While welcoming Sophia Loren to the stage during the David di Donatello Awards Ceremony on Tuesday, host Paolo Ruffini, and actor from Livorno, addressed the legendary actress with an uncouth vernacular comment: ‘Lei è sempre una topa meravigliosa.’
To translate this into English requires a bit of explanation. Topa is a slang word with two meanings: a particularly attractive woman, and the female genitalia. It literally means ‘female mouse’ (topo = mouse; Topolino = Mickey Mouse) from which such charming expressions as bella topona derive. A comparable gaffe in America might be something like Owen Wilson saying to Meryl Streep on stage at the Golden Globes, ‘You’ve always been a hot piece of ass.’
Humor has its place of course, and depending on one’s social makeup and mood and all sorts of other factors, a comment such as this could in other contexts be interpreted as harmless and (sort of) funny. To see how the audience received the remark, watch the short video clip. It’s in Italian, but you’ll easily sense the general response. Mixed in with a few chuckles you mostly hear moans and groans. But the best reaction is Loren’s. In her ever-classy style, she does not even flinch (although, Italian media outlets are saying she is clearly not pleased, based on her comportment).
Then comes the best part. A few seconds later, after clownish Ruffini attempts to segue into a serious question about the film for which she is being awarded, Loren shuts him down with a subtly condescending remark: ‘I don’t even know what that means, as you speak in a dialect I don’t understand.’ (Meanwhile Ruffini proceeds to snap a selfie of himself and Loren).
When one Italian says to another I don’t understand you/your dialect, the subtext can be one of intercultural (regional) antagonism informed by widely-held norms regarding the appropriateness of speaking in dialect when standard Italian should be used. When Italians who would normally speak their home-region dialect come together with Italians from other regions, the customary and courteous habit is to attempt to reach a linguistic common ground through standard Italian. In the national media especially, standard formal Italian is expected. Granted, Ruffini is not exactly speaking a foreign language; he merely uses an expression particular to his region—one with a bizarre anecdotal connection to his home town, in fact.* What’s more, Tuscans are notorious teasers; Tuscan men in particular love jokes, word-play, irony. Still, even allowing for this, Ruffini’s comment is not only inappropriate: it’s disrespectful, and many will argue sexist as well.
Possibly Loren knows precisely what Ruffini means (personally, I find it hard to believe she’s never heard the word topa). Instead of reacting, however, cool Loren imperviously trumps Ruffini by suggesting, in this very public venue, that the linguistic and social tiers in which he operates are below hers—which they no doubt are.
Will it surprise you to learn that upstart Ruffini’s ‘credentials’ include several appearances in cinepanettone movies? It shouldn’t. Just as it comes as no surprise when an accomplished, successful woman, who has surely dealt with her fair share of clowns, effectively squashes a toad like Ruffini. Or should I say mouse?
* In 1984 Mario Cardinali, founder and director of Il Vernacoliere, a satirical magazine published in Livornese dialect, was sued for indecency after publishing an irreverent reference to property taxes that included the word topa. The court acquitted Cardinali with the ruling that use of the word topa did not constitute a crime. The following month, Il Vernacoliere published its subsequent issue with the front page headline ‘La topa non è un reato’—literally, ‘pussy is not a crime.’