["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.


AA. VV., Poveri di diritti. Rapporto 2011 su povertà ed esclusione sociale in Italia, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2011.
AA. VV., Cronache di ordinario razzismo. Secondo libro bianco sul razzismo in Italia, Rome, Edizioni dell’Asino, 2011.
AA. VV., La costruzione del ceto medio. Immagini sulla stampa e in politica, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2011.
ALBERTAZZI, D. e McDONALD, D., ed., Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy, Basingstoke (Hampshire), Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
BAUMAN, Z., Liquid Modernity, Cambridge, Polity, 2000.
BECK, U., Risk Society, London, Sage, 2002.
BERSANI, D., Indignate, Rome, Newton Compton, 2011.
BERTONI, R., ed., Specchi di realtà: Aspetti del rapporto tra narrativa e società in Italia dopo il 1989, Trinity College Dublin and Trauben Turin, 2011.
CASSESE, S., Governare gli italiani: Storia dello Stato, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2014.
CENSIS, http.censis.it/.
CENSIS, I valori degli italiani 2013, Venice, Marsilio, 2013
CERI, P., Gli italiani spiegati da Berlusconi, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2011.
CROUCH, C., Postdemocracy, Cambridge, Polity, 2004.
COLLINS, R., “The End of Middle Class Work: No More Escapes”, in AA. VV, Does Capitalism Have a Future?. Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 37-70.
CRIALESE, E., Terraferma, 2011.
DAMIANI, M., ed., “Il nuovo radicalismo politico: tra destra e sinistra”, Rivista di politica, 2.2017, Soveria Mannelli, Rubbettino, 2017.
DE MARCHI, C., La vocazione, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2010.
ELLIOTT, A. and LEMERT, C., The New Individualism, London, Routledge, 2006.
GALLINO, L., La lotta di classe dopo la lotta di classe, Interview by P. Borgna, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2012.
ISTAT: Istituto Nazionale di Statistica, http://www.Istat.it/.
LIVORSI, F., “Divisione e bilanciamento dei poteri nell’Italia di oggi”, Critica marxista, 2, 2011, pp. 37-42.
MAGATTI, M., I nuovi ceti popolari, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2006.
MAZZUCCO, M., Limbo, Turin, Einaudi, 2012. English translation by V. Jewiss, Limbo: A Novel, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.
DEMOS & PI: Osservatorio sull’Italia di Demos & Pi, http://www.demos.it/.
PASQUINO, G., La nuova politica, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 1992.
PIKKETTY, T., Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.
REA, E., La Dismissione, Milan, Rizzoli, 2002.
SEGRE, A., Io sono Li. English subtitled version: Shun Li and the Poet. 2011.
SALA, E., Donne, uomini e potere, diseguaglianze di genere in azienda, politica, accademia, Milan, Franco Angeli, 2008.
SCIARRONE, R., BOSCO, N., MEO, A., and STORTI, L., La costruzione del ceto medio. Immagini sulla stampa e in politica, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2011, p. 131
TARCHI, M., L’Italia populista, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2003.
TUTTITALIA, http://www.tuttitalia.it/.
URBINATI, N., Democrazia in diretta, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2013.
VALENTINI, C., Le donne fanno paura, Milan, Il Saggiatore, 1997.
VECCHIO, C., Giovani e belli. Un anno fra i trentenni italiani all’epoca di Berlusconi, Milan, Chiarelettere, 2009.
VENEZIA, M., Rivelazione all’Esquilino, Rome, Nottetempo, 2011.
VIDOTTO, V., Italiani/e. Dal miracolo economico a oggi, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2005.

[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).


CARTE ALLINEATE. Seconda serie, numero 59, ottobre-novembre 2017 / Second series, issue 59, October-November 2017

Per gli articoli del mese, vai a Ottobre/Novembre 2017 in ARCHIVIO BLOG, o consulta l'INDICE ALFABETICO qui sotto. Per gli arretrati vai a ARCHIVIO BLOG; e a Di cosa si parla su Carte allineate: Indici, nella colonna di destra in questa pagina. Cerca nomi e titoli specifici con il SEARCH BLOG; e gli argomenti tramite le ETICHETTE, sempre nella colonna di destra. Nella colonna di sinistra si trovano anche i LINKS con altri siti / Find the entries in the current month at Ottobre/Novembre 2017 in ARCHIVIO BLOG or in the INDEX below. Find past issues in ARCHIVIO BLOG, and in Di cosa si parla su Carte allineate: Indici, a section which is situated on the right end side column on this page. Look for specific names and titles by using the SEARCH BLOG. Consult topics by using the ETICHETTE (or LABELS), again on the right hand column. LINKS to other sites are also provided on the left end column in this page.


