As any Italian living in US and traveling back and forth would know, there is always the question on what can and can’t be brought back to the States in terms of food. There’s always that dairy product, that delicious cheese or mouth-watering cured meat that we would like to bring back with us.
Then the question arises if customs will allow it. On a recent trip I couldn’t help picturing Sophia Loren in Mario Monicelli’s 1971 film, La Mortadella. It is one of the lesser known films of the Maestro, yet extremely funny and still poignant to this day. Loren plays Maddalena Ciarrapico, a young woman arriving at JFK Airport in New York to meet up with her husband to be, another Italian, played by Gigi Proietti. The man built a new life in the States, after leaving his wife a few years prior because of his affair with Maddalena.
In the small town of Carpi, where they were from, the adultery was looked down on, their young love was deemed a disgrace, divorce was still illegal. Their only choice was to go to the land of the free. Once at the airport Maddalena gets immediately stopped and refused entrance because of a giant mortadella she is carrying in her arms. She’s pure-hearted and she can’t understand how such delicacy can be seen as a threat to a country. The law must be wrong and should be changed. She was taught by her man to speak out against perceived injustice and the thought alone that the precious pork meat should be disposed of is incomprehensible. Officers explain there is still fear of the 1967 swine fever to which she candidly replies “Our pigs are healthy, they never even had a cold.”
The mortadella becomes a proxy for freedom; freedom that is being denied in what should be a free country. In fact for the American market the movie was renamed Lady Liberty. Stuck at the airport, the woman becomes a national incident to be dealt with. High rank security comes to reason with her because all are equal before the law and must abide, no exceptions; the city councilman of Italian descent comes to her defense, seeing it as an opportunity for publicity for the upcoming elections; her fiancée finally shows his true colors, revealing of having traded his integrity and the revolutionary spirit he had back home for capitalism and conformism; a down-on-his-luck reporter seizes the moment to finally make the front page. Suddenly it is a media circus.
Although the law has since changed in regards of processed meat, traveling and going through customs has only become more complicated over the years for reasons well known to all. It is still a good rule of thumb not to bring anything fresh or meat derivative. The movie, which was shot almost entirely in the city of New York, symbol of the American Dream, uses comedy to bring the attention to rules and regulations, culture differences, close minded enforcers, and often lack of good judgment. It is a caustic caricature of both sides, bringing up the absurdity of certain ways of life. The line spoken by the reporter about building credit, “They give you credit only if you can prove you don’t need it,” is a clear example of that. On the other hand the Italian way of being ready to question the authority at every turn is clearly open to criticism, depending on the point of view. Finally the absurdity in blind enforcement of the law is perfectly captured in the solution that solves the matter: once the airport personnel get their hands on the mortadella, they eat it with gusto.
The cast features future movie stars with young, fresh faces in smaller roles: Danny De Vito plays the congressman, Willian Devane (who would be Secretary of Defense on the series 24) plays the Daily News reporter and Susan Sarandon plays his ex-wife. It’s definitely worth revisiting the movie through today’s eyes for its satirical take on society.