Mia Korpiola

I recently saw the Italian award-winning film Ieri, oggi, domani (1963, Engl. Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow), directed by Vittorio De Sica (1901–1974), consisting of three unrelated episodes. Each of these deals with the life of one woman, each set in a different Italian town.

I was inspired to write my blog text by the first of the three, “Adelina”, written by Neapolitan-born Eduardo de Filippo (1900–1984). The story is set in the populated central quarters of Naples in the 1950s where Adelina Sbaratti, a poor married woman, portrayed by Sophia Loren, is struggling to sustain her unemployed husband and child by illegally selling smuggled foreign cigarettes.

For me, “Adelina” provides us with a textbook example of how a morsel of legal literacy, defined here simply as legal knowledge and know-how,[1] spread orally to a large number of common Neapolitan workers. This group portrayed as picking up a useful piece of legal knowledge includes hundreds of men, women and children living in the Forcella in the historical centre of Naples and barely existing above subsistence level. 

Neapolitan crowded streets, ca. 1905.
Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection.

The episode starts by a lorry driving to the flat of Adelina Sbaratti and her husband Carmine, played by Marcello Mastroianni, in order to confiscate Adelina’s immobile property. She had failed to pay her fine of 28,000 lire for smuggling tobacco, and the sum has nearly doubled because of accrued expenses and interest. A crowd of curious neighbours has gathered to see Carmine waiting for the enforcement official and his assistants and letting them into the couple’s apartment that has been stripped of all the furniture they earlier possessed. The official leaves empty-handed announcing that the matter is now out of his hands and instead belongs to the court. The lorry having turned the corner, the neighbours immediately start bringing back the hidden furniture from all directions.

Carmine and the neighbours rejoice priding themselves for having tricked the official, but the passing advocate Domenico Verace mocks them for being such ignorant analphabets and not realizing that they have jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Pressed to explain himself, Verace observes that the authorities will have the last laugh, as the carabinieri will arrive to arrest them for their crime and take them to gaol for breaking section 384 of the penal code. Alarmed, Carmine and his friends ask the advocate to elucidate the section to them, as they are ignorant of the law. As the flat and the immobiles are in Adelina’s name, she will be going to prison for fraudulently avoiding distraint, the advocate explains.

Carmine and his friends persist in following Verace to his home, while Adelina is being sent for – she is selling foreign cigarettes on the street together with many other women. The advocate expounds to Carmine and his friends, who have had invaded his home, that nothing can be done at this point. Adelina arrives and loudly exclaims that she is the sole breadwinner of the family as her husband has been unemployed since his discharge from military service. She needs to sell cigarettes outdoors all day long come rain or shine in order to provide for him and their child. Now some swine would arrest her. Advocate Verace’s face lights up when he sees Adelina’s big belly – she is obviously in an advanced stage of pregnancy: “But wait! She cannot be arrested.” Carmine, surprised, queries: “How come, advocate?” “Not with that belly!” 

The fact that Adelina cannot be arrested “with the belly” starts travelling from mouth to mouth in the Forcella district. From women to woman, from the beer vendor on the street to his customers and from neighbour to neighbour this news spreads like wildfire. Soon even the urchins march in increasing numbers on the streets chanting “with the belly, cha-cha-cha”.

Thus, the film described how the knowledge that pregnant women will evade a prison sentence during pregnancy by pleading their belly became rapidly known among those dozens or even hundreds of Neapolitans of all ages who heard it.

Legal literacy could and can be acquired in many different ways, and one such means – as the film demonstrates – is consulting an expert. As Carmine and the people did not know the law, their seemingly cunning strategy of hiding the confiscated property backfired completely without their even realizing it. It required a lawyer to point out this. The same advocate also suggested the legal means of temporarily avoiding prison, i.e. pleading pregnancy. Several persons then learned this expert advice.     

In the film, having left advocate Verace’s home, Adelina explains at dinner with their friends what she learned from the advocate. According to Italian law, pregnant women have immunity from arrest during their pregnancy until six months after delivery because they nurse their babies. The couple plan successfully to have another child on the way before the end of the legal six-month respite.

When policemen arrive to arrest Adelina, she hands them a doctor’s certificate of her pregnancy. Later, when the officials raid the street and all the other tobacco vendors scatter in panic, Adelina puts calmly away her contraband and demonstratively shows the uniformed men a certificate and the baby and starts nursing it. The soldiers drive away in their jeep. Consequently, Adelina and Carmine use this defence successfully several times, and whenever the carabinieri come to arrest her, she produces again a certificate of pregnancy.

Through Adelina, the whole community of the Forcella came to acquire certain legal literacy. Namely, another means of acquiring some legal literacy was learning about the contents of the law by word of mouth. People talked about their legal problems and lawsuits with their family members and friends and discussed various means of handling them. What the law said in the case, what legal stratagems to use, whether to hire a lawyer and if so, whom, were debated by ordinary people. Peer learning was a way of acquiring some legal skills and knowledge as has also been discussed in previous texts in this blog. (Mia Korpiola: Entisajan käräjätunnelmia moraliteettien ja kielikiistojen maustamana – Eino Nyyssölän Laamanni Strömberg ja hänen apulaisensa (1924) and Käräjät ja niiden oikeudelliset toimijat Eino Nyyssölän romaanissa Laamanni Strömberg ja hänen apulaisensa (1924))

Although the illiterate kids chanting “with the belly, cha-cha-cha” hardly learned all the intricacies of Italian criminal law enforcement through such oral communications, they did acquire a modicum of legal literacy through exposure to other people’s legal experiences and litigation. Thus, “Adelina” visualizes neatly some mechanisms of learning about the law.

But the reader may want to know what becomes of Adelina, i.e. Sophia Loren, in the film and the uses she makes of her newly acquired knowledge of the criminal law. SPOILER ALERT: Adelina and Carmine use the legal defence successfully for several years. By that time, the couple has seven children, and Carmine starts cracking under the strain. The doctor diagnoses exhaustion and undernourishment. Dealing with Carmine’s impotence, Adelina considers being impregnated by another man but prefers going to gaol with her two youngest children.

Neapolitan female street peddler, ca. 1905.
Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection.

The inhabitants of the Forcella start to collect money to shorten Adelina’s gaol spell, and Carmine again receives advice from the advocate Verace that the going rate is 5000 lire per day. The whole sum, corresponding to 64 days in gaol is collected, and Verace has put together a petition to the President of the Republic for mercy. Verace gives an interview to the press in an attempt to shorten the pardoning procedure by influencing public opinion.

Adelina receives her pardon. Journalists, Carmine and her five children meet her at the gaol door when Verace accompanies her and her two children from prison.

The episode ends with the people of the Forcella rejoicing on the streets and welcoming Adelina, and finally, with the family leisurely enjoying each other’s company during her first morning of liberty. Advocate Verace will help her again should she again have trouble with the law. The End.             

[1] For a more comprehensive discussion and definitions of legal literacy, see e.g. Mia Korpiola, “Introduction,” Legal Literacy in Premodern European Societies, ed. Mia Korpiola. Palgrave, London, pp. 1-16, esp. pp. 5-6.