Food on screen: the taste of commedia all’italiana
When it comes to writing about “commedia all’italiana” or Italian comedy, it’s impossible not to mention Alberto Sordi and his ‘macaroni’ in Steno’s Un Americano a Roma (An American in Rome, 1954). The main character Nando Mericoni dreams of moving to America, but in the famous scene we discover he has some issues with American food.
From the Golden Age of Italian Cinema after the Second World War to Commedia all’Italiana, Italian cinema has often used food to represent Italy and its people on the big screen. Many of these scenes are iconic nowadays, just think of Mario Monicelli’s I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street, 1958) where a bowl of pasta with chickpeas is the consolation prize for the incompetent band of thieves. This cult movie brought together some of the most important Italian actors of all time: Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman, Claudia Cardinale and Totò.
Totò is the comic of Italian cinema, a real-life personification of Pulcinella, a protagonist of Neapolitan puppetry. And when the puppet became a film star, you can be sure that no film was made without a joke about hunger getting in there somewhere. After all, it was one of the biggest problems for ordinary people after the war. Mattioli’s Miseria e nobiltà of (Poverty and Nobility, 1954) is a comical depiction of a starving family’s delight at receiving a rich banquet at home: Totò’s character is so happy that he ends up dancing the Tarantella on the table while trying to stuff spaghetti into his pockets. When he plays Pasquale Miele in Eduardo De Filippo’s Napoli milionaria (Side Street Story, 1950), he pulls not only spaghetti, but a knife and a fork out of a sandwich. For Totò, food is also a way for southern Italians to derive comfort from tradition when forced to travel north to overcast Milano: in one film, he arrives with two suitcases full of cheese, wine, ham and countless other gastronomical delicacies. That was Totò, Peppino e… la malafemmina (Totò, Peppino and… the Hussy, 1956) by Camillo Mastrocinque and is one of the many movies where Totò plays himself. Others include Totò, Peppino e… la dolce vita (Totò, Peppino and… the Sweet Life, 1961) by Sergio Corbucci or Totò, Peppino e i fuorilegge (Totò, Peppino and… the Outlaws, 1956) again by Camillo Mastrocinque.
After the war, the Italian Comedy genre symbolised a bridge between a poor past and an abundant future. People tried to forget their sadness and suffering with new kinds of entertainment. Fun fairs, dance halls, piazzas and restaurants were the new places to be in Italy. Cinema assimilated those habits and depicted them on screen in a new genre called Neorealismo Rosa (Pink Neorealism). It was films like Luigi Comencini’s Pane Amore e Fantasia (Bread, Love and Dreams, 1953) that showed that the time for hunger had finally come to an end and people could start thinking about their lives again.
The Sixties and Seventies were different. With the war long forgotten, Italy was having a good time: it was the Economic Boom. Hunger and thirst were problems of the past: food was abundant on the tables of all Italian families and we see meat and fish dishes for the firsts time. In Le Vacanze Intelligenti (Intelligent Vacation, 1978), the third film in a trilogy entitled Dove vai in vacanza? (Where are You Going on Holiday?) by Alberto Sordi, we meet a couple during a vacation organised by their sons. Tired of monuments and healthy food, they decide to get a table at a restaurant and eat literally everything on the menu. In this film, abundance represented the changing times, in relation both to the couple and their sons’ new lifestyle. Abundance is interpreted differently in films such as La grande abbuffata (The Big Feast, 1973) by Marco Ferreri, where a group of close friends plan to eat to the death. Consumerism, lost values and the decadence of the middle classes were the controversial themes of Ferreri’s cult movie.