Le voci elencate qui sotto senza il nome dell’autore sono state scritte, e le foto sono state scattate, da Roberto Bertoni.

- AA.VV., IL FANTASTICO ITALIANO. Note di lettura, 15-10-2017.
- BENITEZ, Fernando, LOS INDIOS DE MEXICO. Note di lettura, 7-10-2017.
- BOINE, Giovanni, FRAMMENTI E TESTIMONIANZE. Note di lettura, 11-10-2017.
- DIAZ-CANALES, Juan, e PELLEJERO, Ruben, CORTO MALTESE: EQUATORIA. Storie di immagini, 29-10-2017.
- HAMID, Mohsin, EXIT WEST. Note di lettura, 21-10- 2017.
- PINI, Angelo, HO ALMENO SALVATO L'ILLUSIONE. Testo, 3-10-2017. 
- PIZZI, Marina, DIVE ELEMOSIONE - 2015 (STROFE 77-81). Testo, 1-10-2017
- WALLACE, Patricia, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE INTERNET. Note di lettura, 9-10-2017




 ["Both Open and Encased..." (La Spezia 2017). Foto Rb]

The research objectives of this paper are to establish in what ways Italy in the 21st century can be defined as a post-democracy characterized by late-modern social dynamics within the context of the globalized world.[1] Sociologists have described such a change in terms of “liquid modernity” (Bauman), “risk society” (Beck), and individualistic behaviour (Elliott and Emmert).[2] And partly building on the way in which Crouch developed the concept of post-democracy,[3] one should understand the evolution of Western democracies, in a number of countries since the 1980s, into political and social configurations where people’s direct participation has decreased mainly due the formation of powerful financial and political decision-making elites. Connected to this, and to respond to disillusion with classic parliamentary democracy, some varieties of right-wing populism have emerged in Italy like elsewhere in Europe. Italian populist sentiments are embodied mainly in the political movements of Lega Nord (Northern League) and Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement).[4] Even though such political features are important to the point that they would deserve a separate study, this paper is rather concerned with another relevant aspect of post-democracy, that is inequality. To understand Italian 21st-century inequality, some data on class composition will be provided, followed by observations on poverty and wealth, the position of youth, women and migrants, and finally the representation of some of these social problems in two novels and one film. Let us begin with class composition.

1. Class composition

In the 1980s and 1990s, Italian social classes changed due to a renewal in the mode of production which included economic globalization, computerized technology, restructuring of companies and labour flexibility. Even though recent analysis has gone as far as to deny the concept of social class in favour of social groups,[5] a more traditional approach in three main classes (upper, middle and lower) is taken below.

The Italian upper class is comprised of 6.5% of the population.[6]

The middle class, if understood as those employed in the tertiary sector, is the widest class. The upper middle class is comprised of entrepreneurs, service personnel, professionals and politicians. The lower middle class is constituted by retailers, artisans, clerks and teachers. In 2011, 46% believed they belonged in the middle class, a lower number than the 50% to 60% figure given in previous years.[7] This reduction reflects the international change in middle class composition as identified by Collins with reference to technological change, and as a result of the recession which started in 2008.[8] In 2013 a survey by Sciarrone, Bosco, Meo and Storti underlined the precarious situation, the loss of status and the sentiment of economic and psychological uncertainty of the Italian middle class.[9]

Meanwhile industrial and agricultural workers constantly decreased in numbers. In 2004, 30% were labourers in industry, and 4.5% in agriculture. However, in 2011, Diamanti found out that 48% of Italians perceived their class as “ceti popolari”, an expression roughly translatable as lower class,[10] including not only what used to be called “proletariat”, but also lower paid clerks, school teachers, part-time contracts, half-employed people, the unemployed, and immigrants from countries outside the EU. The Italian lower class, in brief, has expanded, as predictable, during the recession, and a number of former members of the middle class have receded to “ceti popolari” which are now characterized, as Magatti observes, by fragmentation, economic vulnerability, insecurity and a sense of humiliation.[11] Even though the Italian economy seems to have improved in 2016 and 2017, this general picture would appear to remain mostly valid so far.

