On a warm spring evening a few years back, I was eating dinner with my Italian host family on our picturesque terrace that looked out on the Vesuvian cost, and my host-mother dropped her fork on top of her linguine. She looked straight at me and said, “You haven’t seen the movie Benvenuti al Sud!”. She called her brother who—how Italian is this?—immediately hopped on his Vespa, zipped through the pernicious, unabating Neapolitan traffic, and brought us the DVD. Upon his return, we moved our plates inside, gathered around the TV, and watched the film. The film is a unique representation of cultural differences in Italy. It (hysterically) presents the disdain that many Italians from the North have for the South of Italy in a way that makes the Northern disdain seem foolish. But is the movie beneficial to Italians as a piece of positive propaganda? There is an unsettling amount of tension between the North and the South, and this has led to the rise of radical parties with one main objective—secession.
I’ll start with a quick synopsis of the film. Luca Miniero’s comedy opens in North of Italy, in Brenzia. Alberto Colombo is the post-master of his providential post office. After failing to obtain a desired position in the capital of Lombardia, Milan, he is transferred to a small coastal town in the South called Castellabate, near Naples. This is a nightmare for Alberto, as the people of the North basically see Naples and its surrounding county of Campagna as the wild-wild West of Italy. The film plays on a common stereotype of Northern Italians that there are no practically no rules. In the film, trash fills the streets, nobody really works, the local government is corrupt, and the entire province of Naples is run by the mob. Alberto spends his long drive to his eminent doom sobbing, and at one point is pulled over by the police for driving too slowly. The police officer offers her condolences that he is being forced to move to the South, and sends him on his way. When he finally arrives in Napoli, he is welcomed by a mass of unending traffic, in which he sits for hours more before finally arriving at the coastal town of Castellabate.
The next day he awakes to a ball of mozzarella the size of a basketball and his new co-worker, Mattia’s mother forcing him to eat a delicious, but enormous breakfast. Even when on the verge of throwing up, she continues to hand him different food, and is offended when he says no. Eventually he looks to Mattia for help. Mattia says some incomprehensible words in dialect, and she backs off.
Alberto is so scared of being attacked by the mafia, that he decides he won’t leave the house unprotected. He covers himself in body armor, and goes to the sunny seaside post office to start his first day of work, only to find that his workers had closed the store in order to watch the local soccer team (SSC Napoli) play. Alberto nearly has an emotional breakdown, but is eventually calmed by soothing voices in Neapolitan dialect and is convinced to watch the game. He is perplexed by the slow pace at which the southerners live their lives, but the viewer senses a budding, albeit conflicted, appreciation.
Slowly, Alberto begins to live more like a Southerner. He takes long breaks for lunch, closes shop early, drinks limoncello on the job, and even stops wearing his body armor when leaving his home. He learns to tastefully use dialect and uses it conversationally with Mattia. By the end of the film, he learns that the South is not at all how people play it out to be in the North. He learns that the more relaxed lifestyle in the South is what makes it great, and that the people are open, warm, and accepting. The movie ends with a memorable quote that perfectly describes the South of Italy. Mattia tells Alberto just before he leaves to go back home, “Si piange due volte quando vai al Sud. Quando arrivi, e quando te ne vai.” This translates to: You cry twice when you go to the South. When you get there and when you leave.
While this movie is hysterical and heartwarming, it is an extremely important piece of political propaganda. In Italy, there is an unsettling amount of tension between the North and the South. In fact, there are political parties in Italy that believe in the separation of the state into two nations. The most prominent is the Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania, or the Northern League for the Independence of Padania. La Lega Nord was founded in 1991, and many regional parties of central and northern Italy have political figures affiliated with the party. By 1996, the party had received 10.1% of the votes in the general elections. (http://www.leganord.net/) 10.1% isn’t an insignificant figure, and it is quite apparent that La Lega Nord is a popular party in Italy. Padania (an area in the North) has seen itself as different from the rest of Italy ever since . Besides separation of state, the parties believe in harsh immigration laws, and that Milan should be the capital of the country, as they believe that Rome is corrupt and steals money from the people. The party gets involved with immigration laws, secession, and the change of the nation’s capital to Milan. La Lega Nord is even considered to be xenophobic at times when trying to fight immigration into Italy. What social effects has this European Federalist party created in Italy? And how does Luca Miniero’s movie fit in?
After having lived in Italy for a year, I realized that disdain for the South is quite evident in the North. When visiting my friend in Venice, his buddies made fun of me constantly for having picked up a Neopolitan accent. While they were only kidding, there was a hint of truth in their voices. It later became clear to me that they were a little bit prejudiced against Napoli and the surrounding areas when they asked me questions like “Have you gotten robbed yet?” and “How much trash is there in the streets?” After trying to convince them that I lived in a safe, clean area and that none of my friends had family in the mob, they seemed unconvinced. In order to figure out why this is, I consulted with my friend Michele Menti, a Fordham University student from Vicenza.
In a conversation with Michele, I learned that while Italy was unified in 1948, many Italians still see it as it once was: Sicilians, Neapolitans, Florentines, Venetians, etc. Northern Italy is very industrial and fairly wealthy; Many of Southern Italy remained poor and undeveloped. A lot of Italian taxation goes to the development of the South. Many northerners feel that the South should organize itself better have a stronger economy so that they no longer are a burden to the North.
Michele also explained to me that as a result of this, politicians from the North of Italy often slammed the South on public television. Constant exposure on television means that parties like La Lega Nord were very prominent in Northern daily life. He said that many of his friends learn to hate the South at home, as parents forced their political opinion upon them. Household discussion lead to slang terms that kids use against Southerners like ‘terrone’, and made me understand why the kids I met in the North asked me those racially bigotted questions.
Films like Benvenuti al Sud are the answer. The movie helped the people of the North see just how great the South is. It brings out all the positive aspects of Napoli and its satellites. In fact, it was such a success that they made a sequel, Benvenuti al Nord which has a similar storyline, as Mattia is transferred to work with Alberto in Milan. These movies tackle the stereotypes of both sides of the country. With more films like this, could Italy approach cultural differences in a less condescending manner? I think so.