Cinephiles Strike Back; 90-Year Friendship

Something Wonderful in the World of Film

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 10, 2010 ( Film festivals tend to bring out my cynical side. 

Whether at Cannes, Venice or Sundance, it always seems that prizes and publicity are showered upon movies that promote the mainstream media’s big three: abortion, homosexual unions and euthanasia. Add a dash of trite anti-Catholic stereotype and voilà, a grand prix triumph. Beyond the bad taste and the obvious offensiveness, the whole business of film awards gets to be downright boring.

What, one wonders, happened to the days when movies like “Beckett” and “A Man for All Seasons” or even “A Sound of Music” swept the award circuit.

One Catholic filmmaker, Liana Marabini, decided to counter these festivals with one of her own, and last week, Rome’s first-ever Catholic film festival took place in the Auditorium on Via della Concilliazione. Under the patronage of the Pontifical Council for Culture, this week-long festival presented films, documentaries, and made-for-television works that illustrate “universal moral values and positive models.»

The festival, called Mirabile Dictu (Latin for “wonderful to tell”) selected films from all over the world before arriving at the finalists. A five-person jury made up of actors, screenwriters, producers and a theologian deliberated over the six prizes for best film, documentary, short film actor and director. The career achievement award went to Giancarlo Giannini who has worked with Luchino Visconti, Ranier Werner Fassbinder and Lina Wertmuller, as well as Tony and Ridley Scott, and has most recently been seen with Daniel Craig in the new James Bond franchise.

The winners were announced today at a gala event held on the panoramic terrace of the Capitoline Museums, overlooking the domes and cornices of the cityscape. The prize for best film was awarded to Désobéir, a 2009 French film by Joel Santoni, recounting the story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes who saved the lives of thousands of Jews during World War II by issuing visas to Portugal. In doing so, Mendes defied his own government and died in disgrace and poverty. The star of the film, Bernard le Coq, also won the best actor award.

Best director went to an Irish filmmaker, Paul Brady, for his 2007 “Janey Mary,» the story of a 5-year-old girl out in the streets of Dublin in the 1940s. War-time rations have left the populace starving and a bleak depression has settled over the city. The friendship between the little girl and an Augustinian priest, however, is just the kind of uplifting story that one longs to hear from Ireland right now.

One surprising movie didn’t win an award but gave a little glimmer of hope for American cinema: “The Confessor,” also known as “The Good Shepherd”, by Lewin Webb and starring Christian Slater.

Slater plays Father Daniel Clemens, a savvy PR fixer for his archdiocese. When he visits a priest imprisoned for refusing to break the seal of the confessional, his own worldly way of life is challenged as he come to terms with what it really means to serve the Church. Although originally released in 2004, the movie never saw much distribution. Mirabile Dictu found this otherwise-forgotten film and allowed its good message to be transmitted and audiences to enjoy Christian Slater in what may be his first edifying film role.

Mirabile Dictu is not the first of its kind. The oldest running International Catholic Film and Multimedia Festival venue is held annually in Poland at Niepokalanow, and celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. In 2009, the JP2 International Film Festival debuted in Miami to great success. But here in Rome, lodged between the Cannes and Venice festivals, Mirabile Dictu is poised to become the caput mundi of Catholic cinema.

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Rome’s angels

Art historians are trained to keep an eye on patronage, as it often provides a clue to understanding the overall vision of a project. Therefore, that the Knights of Columbus have been the quiet assistance behind the restoration of statues and structures in St. Peter’s Basilica, has long been on my radar screen. What took me by surprise was to discover how active the Knights have been in Rome, a sort of guardian angel to the Eternal City.

The exhibition “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free,» opened last night at the Capitoline Museums, celebrating 90 years of friendship between the Knights of Columbus and Rome. The show will close Oct. 31. Hundreds of photographs, letters, newspaper articles and a few surprising objects richly illustrate the powerful events that have bonded the Knights and Rome.

The array of prelates and notables who came to pay homage to the Knights was almost as dazzling as the setting. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Pope’s secretary of state, Cardinal Bernard Law, Cardinal John Foley and Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo joined the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, and Italian TV host Bruno Vespa in the shadow of Rome’s most famous bronze antique sculptures. During the presentations, the she-wolf statue stood guard behind the speakers, while the giant equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius loomed over the crowd.

