Unfortunately a lot of people will get their knickers in a twist denouncing Alberto Caviglia for daring to make a mockumentary about anti-Semitism— mainly people with no sense of humor, nor an understanding of how best to draw attention to prejudice. “Burning Love” is a deliriously funny, at times shockingly biting satire designed as a news feature on the disappearance of a young man who galvanizes the world into being proud of its latent anti-Semitism. Targeting the right demographic will be a challenge: A local release in October barely left a mark, though brave Jewish fests should celebrate this ferocious pic for thinking outside the box.
Part of what makes the film so clever is the way Caviglia reveals the hollowness of “tolerance,” knowing that beneath this overused word lies an ocean of prejudice. “Burning Love” is the mockumentary equivalent of “The Simpsons,” exposing through exaggeration by making its protag a likeable bigot whose off-the-charts anti-Semitism seems, on the one hand, ridiculously hyperbolic, yet on the other feels only slightly embellished. Sadly, the timing is ideal for the film, given the amount of chauvinism unapologetically spouted by so many of the world’s politicians these days.
The entire film is done in the form of a “60 Minutes”-style news story about the disappearance of Leonardo Zuliani (Davide Giordano), whose campaign to remove any shame in being anti-Semitic makes him an internationally beloved figure. “He was an example for our generation,” says one follower. In classic reportage style, Caviglia “interviews” family members, colleagues and Italian celebrities (playing themselves) to trace how Leonardo came to embrace his bigotry, inspiring a crusade that made others equally proud of their hatred.
As early as 9, Leonardo (Tommaso Mercuri) was reading anti-Semitic magazines and bullying his Jewish classmate Mario (Manuel Mariani) via violent, “Itchy and Scratchy”-style anti-Semitic cartoons he would draw. Support came from his priest, Don Ciro (Massimiliano Gallo), who tells his class the Jews killed Jesus, but then Leonardo has a crisis of faith when he discovers Jesus was Jewish (“Hava Nagila” sends the boy into paroxysms of rage).
Once older, Leonardo starts an NGO to counter the rise of “antisemiphobia” (fear of anti-Semites) and makes a film titled “Afraid to Hate” which galvanizes a world looking for an excuse to embrace their bigotry without shame. He links up with the Nerd League (a pun on the Northern League, Italy’s right-wing anti-immigrant political party), and in a series of audaciously hilarious initiatives, leads a campaign to eliminate all traces of Jews and Judaism first from Italy, and then the world.
If there’s one flaw in “Burning Love” (aside from a slight repetitiveness that invariably affects most mockumentaries), it’s that audiences best equipped to appreciate its fearless satirical wit are the ones least in need of the lessons it imparts: in other words, progressive Jews who can extrapolate Caviglia’s trenchant humor and project it beyond anti-Semitism to encompass all the phobias, including Islamophobia, xenophobia and homophobia. Others may find themselves perplexed, discomforted, or about as ready to guffaw as a roomful of Germans watching a comedy about the Holocaust.
Tech credits are nicely in keeping with the look of TV reportage, mimicking an assortment of formats for the maximum amount of authenticity. Actors convey the perfect amount of earnestness, and cameos by major Italo figures are often inspired.