I am not a party animal. I do not drink. I have two left feet. Loud music makes my head throb. I find it difficult to keep awake after 11 PM. So when friends ask, “What’re you doing on New Year’s Eve?” I say, “Watching a movie at home.”
And what better way to say goodbye to a bad year with a film that you hope will be a sign of things to come? A movie that embodies all the joy you want for the dawning year?
Don Camillo (Le Petit Monde du Don Camillo in French – it was a Franco-Italian production) is the story of a little town in the Po Valley in Italy. Even though it is named for its lead character, the Catholic priest of the town, the film is not just about the hot-headed Don Camillo and his arch-enemy, the communist Mayor Peppone, but about the little town itself.
We begin with an important event: a victory procession through town. The Town Council elections have just been held, and the Communist Party – headed by Giuseppe Botazzi aka Peppone (Gino Cervi) – has won. Peppone has been elected Mayor, and there’s much rejoicing and red flags and a marching band. A communist leader has also arrived from the city to congratulate Peppone, up on the stage that’s been set up in the square.
Don Camillo (played by French comic actor Fernandel) watches the procession go by, and after a minute or so of quiet seething, explodes and rushes back into the big, empty church to his perennial chatting companion: the Crucified Christ, above the altar.
To the Crucified Christ, Don Camillo pours out all his sorrows: how could that godless Peppone have become Mayor? Why did Christ allow it? What will happen to the little town?
And Christ listens. And speaks (in a low, gentle voice, full of patience and longsuffering – that of Ruggero Ruggeri). Or is it simply Don Camillo’s conscience? Whatever it is, Don Camillo brushes it aside and decides he can’t let the communists – who’ve now set up loudspeakers in the square, and are getting ready to create even more of a racket – prevail. He hurries up to the bell tower of the church and begins pulling on the ropes. The bells are massive, clanking clear and loud, drowning out every sound in the little square.
Consternation reigns up on the stage. Peppone scowls darkly. He knows just what Don Camillo is up to: sabotaging his, Peppone’s, victory. These two men are old enemies; they know each other very well.
Peppone is trying to think of how to retaliate when a woman comes hurrying up onto the stage. She makes her way to Peppone, to whom she says something, pulling on his arm as she does so.
The next thing we see, Peppone’s hurrying off the stage with her, and the crowd gathered on the stage follows, everybody equally confused about what’s going on, but curious.
… and Peppone appears on the balcony of his house, beaming with pride and joy, with a little bundle in his arms. His wife’s given birth to a son!
Up in the bell tower, when he discovers what’s happened, Don Camillo grins too, and begins ringing the bell ropes again, lovely joyous peals. Not because the ‘godless communists’ have had their victory interrupted, but because Peppone has become, anew, a Papa. The church bells in the little town ring for the ‘new comrade’ (as Peppone proudly proclaims) who’s arrived.
Some days later, Peppone’s wife (Leda Gloria) arrives at the church with two other people, carrying her baby to be baptised. “What will his name be?” Don Camillo asks.
“Libero Antonio Lenin.”
“Let the Russians baptise him,” Don Camillo retorts, going off to the altar, while Signora Botazzi and her companions leave the church in a huff.
But, at the altar is the Crucified Christ, who reasons with Don Camillo (and in a wry, witty, wise style that makes him not a figure of awe, but a friend whom Don Camillo argues with, tries to hoodwink, and – just occasionally – kneels to). When Don Camillo preens himself at having ‘given it to those godless communists’, the Crucified Christ ticks him off for being stupid, and tells him to go call them back and baptise the baby. And when Don Camillo protests that ‘baptism is no joke’, the Crucified Christ says, “Don’t explain baptism to me, I invented it!”
Don Camillo gives in, soon enough, and sets off to get Signora Botazzi and Baby Botazzi back – just as Peppone arrives, bearing the baby in his arms. He refuses to leave the church until his son has been baptised. Don Camillo, on principle, refuses to do any such thing. So Peppone carefully places the baby in a pew, and rolls up his sleeves, silently challenging Don Camillo to a fight.
They can’t fight in the main body of the church, though, so Don Camillo leads Peppone into the bell tower, and they have it out with each other, pulling no punches at all…
… until the baby starts crying and both men rush back.
And Baby Botazzi does get baptised. Peppone – with a touch of belligerence, as if defying Don Camillo to object – says that he wants to name the child “Libero Antonio Camillo”. At which, Don Camillo says he might as well have the Lenin tag too; ‘Camillo’ cancels the others out.
That is what this film’s about. It’s not about the running feud between the ‘revolutionary’ Communist Mayor and the ‘reactionary’ Catholic priest, but about what they are, deep down. Peppone may be a communist, Don Camillo may be a priest – on the surface, two diametrically opposite ideologies, but they are, ultimately, both human, with the same weaknesses and faults, and the same virtues that make them very likeable individuals. It is also about people in general: a little world where, though there is suffering, poverty, death, and sorrow, there’s also love, hope and joy.
For instance, there is the Abbruciatta family, whose farm borders that of the Filottis. The Abbruciatta land is rock-hard and ‘bald as a pumpkin’, and the family are ardent communists. (Never mind that Grandpa Abbruciatta is the man chosen by Peppone to be godfather to little Libero Antonio Camillo Lenin Botazzi).
