["Real Italy Behind the Cliche?" (Milan 2017). Foto Rb]

6. Representation of social problems in novels and film

What are the literary and cinematic representations of the sociological situation of inequality briefly described in the first part of this paper?[1] One initial consideration in this respect is the dissatisfaction of the present writer with the trend of the cultural market offering international entertainment products, be they films or best-selling novels, which, even if at times concerned with social questions, are predominantly conceived to simply divert attention from serious topics and are often also characterized by violence and superficiality. By contrast, a number of writers and directors have chosen aesthetic and socially committed paths which mirror society realistically and address the contemporary human condition responsibly. Several Italian works could be quoted.[2] However, out of necessity for brevity, only three examples will be given below in this paper: Ermanno Rea’s novel La dismissione, Melania Mazzucco’s novel Limbo, and Andrea Segre’s film Io sono Li.[3]

6.1. Representation of social class change: La dismissione

Novels are wider worlds than sociology. Rea’s La dismissione focuses not only on social class but on difficulties in interpersonal relationships, the decay of the environment and degradation of social life vis-à-vis crime in the Naples area.

The first-person narrator, Vincenzo Buonocore, is a former industrial worker who later became an engineer and was charged with the decommissioning process of the Ilva steelworks in Bagnoli, a factory to be sold to a Chinese company. The decommissioning constitutes the end of a significant economic support for the people living in that area, and, at the same time, the loss of an alternative to the camorra, a mafia-style organization which takes over in the unemployment vacuum created by the end of the factory.

La dismissione is therefore the metaphor of the end of the era of classic industry and the traditional working class and its political culture of discipline, anti-drug attitudes and opposition to criminal activities. It is the end of a type of identity based on pride to belong to that class, and of the hopes connected to this condition:

“My use of the word hope is connected to the concept of employment. Over decades young people in Bagnoli were led towards respectable professions or towards work in the factory, especially if they were born from working class fathers. The son of a worker was himself already a half-worker by family tradition. Discipline and a sense of duty were part of his natural metabolism. They constituted an added value to the workforce which he represented as such. This is how worker dynasties had been born. These were the great family clans which originated from the early days of the factory”.[4]

The narrator gives an account of the vicissitudes of Ilva from restructuring to the decision of decommissioning taken for political rather than strictly financial reasons. In brief, this novel is a testimony of the end of the 20th-century trade-union and left-wing culture as well as the end of a period in the history of Italian industrialization.

6.2. Representation of women condition: Limbo

The protagonist of Mazzucco’s Limbo is Manuela Paris, a military member of the Italian Alpini corps assigned to a peace mission in Afghanistan. Wounded in action, she becomes partially disabled. Back in Italy, she gradually tries to overcome her psychological trauma. After being awarded medals, she is demobilized due to her leg injury and she is assigned a state pension. During the convalescence in her native town, where she stays with her family, she has a relationship with Mattia, a former doctor, now under police protection for having witnessed a mafia murder. The two fall in love with each other, but Mattia eventually asks to be transferred to a different town to protect Manuela from involvement in his dangerous life as special witness.

There are quite clearly several sociological aspects in this novel. The peace mission in Afghanistan comes out as being more violent than foreseen initially. Manuela’s decision to join the army makes her into a highly emancipated woman who experiences her choice of profession as feminist self-realization. Discrimination against women in military life is presented with clarity and equanimity. Manuela is bound to gain respect of the group of men she commands through harder than usual work precisely because she is a woman. The Italian family is portrayed as a fragmented entity. Manuela’s parents are divorced, her father remarried a Romanian migrant, and her sister has a relationship with a married migrant from Morocco. Crime is also present through the sub-story of Mattia.

6.3. Representation of the migrant question: Io sono Li

Director Segre states in an interview that he is concerned with “apparently minor social layers to which the grand media narrative does not grant the right to speak. These situations, though, often constitute a deeper, more important and more humane point of view. It is the dignity of these people that I put at the core of my stories”.[5]

This is precisely what happens in Io sono Li, a story of solidarity and compassion between two migrants, the newly migrated Chinese Li and older Bepi, originally from Croatia. Their affection is hampered by some members of both communities, the Italians in Chioggia, where she works as a bartender and he as a fisherman, and the Chinese organizers of her job. The film is therefore about the difficulties of social integration. But it is also about the lower class to which most protagonists of this story – Italians and non-Italians – belong. The positive values that prevail are compassion, friendship and solidarity. The negative values, clearly condemned, are racism and prejudice.


This paper started with a description of some varieties of inequality in 21st-century Italy, and it ended by positively exemplifying some interesting stories which express inequality in literature and the cinema, giving hope that intellectual commitment survives, and perhaps on some levels even thrives, despite prevalent commercial mediatic models of narrative.
The future scope of the present writer’s work on the topic of this paper is to continue research by building an online yearly observatory on Italian social contexts and texts, and expand the research to other areas, for instance the record on human rights, the intercultural dimension, and the effects of the electronic era on Italian mentality and behaviour in the international context.


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[Roberto Bertoni]

[1] The first part of this paper was published in Carte allineate on 9-11-2017.
[2] See among others, C. De Marchi, La vocazione, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2010, on the perspective of youth; M. Venezia, Rivelazione all’Esquilimo, Rome, Nottetempo, 2011, a novella on migrants’ integration in Rome; E. Crialese’s film Terraferma, 2011, on relations between illegal migrants and locals in the South of Italy; the rich literature in Italian by migrant writers such as F. Ahmed, P. Kouma, T. Lamri, S. Methani, and I. Scego; and many other stories or films some of the social problems illustrated in this paper,
[3] E. Rea, La Dismissione, Milano, Rizzoli, 2002, so far untranslated into English to the knowledge of the present writer; M. Mazzucco, Limbo, Turin, Einaudi, 2012, English translation by V. Jewiss, Limbo: A Novel. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014; A. Segre, Io sono Li, English subtitled version Shun Li and the Poet, 2006.
[4] La dismissione, cit., p, 185 (my translation).