Monday, March 23, 2015

Oren Jacoby's MY ITALIAN SECRET: Here's a Holocaust doc that'll leave you feeling... good

Everything is relative, of course. But the most surprising result of viewing MY ITALIAN SECRET, the new documentary from Oren Jacoby, about certain citizens of Italy helping to protect Jews during World War II, is how positive it will leave you regarding Italy's contribution to this hugely fraught, usually shameful, and now forever to be memorialized period of human history. This is a film that might actually leave you feeling, well, good. Amongst Holocaust documen-taries, even the best of them, this is a rarity.

Mr. Jacoby, shown at left and who has given us a number of docu-mentaries, including Constantine's Sword, brings together a wealth of archival footage, interviews with the friends and/or relatives remaining alive, and a few evidently necessary re-enactments, which fortunately don't detract much. The narration comes via Isabella Rossel-lini, whose rich voice is a pleasure to hear, as is Robert Loggia who lends his to that of famed bicycling champion, Gino Bartali (below).

One of the major ironies present throughout the film is our knowledge that Italy, along with Germany/Austria and Japan, was one of the aggressors fought by the Allies during WWII. And yet its treatment of its Jewish population, in most ways and until the Germans took over much of the country, was exemplary by the standards of the rest of Europe. Was this due to the "character" of the Italian people, if that word can be made to stand for an entire population (and I think it cannot). Still, the behavior of much of the Italian populace seems exemplary next to that of most of the other countries involved, conquering or conquered. And while not every tale told here necessarily stands in for all of Italian behavior, the stories & their participants add up.

These include everything from creating a fictitious but highly contagious disease possessed by occupants of a certain hospital ward so that Jews and/or partisans (below) could be hidden there to disguising the girls and women as nuns and hiding them in local convents.

One of the sweetest, most affecting stories comes from the man, now grown and old, who, after being taken into the Church and posing as a Catholic child, recalls a nun who obviously understood the importance of religious freedom and so who told him not to repeat the official Christian religious prayers during the ceremony but to quietly mouth his own Jewish prayer replacements.

There are so many unique and special stories to be found here that these alone make the film worthwhile. But we also get some history lessons, as well -- including how, in the fall of 1943, Italy was divided into north and south, with Germany ruling the north and America and Britain the south, which made getting urgent information from south to north vital. This turns out to be where bicyclist Bartali could be of great use.

We also meet a 102-year-old man who tells us how, as a child, he saw his mother, father and grandfather for the last time. We also learn the Italian word sfotto, which seem to translate into something like "gallows humor," of which there was plenty in wartime Italy.

As these still-living Holocaust survivors meet again and offer thanks to their protectors and saviors, it will prove difficult not to be moved by learning what human beings are capable of, even under enormous threat and stress. Against all odds, My Italian Secret proves a joyous experience.

The movie -- distributed by The Film Sales Company, and running 92 minutes -- opens this coming Friday, March 27, in Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Noho7) and New York City (at the Cinema Village).

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