| Naples: Life, Death & Miracles
| link to a Google search page HERE
[Technically, this is not directly related to Naples, but it is very much related in spirit to the entry on Campagna, the Righteous Town and also fits within the group of entries on WWII.]The Gate of Heaven
This is one of those stories that you really want to be true. The first I heard of it was recently, in exactly this form, from a friend:
With some adjustment to the details of that version of the story—and if they can be verified—it turns out to be a very human and intensely likeable tale of compassionate, even heroic, human behavior. There are two stories here; one is the film, itself, and the other is the much more interesting part of how the film was made. First, the film was anything but fake. It was called La Porta del Cielo (The Gate of Heaven). It was underwritten by the production company, Orbis, a subsidiary of the Vatican's Centro Cattolico Cinematografico, and was intended to be an inspiring film about a train full of sick and infirm on their way to the sanctuary of Loreto in expectation of being miraculously healed. Shooting of the film began in February 1944 in Rome and was not yet complete by June 5, 1944, the date on which Allied Forces finally liberated the city. What went on behind the scenes in those five months is the real story. (La Porta del Cielo was eventually released in 1945, just days before the end of WWII in Europe. It has been held to be somewhat of a "lost" De Sica film and has now been the subject of quite a bit of critical scrutiny as a good candidate for being the beginning of Italian Neo-Realism.)
One source (below), Celli, says that "... De Sica accepted a job directing a film from a script by Cesare Zavattini and noted Catholic writer Diego Fabbri about a trainload of pilgrims traveling to the shrine at Loreto..." Celli's version of the scheme to save potential victims of German round-ups in the city is this:
Other sources, including Vittorio De Sica, himself, in his memoirs and his son Christian, in his own autobiography (see passage, below), tell it differently. Some historical background is necessary: Italy surrendered to the Allies on September 8, 1943. By that date, the Allies had taken Sicily and were about to invade at Salerno, just south of Naples; thus, the Allies were already in physical control of about one-third of the peninsula. Part of the surrender treaty was that the reconstituted Italian armed forces would now fight with the Allies against the Germans. This threw Italy into a civil war with the Allied side slowly creeping up past Naples in late 1943 (only to remain blocked at Monte Cassino for many, many weeks. They had expected to liberate Rome by Christmas. It took until June, 1944). In the meantime, central and northern Italy remained firmly in the hands of Italian Fascists supported by the retreating but still considerable German military might. They formed (within two weeks of the Sept. 8 surrender) a new Italian Fascist state called the Italian Social Republic (also known as the Republic of Salò, a town on the shores of Lake Garda that functioned as the capital).
Nazi minister of propaganda, Josef Goebbels, then decided that the Italians should move their great cinematographic apparatus to the north, to Venice, and be at the service of the new Italian Fascist state. That translated into "invitations" to famous directors to move north away from Rome. Here is where the various accounts start to diverge, which may have simply to do with the time-line of the different versions—the later ones presumably having access to more information. In the sources, below, Celli is 2001, Vittorio De Sica memoirs were published in 2004, his son's autobiography in 2008, and this citation by Alberto Melloni is from the Corriere della Sera in November of 2008:
Vittorio De Sica, too, was on the list of those who were to be transferred. Goebbels and his Italian counterpart, Mezzasoma, tried to enlist him with an offer he could not refuse without risking his life. De Sica, with his back to the wall by the "offer" simply invented a story to save himself. He said he was already under contract to direct La Porta del cielo...and that he had made the agreement with the Pope, himself. That was totally false, and only the very capable Maria Mercader [ed. note: She was to star in the film, was De Sica's lover, then wife, and is Christian De Sica's mother] was able to turn it into reality. She turned to the film supervisor appointed by the Vatican, Giovan Battista Montini [ed. note: the future Pope Paul VI] and convinced him to put De Sica on as director as well as screenwriters Cesare Zavattini, Adolfo Franci and Diego Fabbri...Christian De Sica tells it like this:
Shooting of La Porta started on March 1, 1944. Inside the Basilica of San Paolo...That's where they recreated the area around the church of Loreto and built the train that transported the sick.One source, Luigi Accattoli, a former writer on religious affairs for the Corriere della Sera, criticizes various parts of Christian De Sica's account. The film was made in the Abbey of St. Paul, not the Basilica, he says, and he calls the scene between Vittorio De Sica and the future pope "improbable." Other than that, however, he says that the episode is substantially true.
