‘The Return of Don Camillo’ or — Your Own Personal Jesus?
‘The Return of Don Camillo’ (1953), the sequel to 1952’s ‘The Little World of Don Camillo’, begins with the pugilist priest sent into exile to a small church on top of a mountain. He’s been sent there by the Communist mayor Peppone. Peppone and Camillo have been at each other’s throats for years you see, so this is seen as a coup for Peppone and he now has complete control of the little town of Brescello without having to bother with that meddlesome priest getting in the way of his Godless Communist way of running things. Yet as Camillo sits shivering in the snow, down below the townsfolk are missing him thus causing major problems for the mayor. Old people, even though clinically dead, refuse to die and babies refuse to be born until Don Camillo returns.
Reluctantly Peppone calls Camillo back to town but it’s not long before other catastrophes begin to occur ranging from murder (!!!), a broken church tower, a fight over a dam, errant children, floods, counterfeit missives from Moscow and all sorts of problems in this little world in Northern Italy.
Will Camillo’s return make a difference? Who will the people side with — the faith of the Church or the social struggle of the Communists?
‘The Return of Don Camillo’ is just as good, and funny, as the first movie in this series and the best news of all is that my favourite character is back and that’s the back-talking figure of Christ on the cross. He’s hilarious! There’s an excellent scene where Don Camillo, missing his pal Jesus with whom he’s always chatting to, carries him up the mountain-side to the snow-covered parish. “This cross is very heavy.” Don Camillo moans as he’s lugging it over his shoulder up the hill, to which Christ replies — “You’re telling me!” It’s funny as hell and Camillo and Christ keep up this back and forth throughout the film.
There are many other moments like that, especially when it comes to Camillo and Peppone who are always ready to knock seven bells of shit out of one another. Yet these two love each other and it really demonstrates something Pasolini emphasised which is the shared concern for the poor that both the Church and the Left share, except it’s more fun to watch that played out here than in Pasolini.
What I did find sad watching it though was the wistful melancholy I have for Italy at this time, a time when it seemed fascism was defeated and the Left and the desire for a more socially just movement was pushing to the fore only to have the country swing back to the right over the last couple of decades. The rise of the hard right-wing, whether it’s on the football terraces or the Disneyfication of Musolini’s hometown or the control of the media is depressing as hell and Camillo and Peppone would hang their heads in shame. Actually they wouldn’t — they’d roll up their sleeves and start bopping politicians and media moguls on the head whilst Camillo dug out the secret stash of hand-grenades he’s been hiding in the bell-tower. Now that could be a good sequel.
These films are just wonderful. They’re funny, insightful, packed with character of both place and time and feel genuinely subversive both politically and in terms of religion but never, ever mean-spirited. The film always knows who the good guys are and allows them to be a little bit naughty, and human, at times.
This is also a very pretty film with director Julien Duvivier showing a lot more confidence both in terms of style and camera-work but also throwing in tonnes of little comedic flourishes: look at the way the faces of the members of the town band follow the sneezing Camillo in and out of the room. It’s wonderful and with everyone nailing the comic timing and their characters.
Talking of comic timing there’s a great running gag revolving around a battle between the Civic Centre’s clock and the Church clock over which declares the correct time to the town. Needless to say this escalates to the point where the entire town has no idea what the actual time really is: they really are off in their own little world and it’s wonderful. Throw into this some really gorgeous sequences involving snow, mountains and miniature work, which adds a truly lovely atmosphere to it all, and there is a huge amount to love here.
Like Don Camillo, this is certainly a world I’ll always be happy to return to.