Last collaboration of Irene Papas and Maximilian Schell, who starred in The Desperate Ones (1967), also directed by Alexander Ramati, about Polish refugees trying to enter Afghanistan. See more »
The film premiered at 175 minutes. Subsequently, it was cut to 115 minutes which is the MGM/UA video release length. See more »
A howl in the wilderness, but hopefully someone will listen
It may be a howl in the wilderness, but The Assisi Underground certainly helps balance the skewered image of the Roman Catholic Church in the Second World War that emerged only in the last 35 years.
Based on a true story, The Assisi Underground tells of the perils and ultimate triumph of the network of saving Italian Jews from the SS that ran between Florence and Rome for several years. Under the guidance of Assisi's good bishop Nicolini, Franciscan friar Rufino Nicacci risked his life to hide hundreds of Italy's Jews in monasteries, friaries and convents throughout Umbria. The most famous was the operation in St. Francis' holy and peaceful city of Assisi, which was occupied by the Nazi's until being declared an open city later in the war. For his efforts, Padre Rufino was awarded the honorific title of "Righteous Gentile" - the highest honor that can be bestowed on a Gentile, by the State of Israel after the war.
It was due to his efforts and many Catholics like him, that in Italy 75% of the Jews were saved, where in other European nations it was 75% who perished.
What the movie does not show, due to limited running time, is how these networks ran throughout Italy including the Vatican and the pope's summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, which according to Jewish historian Pinchas Lapide, not only sheltered thousands of Jews, but supplied them with fake i.d.'s, passports and visas allowing them to flee to safety. What the movie does show is how the Jews of Italy were thoroughly inculturated into the populace (as opposed to Aryan theories of the Jew being a pollutant of the pure German 'Volk') and how prized they were to their Italian Catholic neighbors. All this is played out against the beauty and mystery of the magical city of Assisi, which both the antagonists and protagonists dearly love. This includes the sympathetic, anti-Nazi Wehrmacht officer played by Maximilian Schell who turns a blind eye to the network operating underneath his very nose.
While some actors are amateurish and certain scenes are poorly staged and acted, for the most part the costumes, production design and cinematography are spot on. And who can ask for a better cast? Aside from "Chariots of Fire"s Ben Cross - always excellent - there is James Mason (Bishop Nicolini), Maximilian Schell, Irene Papas (superior of the Poor Clare monastery) and some very good performers in supporting roles. Best is the SS captain Von Velden, who subtly alternates between psychotic allegiance to the tenets of the Reich with slight hints of compassion for the friar he is convinced is running the operation.
Take a break from the current Catholic-bashing so very fashionable in academic circles and see a true, exciting, and well told story of what the Church DID do and why there was never any Holocaust in Catholic Italy. I hope people will do this.
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