2. Poverty and wealth

Inequality results from the above data, and it is in line with international research.[12] According to Gallino, there has been an “increase in global inequality due to lack of income redistribution”.[13] This is true in Italy, too, where a consequence of inequality has been the increase in wealth of the rich and the impoverishment of others. In 2005, according to Censis, 3.7% Italians had an income exceeding one million dollars; and 10% of the richest families owned 41.5% of the national wealth.[14] In 2011, 22,900,000 people aged 15 to 64 had no regularly paid income out of a total population of 59,380,000.[15]

In 2010, an Istat survey noticed that 24.7% were “experiencing the risks of […] social exclusion”.[16] A 2011 Caritas report confirmed that poverty in Italy did not only consist in financial deprivation, but also in exclusion from constitutional rights such as work, and decrease in the application of general social rights such as adequate wealth, decorous home and higher education.[17]

3. Youth malaise

A dramatic fact in relation to the future of Italy is that youth is one of the social layers affected by inequality due to poverty. In a 2010 Eurispes survey, 83.2% Italians aged 18 to 39 had acquired a Bachelor degree, and 55.9% held a Master’s degree, yet the overwhelming majority were able to obtain only badly paid part-time jobs.[18] Youth unemployment figures have been high for several years. A 2011 Caritas report indicated 30% unemployed young people in the North and 50% in the South of Italy.[19] A 2016 Istat survey showed improvement of, but not a solution to, the problem.[20]

The expression “the youth question” has become common in Italian sociological and media discourse due to these facts, which are further aggravated by the necessity for several young people to emigrate in order to find jobs adequate to their qualifications. Istat gives a general figure of 147,000 Italian emigrants in 2015, 8% more than 2014. Most of them are highly qualified. The main destinations of Italian young emigrants in the 21st century have been Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, France but also other economically attractive countries.

Vecchio’s inquest among young Italians shows a generation characterized by disappointment about lack of work and by expectations for non-traditional social roles.[21]  

4. The condition of women

The position of women in Italian society has undoubtedly improved since the 1970s when strong feminist movements questioned traditional societal roles. Laws were passed, most notably a law on divorce (1970), the family law (1975), a law on abortion (1978), and regulations against sexual violence (1996).

In education, equality seems to exist. Women normally perform better than men; degrees are obtained by more women than men (58% of the total of graduates are women); and 67,7% of individuals enrolled in postgraduate courses are women.[22]

With reference to work, several women have achieved professional positions, but there is still discrimination in the level of salary between men and women, and fewer women than men achieve managerial positions. The average salary of women in Italy in 2016 was 5.5% lower than the average salary of men. This put Italy below some other European countries on the 50th position in the Job Pricing gender salary gap internationally.[23]

Significant changes have taken place in the last fifty years in relation to family. The average time for marrying (round the age of 30) is similar for women and men; contraception is not practiced only by 10.4% of couples;[24] and the birth rate is the lowest in Europe (1.35 in 2015).[25] However, inequality manifests itself in various ways. The reasons for the low number of births include scarce government welfare and late entrance into the labour market. Discrimination also takes place in relation to domestic work, still mostly conducted by women.[26] A disquieting set of statistics is about violence. According to 2014 Istat data, “6,788,000 women aged 16 to 70 were exposed to physical and sexual violence during their lives”.[27]

5. Immigration

Foreign residents in Italy have more than trebled in the last fourteen years, from 1,549,373 at the beginning of 2003 to 5,046,994 in 2017 (8.3% of the total resident population).[28]

There are laws which control the migrant flux,[29] however difficulties have increased due to wars and other humanitarian emergencies in the last decade which have brought a high number of people to Europe via Sicily.

Foreigners go to Italy mostly in search of work (42% in 2016),[30] and some are refugees (9.2% requested asylum in 2016).[31] The biggest community comes from Romania (23.2% of the total of migrants in 2017). The majority of people from non-EU countries come from Albania (8.9%), Morocco (8.3%), China (5.6%), Ukraine (4.6%) and the Philippines (3.3%).[32]

In Italy, immigrants, though in the best of occasions integrated, are still treated unequally in many cases. Extreme racism unfortunately took place on some occasions. In general, even legal immigrants often work in underpaid jobs and are exposed to prejudice. However, compared to previous surveys, the perception of immigrants as a threat to local jobs decreased from 44.6% nationally in 2008 to 26% of people interviewed in North-Eastern Italy in 2014, whereas the number of those who considered migrants as a positive resource remained almost stable from 44.6% in 2008 to 42% in 2014.[33] Some political groupings still campaign against immigration, counteracted by institutional agencies, charitable associations and cultural mediators who promote mutual understanding. Integration is favoured depending on where immigrants go, what their original cultures are, and what types of education and professional competence they have.

