Long on pathos but short on clarity, Alberto Negrin’s old-fashioned heroic epic celebrates the exploits of the Italian Schindler, Giorgio Perlasca (Luca Zingaretti), an Italian businessman who saved more than 5,000 Hungarian Jews through an inspired combination of lies, bribery, bold impersonation and pure chutzpah. Confusing lack of historical set-up considerably dims the potential luster of a great true story: Helmer Alberto Negrin relies instead on competently rendered but cliche-ridden melodrama of nasty Nazis and suffering Jews. The 2002 Italian telepic, picked up by Castle Hill, bowed at Gotham’s Quad Cinema April 15 prior to limited Los Angeles release.
“Perlasca” finds the Italian cattle-trader (Zingaretti) living the high life in Budapest in late 1944, clandestinely seeking forged papers to escape back to Italy. When he is given refuge among Jews in a sanatorium, he becomes caught up in their temporarily shared plight. As events escalate after Germany’s takeover of Hungary, Perlasca reacts instinctively to save the people he has come to know.
He parlays a letter from Franco, which praises him for his service with the Fascist forces in Spain, into an entree into the Spanish embassy. When the Spanish ambassador closes shop, Perlasca appoints himself “consul” and proceeds to issue diplomatic immunity to thousands of instantly “Spanish” Jews, continually upping the stakes in an ongoing face-off with the Nazis and ultimately foiling their planned immolation of the Hungarian ghetto.
Helmer Negrin excels at conveying the sweeping physical flow of events: the Jews rounded up by Nazis, then snatched from the jaws of death by Perlasca and resettled in communal “safe houses” under the Spanish flag, only to be hustled off by Hungarian fascists and re-rescued by Perlasca, several dying violently in transit.
As ably played by Zingaretti, Perlasca is imbued with dynamic, fast-on-his-feet spontaneity: Armed with a short list of Spanish citizens to be saved from cattle cars, he arrives at the railroad station as hundreds of Jews are herded on the train. He yells out a litany of the chosen, a list that keeps growing as he asks each rescuee for more names and shouts those out as well.
Negrin proves less gifted in dealing with subtleties of character development, falling back on dangerously stereotypic oversimplification. While Perlasca is effortlessly able to translate his feelings into direct, magically efficacious action, the Jewish male characters seem doomed, through impotence or religious conviction, to passively stare at their Italian savior’s confident daring with sad yearning or fawning admiration. Only the Jewish women seem equipped with the courageous resourcefulness necessary for survival, one of them, a young attractive mother (Amanda Sandrelli) repping a safely platonic match for our hero.
Pic’s political vision is likewise extremely fudged. The complex geopolitical crazy quilt of international fascist in-fighting that determines plot’s every action is never explained, the viewer’s disorientation further heightened by all-Italian dialogue so that Germans, Hungarians, Italians and Spaniards sound exactly the same.
Tech credits are creditable, though Ennio Morricone would probably prefer not to be remembered for this ultra-schmaltzy score.