‘The Little World of Don Camillo’ or — Blasphemy, Italian Style?

‘The Little World of Don Camillo’ (1952) is excellent although at one point, despite being an atheist, I did think — Hang on! Is this blasphemous?! Can they do that?! I’ll explain.

The film centers around the little world of Don Camillo which, in his case, compromises of a small northern Italian town in the Po Valley with all its tiny rivalries, squabbles and power struggles. Don Camillo is the town’s priest and he is not in a good mood. You see, a new Mayor has been elected and it is Camillo’s old rival Peppone, leader of the local godless Communist Party. This is an outrage and a furious Camillo makes sure to tell the statue of the crucified Christ in his church all about it. Indeed, Don Camillo talks almost constantly to Jesus during the film. Nothing that remarkable about a priest doing such a thing. What is remarkable is that Jesus talks back! This leaves only two explanations — either Don Camillo is insane or, alternatively, Jesus Christ is an actual character in this film and, not only that, it also seems he enjoys a good cigar. Now it’s been a while since I studied Divinity but I’m pretty sure the latter could be classed as blasphemy. And it’s funny as hell. Christ has some of the best lines in the entire film, yet he is always ready to admonish Don Camillo whenever the priest, who has a very short fuse and a fiery temper, goes too far such as pulling a machine-gun on his parishioners. This is not your usual priest! Then again, just what did Camillo do during the war? I don’t suspect he just sat about drinking the communal wine. So Jesus, even if he’s pretty laid back here, at least sticks to correct theological principles and acts like a good Jesus.

Either way, it’s very funny and just one of many other great scenes. At one point Peppone brings his new-born son to church to be baptised, something Don Camillo takes issue with when Peppone says he wants to call his son Lenin. So they decided to name him Lenin Camillo, the logic being the Camillo cancels the Lenin out. The film is crammed with moments like this. You can tell this film was based on a series of books which were, in turn, formed from a series of short stories as the movie has that episodic (and not in a bad way) feel to it with a new quarrel or squabble only a few minutes away.

But despite all the arguing between Camillo and Peppone it is obvious they were both Partisans during the war with similar goals in mind — to protect the town from Fascism. Indeed, the approach to the down-trodden poor by the Communists isn’t that far from the teachings of Christ. This is one of the reasons the best film about Jesus was directed by a Communist atheist (Pasolini). So there is more that binds these two (both the men and the beliefs) than separates. And besides, isn’t it all about power anyway and who has it in the little world?

‘Don Camillo’ is also one of the most Italian films I’ve seen, despite being direct by a Frenchman. It just screams Italy at that time and place. I wouldn’t say you need to know about Italian post-war history or cinema to “get” this film as it’s just too entertaining and universal (to an extent), but if you do have a bit of knowledge of what was going on at the time the laughs just hit that bit harder. I can imagine audiences in the Po Valley laughing their heads off at many moments as their society is held up and lovingly mocked.

I loved Julien Duvivier’s ‘The Little World of Don Camillo’. It was charming, funny, satirical and obviously a light-hearted response to the passing of a terrible time. The film it had me thinking of the most was Emir Kusturica’s excellent ‘Underground’ (1995), another hilarious film about partisans, small-town rivals, power and squabbles. Plus, as a film about the Left in Italy that sense of humour makes the movie work more successfully for me than Bertolucci’s impressive, yet flawed, ‘Novocento’ (1976). ‘Camillo’ is sharper, cleverer and has actual nuance. Although I’m still convinced that talking Christ is blasphemous. I can also imagine it brought the house down when first screened although in my world this Jesus would have got his own spin-off comedy film.