There is an Italian word which I am expressly forbidden from using within earshot of Rachele, even in jest. It is the derogratory term which Northern Italians, and in particular Northern separatists, use to refer to Southern Italians, and has various connotations of backwardness. Rachele quite happily describes the use of that word as racist, despite the fact that no-one could, by looking at skin pigmentation or other physical features, reliably distinguish Northern and Southern Italians. There is undoubtedly quite extensive prejudice towards Southerners amongst Northerners in Italy: car number plates, which identify where the number plate was issued, are apparently often changed by Southerners who move to the North because otherwise they risk having their car vandalised, and, even for football fans, the practice of urging on the volcano, which could kill tens of thousands, across the bay from Naples often seen amongst the followers of Northern visiting sides is particularly unpleasant. Southerners, it does have to be said, do reciprocate to some degree: they seem to regard Northerners, who are culturally less Mediterrenean, as not quite authentically Italian, and have a number of recurrent jokes, revolving around either their polenta eating or the fog in the Po Valley. So far as I am aware though, Naples fans don't go to Florence and habitually call for the Arno to flood the centre of the city again.
Having read Peter Bradshaw's review, I rather suspected that Crash (some spoilers) would be part of a sub-genre of apparently socially conscious films much of whose purpose seems to be the rehabilitation of prejudice under the guise of hard-eyed realism: a kind of replacement of alleged liberal pieties about all just getting along with a set of older claims, rather less holy, if no less sacrosanct to the true believers, about human nature. It's acually a bit better than that, if far from perfect: I think it sees itself as documenting the misunderstandings, the disconnects, that racial prejudice creates, rather than trying to vindicate one group rather than another, even if that even-handedness can look rather like a sin of omission at times. Don Cheadle's opening monologue, claiming that Angelinos, unable to bring themselves into contact with each other more gently, seek open confrontation with each other, certainly indicates that. Ironically, though, I think it itself suffers from a kind of disconnectedness: the encounters of the characters, who seem rather hollow and under-imagined, are too coincidental, didactic and melodramatic to seem naturalistic. Because the characters aren't fully fleshed out, their meetings too obviously manipulated, a sense of ahistoricality, of a lack of context, lingers over the whole film. In a piece which quite clearly trades on its ability to appear to be an accurate depiction of how life in LA actually is, that is damaging in a way it wouldn't be for a more metaphorically minded work.
Whether or not it deserved an Oscar is something I, having not seen any of the other nominations for best picture, am fairly unqualified to judge, although it was by no means the best new film I've seen over the past year- upping my pretentious arts student quotient a good few notches, The Beat My Heart Skipped wiped the floor with it, for example, and The Consequences of Love was equally, though quite differently, wonderful. The technical deficiency, the failure to fully connect the various intertwined narratives, though, does at times lead it to stray into territory which seems to seek to vindicate racial prejudice. Other than in one case, because of the ahistoricality of the characters, it never becomes clear why they hold the various prejudices they do, and so there is no discrimination amongst possible processes of belief formation. More damning is that the one case in which racism is explained is that of the white racist policeman, who, it turns out, resents affirmative action having put his father out of business. For all the pleasures of teasing at the scabs of liberal guilt, that is surely hardly the one to choose to pick clean off in a film mostly about the effects of racism. The way in which political compromises, in the morally damning sense, are entered into for the sake of black voters and not for any other groups also seems rather suspicious to me, and there is certainly something morally dubious about the implied comparison between the differential effects of Ryan Phillipe's unconscious prejudice and Matt Dillon's open racism.
Still, the deeper critique of Crash's disembeddedness, though, is its melodrama. Most cases of driving whilst black don't lead to sexual assault, and then later having to be talked down from shooting policemen or having to be hauled from a burning car by precisely the person who abused you. This is where the Southern Italian experience comes in, I think. Racial prejudice isn't generally as openly violent, openly discriminatory, as Crash implies it is: the mutual misunderstandings which leads to Ryan Phillipe shooting a black hitchhiker seem, to me at least, simply implausible, so transparently obvious, that no-one would fall victim to them. That is not to say it is less dangerous. In a way, it is more dangerous, because more difficult to unmask: the little obstacles, the extra increments of trust that have to gained, of suspicion that has to be allayed, can be difficult to recognise because they are not as openly brutal. That understanding of racism is also, in a way a much more comfortable thing for conventional liberals to deal with, because, for all the implication of Ryan Phillipe's killing, racism as depicted in Crash is not something whose temptations they fall victim to. That open exploitation and use of violence is abjured from, unacceptable precisely because of those features. But direct physical or sexual violence are not the marks of racism: an attitude which regards people of less worth simply because of some racial or cultural category they belong in is, roughly, the mark of racism. I'm not sure whether Northern Italian attitudes towards Southerners are racist, but whatever designator is properly applied to them, it strikes me that the difference from it and racism is probably a difference in degree, not in kind.