Monday, 21 September 2009

Don Camillo / Keiner haut wie Don Camillo / The World of Don Camillo

Produced, directed by and starring Terence Hill, Don Camillo could so easily have been a classic example of an actor's overextending themselves with a hyphenate vanity project.

Happily, however, it proves nothing of the sort, with Hill acquitting himself well on all fronts.

He may be a relatively lightweight, non-serious actor who gets through everything with that same twinkle in his eyes, but you feel that is exactly what the role of the titular town priest needs, especially as he written for the screen by Hill's wife Lori.

Hill also proves a competent director who is not afraid to try out different techniques, with some effective angles and use of slow-motion, as well as some larger scale set-pieces that indicate an ample budget, and thus something of his skill and ambition as a producer.

But if the film was clearly intended for international distribution - the version I watched had German titles and had been dubbed into English - this is also where it suffers in certain regards.

The Don Camillo character was created by Giovanni Guareschi just after the Second World War, with a series of massively popular novels being released over the course of the 1950s, along with a number of film adaptations. Ins that the battle for hearts and minds between Don Camillo and Communist Party mayor Peppone lay at the core of these stories and films, they were very much a product of and commentary upon the situation in Italy in the mid-1940s to mid-1950s: While both Catholics and communists had made important contributions to the anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi resistance, the Cold War resulted in communists being recast as the enemy within.

Permanently excluded from power at the national level and hostile to the - equally hostile - institutions of the Catholic church and the DC state, the PCI thus established its own organisations in an attempt to offer the workers an alternative to official life and culture.

Without this background, specific aspects of the film make less sense: Why is it that Don Camillo refuses to set foot in the PCI's casa dell popolo, or House of the People? Who is that young man in a portrait prominently displayed on one of the casa walls?

Nevertheless, at least these elements are there for those who know to look for them; the portrait is of Antonio Gramsci by the way.

What is more problematic is the way that the stories have been updated to the 1980s: With the Cold War having thawed considerably and the PCI having distanced itself from the old USSR-led Leninist, Stalinist and post-Stalinist orthodoxies along with seeking a "historic compromise" with the DC in the 1970s, there was less for Hill's Don Camillo and Colin Blakely's Peppone to be fighting over.

In part the Hills seem to implicitly recognise this. There are various incidents within the episodic narrative that see the priest and the mayor guilty of the same little transgressions, such as poaching for game on private land; using marked cards; or bringing in outside ringers for the supposedly locals only football match between their factions. Likewise, there's an emblematic scene where Don Camillo refuses to baptise Peppone's son with the first names Lenin Liberty, with the two men reaching a compromise that he can be called Liberty Lenin Camillo Peppone. (It's a bit like how Asia Argento's official first name is Aria, her full name being Aria Asia Maria Vittoria Rossa Argento.)

If these mutual encounters give the clear sense that both men genuinely want to do what they feel is right for the town and its people but simply disagree over parts of the details, there are nevertheless also some awkward spots. The football match, in which Don Camillo's team (in blue) is named The Angels and Peppone's (in red) The Devils, is an obvious example. Besides situating the PCI within a DC discourse as the villains, whilst simultaneously depoliticising them, the depiction of the match includes US-style cheerleaders. Given PCI hostility to US consumer culture as cultural imperialism along with Catholic hesitancy about the materialism and lack of morality in this culture, they seem misplaced.

If all this serious criticism is irrelevant to your way of watching films, the thing that has to be emphasised is that Don Camillo is also genuinely funny - not least when the priest is talking with his personal Jesus.

1 comment:

orcival said...

Funny you should write about these films just now: after rewatching the "old" series I found I would definetely have to give the Hill-series a second try.

I was quite fascinated to see the old series after learning of Duvivier's past as a kind of right-winged entertainment director. Him adapting the novels of a more than conservative writer such as Guareschi gives these films a additional spin.

Though all that you're writing about the small links in the Hill-films is quite as true of the old ones. But especially for that part, where you point out that the Historical Compromise being important for the way these films differ, I'm really looking forward to seeing the Hill-films.

By the way: for years the old series was a fixed part of german TV afternoon programm e.g. on holidays, but somewhere in the nineties that changed for the Hill-versions. Now none of these are much shown.
I only learned that when teaching a course at university I was quite stunned that none of the students seemed to know the old ones...