War and sports are only one of the intersections in this dry documentary about the plight of Italian Jews in WWII.
My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes (TJFF Review)
Not only have the films of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival taken me to a variety of points along a historical timeline, they have also taken me to numerous places around the world. Locations featured in the films I’ve screened include Israel, Palestine, Romania, and Hollywood. This next offering finds a familiar point in history—World War II—but a new location: Italy. Making its Canadian premiere is the documentary My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes. Writer/director Oren Jacoby’s documentary tells of the plight of Italy’s Jewish community during World War II from several perspectives.
The first perspective is a history of the time. This is narrated by Isabella Rossellini and features considerable historical footage and photos, as well as dramatic reenactments of some events. These pieces also feature interviews with several people who lived in Italy during the war and were either persecuted or protectors.
The second perspective belongs to select Italian Jews who lived in Italy during the war. These are the most personal moments of the film, of course, as these film participants return to Italy for the doc, some for the first time since the war. They visit old houses and offer personal anecdotes, and some are reunited with family members of those who rescued them.
The third perspective comes from the memoir of famed Italian cyclist and Tour de France champion Gino Bartali. Excerpts from that memoir are read by actor Robert Loggia. Bartali, in addition to being adored by the sports fans of his country, played a critical role in aiding Italian Jews during the war.
These three perspectives are woven, with the occasional crossover (such as when Rossellini narrates part of Bartali’s tale) to present the full story.
However, director Oren Jacoby is his own film’s worst enemy. My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes covers interesting subjects, such as Italy’s unique position on Jews (Italian Jews received different treatment than Jews from other countries); or the Italian doctor who made up a disease so he could keep Jews in the hospital for protection; or the Bartali story, which not only showcases a Tour de France champion secretly working against the Nazis by hiding Jews, but also recounts that same champion working with the Catholic church to help Jews escape Italy. Then there are the stories of those who lived, and returned, to tell their stories.
All of it is set up to be fascinating, compelling stuff. And yet…
Each tale is presented in such a way that the stories not only interfere with each other—thus preventing the film from establishing any kind of narrative flow—they also appear incredibly lifeless on the screen. This is no reflection on the stories themselves, of course, or their subjects, but on how they are told by Jacoby. These people lived in harrowing times, resorting to hiding in basements and sleeping with the thought that each day could be their last, yet Jacoby does nothing to create any sense of drama, despite there being very real drama in these stories.
Other technical decisions are curious and hampering as well, particularly Loggia’s reading from Bartali’s memoir, which lacks much connection to the subject, and Joel Goodman’s score, which sounds as if it recognizes the dullness of the material and tries to force a little aural drama into each scene.
My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes is an opportunity missed. Rather than recognize and present fascinating material, the film instead plays like passages from a history text read aloud to a class.