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Paradise lost

Happiness is just out of reach for Italian immigrants in Bread and Chocolate


Few films manage the extremes of pathos and silliness on display in the 1978 Italian film Bread and Chocolate. But Franco Brusati's comedy/tragedy is a uniquely arrhythmic film of ebullient lights and despairing darks. Like Mr. Hulot or Chaplin adrift in the dark landscape of Emir Kusturica, Nino Garofalo (Nino Manfredi) tries to retain a scrap of hope and optimism despite grim circumstances as an Italian exile seeking work in Switzerland.

The difficulty of this proposition -- of leaving your home and acclimating to a new environment -- is made abundantly clear in the film's ironic opening sequence. Perfect blond children and their parents cavort happily -- and calmly -- in a sunny park, picnicking, playing ball and generally looking like the grand prize winners in the eugenics lottery.

The entire blissful scenario shatters with Nino's arrival. A good-natured, self-deprecating Italian who nevertheless sticks out like a crow in a sea of corn, Nino is demonstrative, prone to flashy attire and vested with a unique ability to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His outsider status is immediately confirmed when he wanders into the woods to retrieve a child's ball and stumbles upon a dead body. Events seem to perpetually conspire against this stranger in a strange land, as the film conveys quite nicely the loneliness and restlessness of the immigrant experience. Manfredi has the deft, lighter-than-air manner of a man just one click ahead of absolute, debilitating chaos, and though his initial snafus are merely bumbling, a definite darkness intrudes as the film progresses.

There are hints throughout Brusati's divine, affecting film that all is not as ideal as it appears in Nino's methodically run, polite, accident-free host country. But the pretense of order reminds Nino and his friends of their differences daily, driving them to either work desperately to fit in or pine for a return to their homeland.

In one of the film's most disturbing moments, Bread and Chocolate manages to evoke Tod Browning's Freaks, Nightmare Alley and any number of scenes from low-budget horror films. Fired from his restaurant job and desperate for work of any kind, Nino takes up temporary employment with the feather-coated Italians doing piecework slaughter at a poultry farm. The workers live in one of the farm's abandoned hutches where they stoop and crawl in order to walk or sleep inside the claustrophobic building. Brusati's point couldn't be clearer, of how these men and women have been reduced to the beasts they slaughter daily.

But the film reaches a crescendo of outrage when the workers begin to jokingly imitate chickens for Nino, and the hutch soon resounds with their demonic clucking and grotesque contortions. A young woman breaks away, laughing at their imitation until she spies the farmer's children cavorting in the forest outside. Staring longingly from behind their chicken wire windows at these lithe, healthy, sunbaked nymphs in poses of glorious leisure out of a Manet or Renoir painting, the Italian workers are suddenly conscious of the degradation of their own lives. The contrast would be comical -- with Brusati's soft-focus, golden, light-bathed vision of this earthly Swiss-only paradise -- if it wasn't so sad.

The circumstance of these lusty, optimistic, warm people reduced to a subhuman labor force in Switzerland's shadow world of imported, invisible immigrants eventually drives Nino to a dramatic gesture to fit in.

Moving blithely from comedy to tragedy, Bread and Chocolate, billed upon its release with the tagline "You'll Laugh Till Your Heart Breaks," often has been faulted for its shape-shifting tone. But an element of the absurd remains fairly consistent throughout. And it is that combination of absurdity, desperation, self-pity and righteous anger in its spiritually troubled hero, Nino, that makes Brusati's film so memorable.

Presented as part of The High Museum's Italian Film Festival at 8 p.m. July 20 at Rich Auditorium.

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