Heroic priests during the Nazi occupation of Rome: The Scarlet and the Black (made for TV) and Rome: Open City by Roberto Rossellini

Heroic priests during the Nazi occupation of Rome: The Scarlet and the Black (made for TV) and Rome: Open City by Roberto Rossellini

Have you ever heard of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, the “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican”? Despite my lifelong interest in everything concerned with resistance to Hitler and other tyrannies, I knew absolutely nothing about this remarkable Irishman, a Roman Catholic priest who, from his post as senior official of the Roman Curia in the Vatican during World War II, presided over the protection and rescue of some 6,500 Allied prisoners of war and Jews. This was during the period of Pope Pius XII’s strict neutrality, which is still being hotly debated as the contested procedure for his canonization continues.

A made-for-television movie, The Scarlet and the Black (not to be confused with Stendahl’s The Red and the Black/ Le Rouge et le Noir) was made in 1983, and I have only now caught up with it, at the recommendation of a discerning friend (like virtually everything else in the world, it’s available on Amazon). It’s stunning, a story that everyone should know. In spite of clunky dialogue, cartoonish Nazis, stereotypical blond German wives and children, formulaic scenes, Christopher Plummer in his villainous mode yet again, and a miscast Gregory Peck (with an absurd pseudo-Irish accent), the film succeeds very well and holds the viewer’s attention throughout. A half hour on the Internet seems to confirm that the true story of Msgr. Flaherty was even more remarkable than the movie, which follows the facts fairly closely in its overall plot. The ending is breathtaking, and should be of greatest interest to anyone interested in Christian ethical dilemmas. The various online biographies of Flaherty reinforce the accuracy of the story of his relationship with the Gestapo commander, Herbert Kappler (the Plummer character). The final scenes offer a view of Christian forgiveness that, while somewhat formulaic on the surface, actually goes quite deep and redeems the ending from sentimentality. Plummer’s acting here at the end becomes impressive in its subtlety.

Sir John Gielgud does not look at all like the ascetic Pius XII, but turns in a canny performance. It is difficult to make a final determination about this Pope’s behaviour during the Nazi era. Just as portrayed in The Scarlet and the Black, Pius XII believed that the physical preservation of the Vatican’s art collection was crucial to the survival of the church. But was it? For the most part, it is only the elite who are able to commission art and collect paintings and sculpture. What does this say about the church’s commitment to those who suffer most in war–not the connoisseurs who lose their handsome possessions, but those on the bottom rungs who have no resources and no contacts? The entire question of Pius XII is vexed, and bears some resemblance to the question of the present pope’s silence during the Dirty War in Argentina, a matter likely to be debated for decades. (See my previous post on this subject.)

The details of Hugh O’Flaherty’s life are readily available on the Internet. He is honored in the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, was granted the CBE and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Yet few have ever heard of him. In these days when the Catholic clergy are suffering from suspicion and disdain no matter what they have done or not done, there should be more efforts to publicize great servants of the Lord like Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty.

I highly recommend this film. It would be an excellent choice for church groups and youth groups.

A second film about the Nazi occupation of Rome

After seeing The Scarlet and the Black, a made-for-television movie telling the astonishing true story of a heroic Roman Catholic priest in the Vatican during the Nazi occupation of Rome (see previous post), I went back to my Criterion Collection and saw Rome, Open City (Roma, Città Aperta) for the second time. A famous masterpiece by Roberto Rossellini, this one was the first major film in the distinguished tradition of Italian neorealism (The Bicycle Thieves, by Vittorio de Sica, is the most honored of the genre). It introduced Anna Magnani to the world, in an electrifying performance and a deeply shocking, unforgettable climactic scene. It is a fictional treatment of the terrors of the occupation, the tactics of the underground resistance, and the struggles of ordinary people to maintain some sort of decency.

Most notable from the point of view of this blog post, Open City is profoundly Christian (despite Rossellini’s repeated insistence that he didn’t believe anything). Again there is a heroic priest, Don Pietro, and there are two striking images which refer very clearly to Michelangelo’s Pietà and to the crucifixion itself. Don Pietro prays in the words of Jesus that his tormentors be forgiven. Most notable of all is the scene where Don Pietro is told by a craven fellow priest, obviously a collaborator, to have courage. Don Pietro says calmly but with a touch of irony, “It is easy to die a good death. What is difficult is to live a good life.”

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