The world class bicyclist Bartali, races to a convent in Assisi Italy, and then without speaking returns home to his wife and children. Is this one of the great ethical acts on planet earth, and if so, why?
Those of us concerned with ethical dilemmas are always hounded by beginners, which is fine, and pretenders, which is not. Both pose the following ethical question: “Would you lie if you were hiding Jews and Nazis are at your door?” How can you reconcile these two opposing ethical requirements?
The naive really want to know “the right answer” so they don’t have to think for themselves. The pretenders only pretend they want to know an answer, in order to catch you on the horns of an ethical dilemma. But the goal of the question, is not for the teacher to give the “right” answer, but for each student to question themselves. As in, I don’t know, what would you do?
But the unsung heroes in this film, know the real answer to that question, because they’ve been put to the test. Their answer is the truth of their own individual action. Almost an entire town in Italy and the surrounding countryside were quite up to the job of answering. Not through idle debate, but through individual choice, in real life, in the middle of World War II.
My Italian Secret: The Unsung Heroes is a great documentary. An enormous number of Italian people opposed Fascism, both their own country’s version with Mussolini, and then ultimately by facing off the violence and genocide of the Nazis, who scoured their countryside looking for Jews and other scapegoats to murder without trail, or send to the camps. So many Italians stood up to help these people, but without any of the surging heroics usually portrayed on the subject.
Instead it was the simple knowledge in the heart which guided many. I encourage everyone to see My Italian Secret, because it is rare to see this stance in any film, much less a documentary. Bartoli the cyclist drops off forged papers into a mailbox without speaking. The papers are passed on by the Abbess of the convent to those needing to escape to freedom and safety. So many others in the surrounding countryside were also equal to the ethical question: What would you do if the Nazi’s are at your door?
Let’s back up a minute and look at this area of Italy where the classic age sounded its horn and the Renaissance flowered. Great Humanist traditions around the world are a source of wealth arising in the human heart, which can determine ethical direction anywhere. For Humanism is not so narrow in scope, as to be for or against any religion, group or country. How can it be? Humanism shimmers in us all, rises at the dawn of each human awakening, and predates all religion. It is the individual wellspring from which spirituality arises and ultimately returns. For an individual human being is the source of ethical choice.
Bartali says only that we must never take credit for this kind of good deed, as it is won by the misfortune of others, which is why this was an Italian secret for so long. The Abbess says only, she hopes that when she gets to the gates of heaven and tells of her sin of lying to the Nazis, that she is forgiven.
Let beginners be warned, many were tortured or lost their lives who stood up. Let pretenders slither back to easy untested opinion. The human heart decides who a person really is, and what questions are really worth answering in life. Do see this film. It is rare, and it is real.
C A Hall is an award winning writer for Film & TV.
Love to hear your experience of this film.