or approachable. Of course not; they’re foreigners as far as the guest workers are concerned, and they haven’t the slightest interest in Swiss history, society, or culture. Switzerland is there to benefit them. It isn’t a nation they want to belong to; they already are a nation. They want jobs, money . . . but not to blend in. If Nino could bring his family, they would be Sicilians in Switzerland, like the Turk who brings his family, and then twenty years later there, as there is now in the north, there will be an Islamic community that is growing but not assimilating. This is like the Turks in present-day Germany who live there, but are contemptuous about becoming German. In a recent YouTube video, a Turkish girl openly spoke about how she despises the Germans and looks down on them . . . but she and her fellow Turks will never leave.
It recalls El Norte, a film by Gregory Nava about Guatemalans illegally in America. To them, Americans are distant and indistinct. They don’t matter; the jobs they offer do. The north is ever-seductive to the south.
Switzerland to Nino is like Georgia, the dance hall girl in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush: beautiful but inaccessible, and for Nino, Elena plays the same part. She is a refugee, a cut above a mere guest worker like Nino, and she almost clicks with him. We sense they could be a couple, but she’s in her own world with her own needs, and there’s a wall between them . . . like the glass he bumps into on the train when Elena cries out his name. This film is about people dislocated and unable to connect, but they all desire families.
I like how Brusati defines manhood as having a family, being a parent, and being part of a community. There are no loners here; no Americans riding off into the sunset. Italians are communal and love families, and the pain of the men who are separated from these families is very real. The humanity of Bread and Chocolate is heartfelt, as is the incongruity of the Germans and Italians bonding. They’re like that sandwich Nino eats in the opening scene: bread and chocolate. Italian bread and Swiss chocolate? It could be delicious, but is it really a good idea?
I appreciated this film because it reminded me of my time in Germany, especially Frankfurt and its large immigrant population. The Germans considered Frankfurt to be a very un-German city because of that. I spoke to them about the large guest worker population. “We don’t want them,” I was told, “but we need them,” and they’d shrug. Over and over, both in conversations with me and in things I read, the Germans assured everyone that they had the situation “under control,” and could stop the supply of foreign labor when necessary. But this wasn’t really true, because when the families came, like the Turk’s family in the film, behind them come the cousins and new wives. Then you have a problem you can’t deport — not without being seen as racist and Nazi.
In 1974, when Bread and Chocolate was released, foreign workers came to do needed labor, mostly due to the declining birth rates in the north. It was not possible to get workers from the Slavic countries, especially Poland, as had been the traditional method, since they were cut off by the Iron Curtain. But east of the Curtain, guest workers were also brought in. When the Berlin Wall came down, East Germany already had a large Vietnamese community in Berlin to do scut work in the workers’ and farmers’ state.
Nowadays, the guest workers are less immigrants or migrants than a barbarian horde washing over the entire continent. Despite the claims of European governments that they come to work and provide financing for the aging population’s pensions, most simply live off welfare, and today, even Nino’s Sicily is a target for waves of Africans. Only a Eurocrat in Brussels or a corporate Eloi safely behind a gate can happily speak of an Africanized, Islamic Europe as any kind of good. The world in which Nino struggled has become Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints.
But we can still appreciate Nino and his struggle: A tramp being pulled one way and another like Sicilian taffy for the vision splendid . . . while it lasts. It’s a beautiful, human movie. Keep Citizen Kane on your movie list, but don’t forget Nino.
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