Nino Garofalo (Nino Manfredi) is an Italian immigrant in Switzerland who is having trouble keeping a job, such is the competition for work among the immigrant community in that country. Today he is spending his Sunday off in the park, and as he settles down to eat his bread and chocolate he notices the string quintet has stopped playing and he grows paranoid that everyone there, including the birds, is watching him. However, the music starts once more and Nino shrugs it off. When he sees a young boy playing football he opts to join in, being a football fan after all, but the boy doesn't seem interested, so Nino goes to sit with his nanny though finds conversation difficult as he doesn't speak German and she doesn't speak Italian. When the kid kicks his ball into the woods, Nino goes to fetch it, but finds something he hadn't counted on: a dead body.
If that sounds like an unlikely beginning for a comedy, then Bread and Chocolate is an unlikely comedy, and I'm guessing not one that went down well in Switzerland where almost everyone is protrayed as chilly and unfeeling. Until Roberto Benigni started having hits and turned sentimental, Manfredi in this film was the definitive sad clown of Italian cinema, a Chaplinesque figure, but his script, written with director Franco Brusati and Jaja Fiastri, went further into examining the legitimacy of laughing through the tears. Their conclusion? Apparently you've got to get through your awful days somehow, and it's better to remain hopeful even with the weight of the world on your shoulders.
There are amusing moments in Bread and Chocolate, or Pan e Cioccolata as it was originally known, but there's too much that's painful to keep you giggling for long. Perhaps it would have been more effective if it had been the other way around and it was so cruel to its main character that you simply had to laugh, but the filmmakers remain too sympathetic to his plight for that. Nino is taken in by the police after finding the body, but they only question him as they already have the murderer - a priest - in custody. He goes back to work, which cues broad comedy waiter sequences where his main rival for the post, who he calls The Turk, is not much better at the job than he is but wins out nevertheless because the unimpressed restaurant owner happened to accidentally take a picture of Nino pissing in the street.
And so the episodic tale continues, with Nino's luck just growing worse and worse. He decides to go back to his family in Italy, but at the last second, jumps out to give himself another chance - losing his luggage in the process. The immigration police be damned, he goes to hide out at the apartment of the Greek single mother, Elena (cult actress Anna Karina), who reluctantly welcomes him in, but one thing leads to another and they fall in love; well, Nino falls in love with her at any rate. Every time things seem to look up for him he is disappointed, as when he is hired by a kindly millionaire (Johnny Dorelli) to be his butler, and after taking Nino's money to invest he commits suicide because of depression without telling him where it was deposited. There's a scene late on where Nino and a bunch of fellow chicken pluckers gaze at their Swiss boss's adult children and their friends as they relax that resembles the Morlocks gazing on the Eloi, only the Eloi have the upper hand here. The film's wavering, sorry for itself tone may be hard to take for some, but the superb Manfredi keeps you watching. Music by Daniele Patucchi.