The banality of good: Perlasca The Courage of a Just Man

02 April 2013

Released on DVD on Monday 8 April, 'Perlasca: The Courage of a Just Man' (2002) recounts the story of "the Italian Schindler" in a digestible and concise manner.

Perlasca: The Courage of a Just Man (Perlasca: un eroe italiano, 2002) recounts a comparatively little-known episode that occurred in Budapest between December 1944 and January 1945, in which Italian delegate Giorgio Perlasca helped protect and rescue over 5,000 Jews from being shipped to Nazi concentration camps. The made-for-television two-part film first aired in Italy in 2002, and is released on DVD here by Odyssey.

Giorgio Perlasca is often described as the Italian Oskar Schindler. In the 1920s, he had been a supporter of fascism, and in the 1930s fought in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and against communism in the Spanish Civil War, for which he received safe-conduct for Spanish embassies. Having become disillusioned with fascism by the late 1930s, however, Perlasca opted to side against Mussolini's newly-formed Italian Social Republic, a puppet state of Nazi Germany, even while working as a delegate tasked with purchasing and supplying meat to the front lines. Ironically, Perlasca was able to use his safe-conduct, awarded to him for services to Spain's fascist cause, as a means by which to secure his own eventual diplomatic freedom from Hungary's occupying Nazis, as well as to assist the protection of thousands of Jews from persecution and worse, as Russia's front lines descended upon Budapest at the end of the Second World War.

Perlasca was written by Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, whose script is an adaptation of Enrico Deaglio's 1991 book, La banalità del bene ("The banality of good", in response to Hannah Arendt's controversially titled 1963 work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil; Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organisers of the Holocaust, features in the film.) The film was directed by Alberto Negrin, to whom period television productions were familiar terrain: previous credits included 1985's Mussolini and I, starring Susan Sarandon and Anthony Hopkins, and 1990's Voyage of Terror: The Achille Lauro Affair, with Burt Lancaster and Eva Marie Saint. Luca Zingaretti stars as the eponymous hero; the film was made between the second and third seasons of the actor's best-known work, Inspector Montalbano. It also features a much-mined score from soundtrack maestro Ennio Morricone.

The film opens in Budapest, 1944. Wanted by the Hungarian authorities, Perlasca escapes custody during a daily bombardment from the Russians, and is helped by both a countess (Mathilda May) and a doctor (Jean-François Garreaud) in securing shelter. Describing himself as "just an employee in a company that may not exist now", Perlasca is granted safety at the Spanish Embassy, where he begins to help its ambassador Ángel Sanz Briz in arranging to accommodate Jews in safehouses across the city (El ángel de Budapest, a miniseries that premiered on Spanish television in 2011, tells Sanz Briz's own story.) When Sanz Briz is moved to Switzerland and invites Perlasca to join him, however, the latter declines. Soon after, when the Nazis disregard the Embassy's and its employees' diplomatic status and arrive to clear the place, Perlasca convinces them that he is "Jorge Perlasca", the newly-appointed Spanish consul. Maintaining such a disguise, he meets with Gábor Vajna (Bezerédi Zoltán), the Interior Minister of Hungary's far-right Arrow Cross Party, from whom he rescues Jews by recalling an obscure 1924 law granting citizenship to Jews of Sephardi origin.

Given the political complexities of such a brief historical moment, Perlasca moves with a certain sweep and drags along its hagiographic limitations. On the one hand, its times-maketh-the-man slant is refreshing, insisting as it does on the undimming and infectious courage of an ordinary human. On the other hand, though, because times do indeed maketh men, the film's narrow scope precludes a firmer, more compelling grasp of the material factors that conditioned events depicted in the film. What kind of objective forces were at work, what kind of wider social currents? Though anti-Semitism and uncomprehensibly inhumane acts of terror are a given for any Holocaust film, nods to Perlasca's history as a supporter of fascism ("I thought I was fighting communism"), for instance, are few and far between. Likewise, though references to the "Judeo-communist cause" hint at the deeper motives of fascism, the overall thrust is to use history as a backdrop to one saint's unsung hour, rather than as an active element in and of itself (the Nazis' anti-Semitism was driven by legitimate fears of the Bolshevik Revolution's threat to private enterprise, as well as by fantastical interpretations of the Bolshevik Party and of communism in general as a Jewish faction).

The conditions in which a man like Perlasca's economic interests were ever in line with fascism to begin with should be of dramatic importance here - as should, similarly, his eventual disillusionment with its overall political imperatives. When others ask him throughout the film why he is going to the lengths he is in order to save other people, Perlasca answers humbly and rhetorically, "What would you do?" Fair enough, but by sketching out a portrait of this "ordinary man" doing his duties as a human being, the film elevates him as an historical anomaly acting in resistance to the Holocaust - which in itself is treated as an aberration. With socioeconomic conditions presently accommodating the rehabilitation of fascism throughout Europe, however, a film like Perlasca risks, despite its better intentions, reinforcing woolly assumptions about individual charity - something quite different to the class foundations of the struggle against fascism, not to mention Perlasca's own postwar retreat from any such hagiography (his actions went unrevealed until 1987!).

Problems of biography notwithstanding, however, the film gains considerable weight and texture from Zingaretti, whose central performance drives every scene, while its overall production values are perfectly serviceable given the budgetary constraints of a television production relative to that of film (archive footage stands in for establishing shots of a bombed-out Budapest; flames are computer-generated; some supposedly dead bodies, meanwhile, can be seen "twitching"). For the many to whom Perlasca's remarkable feats remain unknown, the film supplies context in a digestible manner and is at its most engaging when working through the more typical episodes of such material, such as when the protagonist begins to shout one name after another of would-be Jewish deportees, thereby rescuing them from a train about to depart for the death camps.