Nino Garofoli, the frustrated but stubbornly aspiring hero of "Bread and Chocolate," renews the tradition of the comic Everyman in a fresh and affecting social setting.
A friendly, apprehensive southern Italian family man struggling to better his lot in Switzerland - a serenely desirable yet inhospitable Land of Opportunity - Nino persists in trying to secure an economic toehold despite repeated slips, slides and humiliating pratfalls.
His dilemma suggests the legend of Sisyphus with a screwball satiric twist. Each time he begins entertaining the thought of accumulating a nest egg and summoning his wife and children to join him, fate places another banana peel in his path.
In the course of this Italian film, opening today at the Dupont Circle, Nino scrambles effectively enough to end up roughly where he began: a resident alien with papers but no particular propects. He's absurdly unlucky, but he refuses to admit defeat and quit the game.Ultimately, this refusal becomes the source of his dignity as a comic protagonist. Nino stumbles along in the glorious footsteps of the Chaplin and Keaton heroes, emblems of human decency and courage in the face of hostile circumstances.
In Nino's case capitulation is equated with going back broke to Italy. Writer-director Franco Brusati, a native of Milan whole own parentage is partly Austrian, exploits the prospect as a running gag. After each fresh disappointment, Nino is on the verge of departing for home, which he has not seen in three years. Invariably, some homeward-bound compatriot on the train will start serenading Italy, this demonstration will rub Nino the wrong way, forcing him off the train.
In the last analysis Nino would rather remain in Switzerland as an alien than return home. He perceives it as a choice between some opportunity, albeit limited and possibly demeaning, and no opportunity, cushioned by familiarity and sentimentality.
This is the most provocative aspect of Brusati's satiric vision. While Nino can be appreciated as a universal example of vexed, perservering humanity - anxious breadwinners in most countries must share his aspirations and frustrations - he carries a special Italian significance.
Despite the comic exaggeration, Nino's situation is clearly a criticism of Italian social and political shortcomings: Nino's exile and alienation imply that Italy has failed to provide for her own. Brusati uses Nino's initial lost opportunity - a waiter's job at a lakeside resort - to expose a cross-section of Italians seeking work or refuge in a foreign land.Most of them seem to be going crazy at varying tempi, but Brusati never views repatriation as a solution to their decay. His characters may be vegetating or degenerating away from home, but these processes began at home.
Part of the charm of Nino Manfredi's discreetly ingratiating performance drives from his facility at comance derives from his facility at communicating sanity in the thick of absurdly comic circumtances. For example, at his lowest point Nino comtemplates joining a settlement of Italian chicken slaughters and pluckers who have begun to behave as much like chickens as humans. As they strut around their oversize coop entertaining their guest with clucks and crows. Manfredi flashes a somebody-get-me-out-of-this madhouse look that couldn't be improved upon or better timed.
Things go haywire at every level of the socioeconomic hierarchy. Nino appears to get a break when he's hired as butler by a wealthy compatriot of for whom Switzerland is a tax haven. Unfortunately, his benefactor proves as unreliable as the swell who patronized Chaplin in "City Lights." The first morning on the job Nino has his hands full trying to save his despondent employer from succumbing to an overdose of sleeping pills.
Naturally sociable and voluble, Nino is starved for reciprocal gestures from the Swiss whose order and prosperity he so much admires. At the same time, he can't blame them for slighting Italians. As he remarks to a young busboy who has gotten into a fistfight defending the honor of their homeland, "Most of the time we can't stand ourselves either."
Nino perceives that the wealthy Swiss can afford their sense of superiority. They can pick and choose among cheap labor from insolvent countries. Italian superiority, on the othe hand, impresses Nino as a ludicrous affection. He knows they can't afford it, because he feels the constant pressure from competing Spaniards, Turks and other Italians.
Although it may have predated all of them - the film reportedly was shot in 1974 - "Beard and Chocolate" now seems to be a worthy successor to the best social comedies of the past two years: the Swiss "Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the year 2000," the Italian "We All Loved Each Other So Much" and the American "Citizens Band." It also comes as a belated introdution to an unconmmonly perceptive and inventive filmaker.
Franco Brusati, also known as a serious playwright in Italy, collaborated on screenplays for many years before directing. "Bread and Chocolate" is evidently his fifth feature, but the first to attract significant attention and distribution in the United States. It reveals a subtle intelligence at a mature stage of development.
Brusati demonstrates a command of comic-lyric rhetoric that frequently appears to come naturally to Italian directors. For example, Ettore Scola in "We All Loved Each Other So Much" tossed off such devices as soliloquies and articulated reveries with a fluency that made Woody Allen's similar attempts at visualizing mental abstraction in "Annie Hall" look studied and ponderous. Brusati stages a marvelous sequence in which Nino, alone in his apartment, begins conversing, in a manner of speaking, with the disembodied voices of family members back home.
Even the compositions are sometimes supremely witty. There's a tracking shot that begins with Nino's entrance into the chicken-plucking establishment and culminates with his exit. And the expressive image that closes the movie is a true summation of the theme in pictorial terms. Occasionally, Brusati's invention fails him, resulting in arbitrary or inflated episodes. For example, he lingers too long over an ironic finale to the chicken-plucking episode, and it leads him into a sequence that seems faultily timed and documented: Nino trying to pass as a Swiss.
But like "Deer Inspector," Brusati's movie generates so much good will and pleasure that these miscalculations seem only momentary lapsea while the content remains authentically funny and stirring. Brusati and Manfredi have combined to create an inspired entertainment: a compassionate comedy of alienation.