[Roberto Bertoni]

[1] This paper, prepared for the 25th International Conference on Social Science and Humanities (Singapore, 7-8 November 2017), originates from a module taught at Trinity College, University of Dublin, by the present writer on “Italian Society, Contexts and Texts”. The research outcomes reached so far are illustrated in full online in Contesti sociali italiani e testi, available in Italian at http://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/460587_ae9475a4410343049ecde5d864 df82e3.pdf.
[2] See Z. Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge, Polity, 2000; U. Beck, Risk Society, London, Sage, 2002; A. Elliott and C. Lemert, The New Individualism, London, Routledge, 2006.
[3] C. Crouch, Postdemocracy, Cambridge, Polity, 2004.
[4] See, among others, D. Albertazzi and D. McDonnell, ed., Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan, 2008; M. Tarchi, L’Italia populista, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2003. M. Damiani, ed., “Il nuovo radicalismo politico: tra destra e sinistra”, Rivista di politica, 2.2017, Soveria Mannelli, Rubbettino, 2017.
[5] This is the approach taken by Istat, Rapporto annuale 2017 (https://www.istat.it/it/files/2017/05/RapportoAnnuale2017.pdf).
[6] Demos-Coop, 2011: http://www.demos.it/a00589.php.
[7] L. Ceccarini, Demos-Coop: http://www.demos.it/a00589.php.
[8] “The end of middle class work: No more escapes”, in AA. VV, Does Capitalism Have a Future?, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 37-70.
[9] R. Sciarrone, N. Bosco, A. Meo, L. Storti, La costruzione del ceto medio. Immagini sulla stampa e in politica, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2011, p. 131.
[10] I. Diamanti, L’Italia sempre più povera. Per la prima volta è minoranza chi si sente ceto medio, “La Repubblica”, 23-5-2011 (http://www.cgil.it/rassegnastampa/articolo.aspx?ID=6294).
[11] M. Magatti, I nuovi ceti popolari, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2006.
[12] See in particular T. Pikketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Belknap Press of Berkeley University Press, 2014.
[13] L. Gallino, La lotta di classe dopo la lotta di classe. Intervista a cura di P. Borgna, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 2012, pp. 104, 120, 18 e 23.
[14] Trentatreesimo rapporto Censis sulla situazione sociale del Paese, Rome, Cnel, 2005 (http://www.censis.it/10?shadow_ricerca=4380).
[15] Ibidem, p. 25.
[16] Rapporto Istat sulla situazione del Paese, 2010. Summary at
[17] Giuseppe Benvegnù-Pasini, Maria Bezze, Walter Nanni, Vittorio Nozza, Tiziano Vecchiato on behalf of Caritas italiana and Fondazione E. Zancan, Poveri di diritti. Rapporto 2011 su povertà ed esclusione sociale in Italia, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2011, p. 21.
[18] Rapporto Istat sulla situazione del paese (2010), cit.
[19] G. Benvegnù-Pasini et al., cit.
[20] http://www.istat.it/it/files/2016/04/Cap_3_Ra2016.pdf.
[21] C. Vecchio, Giovani e belli. Un anno fra i trentenni italiani all’epoca di Berlusconi, Milan, Chiarelettere, 2009.
[22] http://sis-statistica.it/magazine/IMG/article_PDF/article_203.pdf.
[23] La Repubblica, 20-10-2017 (http://www.repubblica.it/economia/2017/10/20/news/stipendi_gap_uomo_donna-178820815/).
[24] Rapporto sullo stato di salute delle donne in Italia
[25] https://www.istat.it/it/files/2016/11/Statistica-report-Nati.pdf.
[26] Statistics from Istat, Divisione dei ruoli nelle coppie, 2010; quoted in D. Bersani, Indignate, Rome, Newton Compton, 2011, p. 48.
[27] https://www.istat.it/it/archivio/161716.
[28] http://www.tuttitalia.it/statistiche/cittadini-stranieri-2017/.
[29] See Internazionale, 13-8-2015: https://www.internazionale.it/notizie/2015/08/13/italia-immigrazione-leggi.
[31] Ibidem.
[32] http://www.tuttitalia.it/statistiche/cittadini-stranieri-2017/.
[33] Demos-Polis, http://www.demos.it/a00217. And php.https://www.ilgazzettino.it/home/l_immigrazione_ minaccia_risorsa_osservatorio_nordest_curato-332829.html.