Some sources say that Vittorio de Sica in his own "diary," wrote: "The film will not be done before the Germans retreat from Rome. If they stay a year, we will film for a year; if 10 years, we will film for 10 years. The film serves as salvation for me and for a large number of people. At a certain moment, the basilica became a fortress for 3,000 people." I consulted the Memoirs and did not find that passage. (It may be that the "diary" referred to is another document.) De Sica's account of the entire episode takes up two pages (of 117 pages of text) of his memoirs released and published by his son Manuel in 2004 (cited below as De Sica 2004). It strikes me as a very cautious retelling of the episode. The passage is on pp 87-88; the English translation is mine:
Minister Goebbels, through his ambassador in Rome, called to invite me to direct German film-making in Prague. At the same time, our Minister of Popular Culture, Mezzasomo, invited me to direct film-making for the Social Republic in Venice. I was terrified. There was a curfew in Rome, and at five in the afternoon we were all locked up in our homes. At exactly five minutes past five, the phone rings, and Cocco, a production director of profoundly Fascist sentiments, casually says to me, "So, de Sica, what have you decided about Venice?" I, just as casually, replied, "First, I have to finish this film that the Vatican commissioned me to do, la Porta del Cielo."
(A paragraph follows on the film itself and how it was not at all well-received by the Catholic Cinematographic Center, but there is no further mention of saving extras during the filming.)
With a few caveats as to whether they shot in the Basilica or the adjacent Abbey of St. Paul Outside the Walls and exactly how many people were involved (from 300 to 3000), that is the essential story: (1) Vittorio De Sica conspired to save hundred of potential victims of Nazi round-ups and deportations; (2) the Vatican was complicit during the fact but had not conspired to have it happen that way. (Incidentally, neither the Abbey nor Basilica are in the Vatican—a sovereign state separate from Italy—but they are properties of the Vatican and enjoy the immunities granted by International Law to the headquarters of the diplomatic agents of foreign States as specified in the Lateran Treaty of 1929. Like embassies, they are not to be violated. In spite of that, the Germans marched in and arrested 60 extras in the cast one night. That happened only once, fortunately.)
Part of the problem in accepting this story as it is commonly told (and believed) in Italy is verification. I have found one source, an Israeli writer, Hulda Liberanone, in the online edition of the Israel paper, Haaretz, who writes sympathetically of the episode, but also says (in 2002):
...at the Jewish Center for Documentation in Milan, there is no information on the subject. In the Jewish community of Rome, there are also no documents or testimonies about Jews who were saved in the production of de Sica's film.I have been unable to determine if any "information breakthrough" has occurred since that was written (2002). As far as I can tell, the Jewish Center for Documentation in Milan stills makes no mention of the episode, nor do any of the Holocaust Museums I have checked (including the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem) or Holocaust research projects. The episode may not fit their criteria, or my searches may have been inadequate. There is a vast bibliography on "The Vatican and the Holocaust" some of which make reference to Jews hidden in the Vatican. Sources converge on a number of a few hundred, but I don't know if that refers to the cast of De Sica's film or to other persons. (I certainly welcome additional information on this.)
As for the Christian De Sica's film about the film, in which he will play the part of his father, he has talked about making the film for at least 15 years and reports from 2002-4 said that the film was about to be made. Then, De Sica got in a legal battle with the producers of another film, A luce spenta, a film with a similar tale to tell. De Sica claimed plagiarism. I don't know how the lawsuit was resolved or even if it ever was; in any event, he apparently decided not to do the film right then. I read an interview with him from 2011 and he said he had everything worked out and was going to make the film. Indeed, some film sources actually list La Porta del Cielo (2012). But I don't think it has been released. I went to the producer's website—Indiana Production; La Porta del Cielo is listed under "line" titles, which apparently means "in production" or "to be released".
To me, in spite of the different accounts of the details, the substance still rings true to me—Vittorio De Sica risked his own life to save many others, and I am happy to believe that that is true.
—Accattoli, Luigi (2010, Apr). "Il regista De Sica gira un film con ebrei e perseguitati". On-line Luigi Accattoli blog.
—Celli, Carlo Celli (2001). "A lost De Sica film—La porta del cielo/The Gate of Heaven (1945) in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 18:4, 361-369.
—De Sica, Christian (2008). Figlio di papà (Mondadori, 2008)
—De Sica, Vittorio (2004). La porta del cielo. Memorie 1901-1952, Avagliano, Cava de' Tirreni [Salerno].
—Liberanome, Hulda (2002). "Through the gate of heaven, a second time" in on-line newspaper, Haaretz, Aug.16, 2002.
—Melloni, Alberto (2008, Nov. 18). "De Sica, il finto film e gli ebrei salvati" in Corriere della Sera.
—Nuzzi, Paolo and Ottavio Iemma (1997). De Sica & Zavattini: Parliamo Tanto Di Noi. Editori riuniti.
—Riccardi, Andrea (2008). L’inverno più lungo. 1943-44: Pio XII, gli ebrei e i nazisti a Roma. pp. 179-187, Laterza, Rome, Bari.
Once again, my thanks to Laura Papallo for making me aware of this subject.
to encyclopedia index to WWII portal