An Italian remake of a French comedy that I really enjoyed, Benvenuti al Sud was a very successful transplant of a simple idea. The fish out of water concept may not be highbrow art cinema, but for uncomplicated laughs, it’s hard to beat if done well.
The geographical direction of the film is reversed from that in the French original. As the title indicates, this film is about a Northerner transplanted against his wishes to the South. A Post office manager angling for a lucrative transfer to Milan, Alberto’s efforts to obtain the transfer dishonestly see him punished with a two-year assignment to a small town not far from Naples.
The gulf between North and South Italy is legendary, and this film plays up the perception that they are different worlds. Stopped by police for travelling to slowly on the autostrada, Alberto’s explanation that he is being forced to move to Naples draws a sympathetic “I know what you’re going through, my brother’s serving in Kosovo” from the officer. Jokes about the heat and the Camorra come thick and fast.
As with the French original, what makes this film fun to watch is that the butt of its humour is not the vilified, stereotyped region but the one doing the vilifying and stereotyping. Told by his assistant when he first arrives that “A Northerner who moves to the South cries twice: Once when he arrives and once when he leaves“, the film is all about Alberto’s journey toward discovering the truth of that saying.
Another thing that it shares with the French original is some very deft subtitling. Although I (like Alberto when he first arrived) couldn’t understand a word of the Southern dialetto, I was impressed by the lesson his Southern co-workers gave him. They explained the differences between their language and standard Italian, and the examples they gave were skilfully subtitled with equivalent patterns and examples in English. To translate wordplay in a way that captures both the basic meaning and preserves humour is real achievement, pulled off well in this film. If only the subtitlers from this film and those from Bienvenu les Ch’tis could train those responsible for Hindi films these days.
I am not surprised learn that this film was such a success that Benvenuti al Nord has already been made, in which all Alberto’s Southern friends travel to his world. It’s a credit to the cast that I am more excited than apprehensive about the sequel, my desire to see more of them overcoming my anxieties about how far the material will stretch.
Good-natured, straightforward humour is always a delight, and for a relaxing hour and a half of laughing at the absurdities of our universal need to stereotype others, I definitely recommend this film.