Fernandel (Don Camillo), and Gino Cervi (Giuseppe 'Peppone' Bottazzi) in the 1965 Italian movie, Il Compagno Don Camillo, directed by Luigi Comencini. Image: Alchetron
For reasons too complicated to go into here, communism has been politically more successful in Italy than in other Western countries. This dates back to Stalin’s role in the defeat of the Nazis and “saving” Italy from fascism. In the important general election of 1948 there was a good chance that the Communist ticket could win enough support to form a government. But by then, Washington and London had gone cold on the Soviet Union and assisted local opposition to get the Christian Democrats into power.
Playing a small but significant part in defeating the Communists was the Milanese weekly magazine Candido, founded and edited by Giovanni Guareschi, a staunch Catholic better known (if he is known at all these days) as the creator of the Don Camillo tales. These stories of a shrewd, but homely and humane parish priest and his fiery sparring partner, the small-town communist mayor Peppone, took the fight between Christianity and communism into the realm of humour and gentle satire – to the happy entertainment (and instruction) of millions around the world.
Guareschi had been drafted into the army under Mussolini in 1943 – a fact which helped keep him out of trouble with the regime, he said. Later that year, however, after Italy capitulated to the allies, he found himself in a Nazi prison camp, where he remained for the rest of the war, as did hundreds of thousands of other Italian soldiers, under very harsh conditions. Meanwhile Italians who had been sent to the Russian front fell into the hands of the Soviet command and either perished or were imprisoned. Tens of thousands of the Italian prisoners never returned, and this was one of the reasons Italians voted against Stalin’s friends in 1948.
This is the background to one of Guareschi’s later Don Camillio stories, a longer work which appeared in Candido in 14 instalments during 1959. Comrade Don Camillo (Mondo Piccolo: Il compagno don Camillo, published by Rizzoli in 1963) sees Peppone, now a Communist Senator wearing a dark suit and a tie, taking a party of comrades on a Red-plush tour of Soviet Russia. But there is a thorn in his side: Don Camillo invited himself along, and Peppone had to agree.
The priest has a hold over Peppone. Two years earlier the mayor won 10 million lira in a football sweepstake under a bogus name and had to turn to Don Camillo to hide his very uncommunistic wealth from the tax-collector, the Party, and his wife. He seems to have forgotten this when he spouts party slogans against the clergy, giving his old enemy an added motive to join the touring party: revenge, or poetic justice, as well as the chance to make the trip serve completely different ends than the show-casing of “Russia’s economic miracle”.
Not that he needs much help to prick that particular bubble, since the evidence of unproductive land, broken machinery and spartan living conditions are all around them. Known to the others in the group only as Comrade Tarocci, he forms them into the “Nikita Khrushchev Space Cell” with himself as leader. He then manages, by various cunning devices, to reveal the very human, if not bourgeois instincts of various members with regard to pretty women, consumer goods and the like. Consciences are opened to Don Camillo alias Comrade Tarocci.
For the most part this is hilarious, but there are also moving episodes that cast a light on the hidden victims of war and revolution. In one of these Don Camillo meets Bordonny, an Italian who survived the war with the help of a Polish girl and her family, and afterwards because the Russians found he was a good mechanic. Don Camillo manages to minister the sacraments to the family, to their immense consolation.
In the chapter, “Three Stalks of Wheat”, he accompanies Bordonny to find the site where he and some other Italian soldiers buried 30 of their companions killed at Christmas, 1942. He says Mass there. It turns out that one of the tour group lost his brother at the same place, now a wheat field, and Don Camillo is able to lead the man there to plant a votive candle sent by his parents. Tavan goes away with a clod of earth bearing three stalks of wheat in a little aluminium cup, for his mother.
“Comrade,” Don Camillo warns him, “your mother will be happy, but the Party can’t possibly approve.”
“I don’t give a damn about the Party,” Tavan emphatically replies.
In a note appended to the book, Guareschi says that the chapter is dedicated in particular “to the Italian soldiers who died in Russia and to the sixty-three thousand of them who were shut up in Soviet prison-camps and of whose fate nothing is known.” He dedicates the story also to others who fought against communism, including “the Western soldiers who died in Korea, the last brave defenders of the besieged West .. and their dear ones…”
Indeed the Guareschi who writes the post-script is in quite a different mood than the author of Don Camillo. It is 1963, Candido has ceased publication and a new breed of Italians is not interested in fighting communism. The “newly rich Red Italy” is interested in La Dolce Vita and the sexual-sociological literature of left-wing writers. “It is not a generation at all, but a degeneration,” says Guareschi with disgust.
And therefore Comrade Don Camillo, being published for the first time as a book, is already out of date. “It’s essentially light-hearted quarrel with Communism is understandable only in the light of the time at which it was written.” A time when the argument was about politics rather than culture, which remained to a large extent Catholic.
And yet Guareschi, who died in 1968 aged 60, was too pessimistic. The Don Camillo tales continued to appear in new Italian editions through to the 1990s, and in 2013 the UK publisher Pilot Productions brought out The Complete Little World of Don Camillo. French-Italian films made between 1952 and 1965, in which the author was involved, are still screened today, according to Wikipedia, and the BBC produced a Don Camillo television series in 1980, and later two radio series based on the books.
As the author himself said, the stories live on because of the vitality of the characters, but also because they are, indeed, light-hearted, based as they are on the assumption that all people have more at stake in their history and common humanity than in political quarrels. As Don Camillo says in Comrade…, “It’s a funny thing with Peppone and me – we always begin the worst of friends, but end the best of enemies!” If only we could imitate them in that.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.