The Filottis, on the other hand, have beautiful, fertile land, and are among the town’s wealthiest land-owners.
These two families have been quarrelling over everything for so long that they’ve finally built a wall between their lands.
Only, they haven’t reckoned with the fact that the younger generation – Mariolino Abbruciatta (Franco Interlenghi) and Gina Filotti (Vera Talchi) – had been good friends as children. Now, after years in a city boarding school, a pretty Gina has returned, and has come face to face with the handsome Mariolino. And love has blossomed almost from the first moment.
(Well, not quite. Mariolino, when he sees Gina for the first time, blurts out, “You look great! Almost like a grown woman!” And Gina, insulted, snaps back, “What should I look like? A goat?”)
Then there’s the old school teacher, Signora Cristina (Sylvie). Signora Cristina had been a teacher for 50 years – she still remembers Peppone coming to school with his pockets full of frogs. She has taught almost everybody in the little town at some point or the other in their lives, is staunchly Catholic, and thinks communists are disgusting.
Late one night, Peppone and his Communist Party colleagues arrive at her home, looking shamefaced. Peppone’s proclamations, pinned up on the walls, have been defaced by someone who’s gone around scrawling “Peppone is an ass” on them. All because Peppone’s grammar and spelling leave much to be desired. So will Signora Cristina please give them a few lessons? And, this being the lovely little world it is, Signora Cristina does. She sits these communists down in her parlour and tutors them on how to write out a good notice.
Don Camillo is not so much a single story as a series of connected vignettes. There is the growing romance of Gina and Mariolino. There is the fact that Peppone has promised the people of the town a ‘Citizens’ Centre’, complete with theatre, cinema, gymnasium, library and more – where is he going to get the money to build that? There is Don Camillo’s long-pending request with the Town Council for the creation of a park for the townspeople.
There is a farmworkers’ strike, a football match, a much-awaited arrival in town of the bishop. There is rivalry and very occasional frustration, sorrow and joy – and a message of universal humanity.
Though I hadn’t seen Don Camillo before, I’ve read most of Giovanni Guareschi’s fantastic Don Camillo books – and knew that Guareschi himself wrote the screenplay for this film – so I was reasonably sure that it would be a good film. And it was. A wonderful, funny, poignant and heart-warming film. It had me laughing helplessly one minute, all choked up with emotion the next, and wishing all the time that it would never end.
What I liked about this film:
It’s very difficult to think of where to begin. Everything about Don Camillo is just right. The acting, the characterisation, the scripting, the direction (by Julien Duvivier, one of French cinema’s great directors): all fits perfectly. You know how it is when you read a good book, and build up an image in your mind of what it would be like on film? I do that a lot, and invariably end up disappointed. Don Camillo is one of the few films that captures the essence of the book perfectly. Of course, to accommodate it all onscreen, changes have been made – incidents and characters have been left out, or shortened – but it’s still all as I imagined it.
Among the best things about Don Camillo are the subtle messages embedded in it. There is the scene where Don Camillo, having sent Signora Botazzi on her way, comes to the Crucified Christ to crib. Christ scolds him and says that if that baby were to die, he would not go to heaven. Don Camillo bursts out, “Why would that baby die? He’s pink and healthy!” There’s a brief silence, only the Crucified Christ looking down at Don Camillo. Then a flustered Don Camillo nods and mutters that he’ll go fetch Signora Botazzi back.
Most endearing of all is the overall message of the film: that ideologies and other beliefs (religious, political or whatever) aside, we’re all human. We make friends and fall in love without taking into consideration whether the other person’s on the same side of the fence as us, or not. Peppone, die-hard communist that he may be, cannot imagine not having his baby baptised. And is the first to doff his hat when a lone Don Camillo, the Crucified Christ on shoulder, walks down the road through the crowd of communists on his way for the annual blessing of the Po River…
Don Camillo, in his stead, may be the Catholic priest, but he’s not above letting fly with his fists (and not just at Peppone, in the confines of the bell tower). He’s also not above stealing a machine gun from Peppone’s weapons warehouse, or a cigar from Peppone’s pocket. And while he does oppose the communists, when the wives of the land-owners come calling during a farmworkers’ strike and drone on about how bad things are, Don Camillo bursts out at them: “Quiet, you old madwomen! The selfish, stubborn owners are responsible too! May God send Filotti and his peers to hell with no pity!”
A good note, I think, on which to start the New Year. To remind us all of what it means to be tolerant. To be human. May 2012 be a good year for you. May it be full of happiness, love, and contentment. May your joys far outnumber your sorrows. And may this world be a more peaceful, more human place to live in.
Yes, no ‘What I didn’t like’, because there’s nothing that fits under that head for this film, but a brief note on Don Camillo.
This film was the first of a five-film series based on Giovanni Guareschi’s books about Don Camillo. The books (and the films, of course) are set just after World War II – Don Camillo is set in 1946, in a post-war Italy where the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI, the Italian Communist Party), having played an important part in the resistance movement, was quickly gathering strength. But Catholicism, an equally powerful part of life in Italy, could not be ignored, and a lot of people seemingly managed to support both sides with little effort.