Fest sidebar remembers Italys Holocaust heroes and villains

If just half of the daring moves the titular character performs in the heart-pounding “Perlasca, an Italian Hero” actually happened, it would be enough to make fictional good guys like Jason Bourne or James Bond look like meter maids.

The heartbreaking testimony offered by Italian Holocaust survivors in “Volevo Solo Vivere” (“I Only Wanted to Live”), on the other hand, is enough to crumble one’s faith in the goodness of human beings.

These powerful films are two of the four titles in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival sidebar “Italian Jews Under Fascism.”

The Dutch documentary “Tulip Time — The Rise and Fall of the Trio Lescano” and the excellent 2003 Italian drama “Facing Windows” round out the lineup.

As tense and unrelenting as any Hollywood action film but five times as smart, “Perlasca” throws us into the center of Budapest in 1944. Giorgio Perlasca, a resourceful Italian businessman, finds himself persona non grata — along with thousands of Jews.

Alberto Negrin’s film, made for Italian television but boasting the production values and gravity of a theatrical feature, takes about three minutes to establish Perlasca as a man of action who operates on instinct and cunning. By chance and then choice, Perlasca quickly becomes the sole lifeline for several hundred Jews in the gun sights of the Nazis and their Hungarian accomplices.

Perlasca (the compact, mustachioed Luca Zingaretti) fought on the side of the fascists during the Spanish Civil War, earning a letter of recommendation from the dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco. That document gains him entry to the Spanish embassy, and in short order he is playing the role of consul. With an inspiring mix of bravery and bravado, the Italian miraculously holds the bad guys at bay.

“Perlasca,” co-presented by the Holocaust Center of Northern California and Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay, touches on familiar themes of survivors’ guilt, gutsy pragmatism and self-sacrifice. The film pays special tribute, though, to the children who suffered so traumatically.

The Hungarian militia cheerfully persecutes and murders Jews, and is portrayed as even more villainous than the Nazis giving the orders. The Jews of Italy were not betrayed by their countrymen with the same despicable enthusiasm, yet one hopes that the 2002 broadcast of “Perlasca” prompted viewers not only to bask in the glow of one man’s courage in Budapest, but also reflect on the collaboration of many Romans in 1942.

Mimmo Calopresti’s “Volevo Solo Vivere,” co-presented with the Holocaust Center of Northern California and the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, is as austere as “Perlasca” is stylish. It is composed almost entirely of undated videotaped interviews with Italian Jewish survivors, augmented with a sprinkling of archival footage.

The documentary unfolds chronologically, with Italian president Benito Mussolini’s death in 1945 followed by Germany’s occupation and the nightmare of deportation. The Jews pithily describe life in the camps, and their return home after liberation, with unexpected emotional restraint.

Although the Italian Jewish experience was unique in some ways, most of the subjects’ experiences echo that of Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe. The timeless power of “Volevo Solo Vivere” derives from the incredibly impressive interviewees, a clear-eyed, openhearted bunch with a strength and spirit that are something to behold.

“Perlasca, an Italian Hero” screens at 12:30 p.m. July 31 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and 6:15 p.m. Aug. 6 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley.

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Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.