Supreme Knight Carl Anderson described the long friendship between Rome and the Knights, pointing out that it had been forged instead of broken by the trials of the two World Wars. The strength of this friendship was based on their common faith, which united them despite geographical and political differences. Charity and unity, the motto of the Knights, freely given and freely accepted, formed this unbreakable bond.

A short film recounted the history of the Knights, a fascinating account of the simple origins in a church basement in New Haven to the global organization of today. Visitors to the show will be able to enjoy sections of the footage while strolling among the exhibits.

The Knights of Columbus were founded on Oct. 2, 1881, the Feast of the Guardian Angels, by Servant of God Father Michael McGivney. It was a mutual aid society to assist poor families who were often stricken by death or illness of the breadwinner. Their particular concern focused on the immigrant populations from Catholic countries, who were subject to the anti-Catholic sentiment rising in the United States. By taking their name from Christopher Columbus, discoverer of America, they highlighted the value of Catholic immigrants in the United States.

The success of the Knights was startling, and soon they began to move abroad. During World War I, 1914-1918, the Knights developed the “Army Hut” program where soldiers could find food, books, chaplains and comfort when far away from home, anticipating the USO (United Service Organization) by 25 years. “Everybody Welcome, Everybody Free” was the slogan of these oases that so impressed Pope Benedict XV that he invited the Knights to set up one of their “huts” in Rome.

The Hotel Minerva, a stone’s throw from the Pantheon, housed the first “hut” in Rome, active from 1918 to 1919. The popularity of the work of the Knights even helped to diffuse anti-American sentiment after the Treaty of Versailles left Italy unsatisfied. Photos of the soldiers smiling and relaxing at the long tables line the first section of the exhibit, dedicated to these first years.

After the war, Pope Benedict XV called on the Knights to continue their services. Still confined to the Vatican by the harsh laws enacted after the unification of Italy, he asked the Knights to “do something for my children in Rome.” In response, the Knights built five sports facilities to give young people a chance to meet and play as Italy recovered from the long and difficult years of the war. These centers produced not only a World Cup soccer player, but helped link Rome with athletics — a topical theme as we contend to host the 2020 Oly

World War II pitted the United States against an Italy ruled by Mussolini. During these difficult years, the Knights continued to play a key role in assisting the people of a country with which they were at war. The heroic figure of Count Enrico Pietro Galeazzi, serving both as director of the Knights of Columbus office in Rome as well as governor of Vatican City State, played a crucial part both on and behind the scenes. Count Galeazzi turned back the Nazis at the doors of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls when they came to arrest Jewish fugitives hiding in the basilica, and in 1943 he was entrusted by Pope Pius XII to carry a letter to President Roosevelt imploring to spare Rome any further bombing. 

The relief effort of the Knights during the war was staggering. With their help, the papal kitchens were able to provide 400,000 meals a day for the Romans.

The most surprising objects of the show are the remains of the shells that the Allies dropped on the San Lorenzo quarter in 1943, damaging the Knights sports center and the Basilica of St. Lawrence and killing more than 1,500 Romans. Pope Pius XII raced to the scene accompanied by Count Galeazzi. The remarkable photo of Pius XII praying with the suffering Romans is one of the most beautiful images of the show.

The car that brought the Pope to comfort his flock is displayed in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museums, an odd artifact next to the Egyptian columns and Roman statues.

Peace did not diminish the Knights’ activities. They played a part in beginning the negotiations that would bring about the United States Mission to the Holy See, and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson recounted how the Knights helped him to arrange the concert of reconciliation to celebrate the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s pontificate. Cardinal John Foley thanked the Knights for their generosity toward the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in everything from purchasing and equipping a mobile van for on-site broadcasts to televising the papal Masses as of Dec. 24, 1974. The Knights have paid for the restorations of St. Peter’s façade, crypt chapels and artwork, and documented the remarkable rediscovery of the tomb of St. Peter during the excavations under the basilica.

The lasting and fruitful relationship between the Knights and Rome is perhaps best described in the words of the Roman poet Virgil, “Omnes Vincit Amor,» love conquers all.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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