Broad and warmly comic, novelist Giovanni Guareschi found satirical-humanistic gold charting the post-WWII political foibles & changes of an Italian town in the Po Valley where a newly elected Communist Mayor collides with his own best ‘frenemy,’ a tradition-bound, reactionary priest.* Director Julien Duvivier wisely lets the material speak for itself, in the manner of French rural specialist Marcel Pagnol (of FANNY fame), and the episodic structure of the story gathers strength & believability as you grow familiar with the pragmatic quirks behind the characters’ stubborn facades. With every township decision a Right-Wing/Left-Wing standoff, the story only finds its footing midway in, when a work stoppage between the landowners and the field workers leaves the town’s livestock untended and suffering. A tragedy in the making, it forces Gino Cervi’s mayor and Fernandel’s priest to break into the communal barn and work together. Naturally, there’s also a Romeo & Juliet (or rather Pyramus & Thisbe) affair of the heart to bring everyone together, with Franco Interlenghi, one of De Sica’s SHOESHINE boys involved. But the film truly belongs to French character-star Fernandel, physically & comedically commanding whether he’s talking with Jesus (naturally, its a two-way conversation) or taking on a truckload of Reds brought in from the city. Filmed in both French and Italian, a restored version of the Italian-language version from KOCH-Lorber is the easiest to get a hold of. A double set with THE RETURN OF DON CAMILLO/’53, first of many sequels; not without its moments, but what was once broad is now forced, missing the first film’s distinctive earth-flavored charm.)
DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The Don Camillo films may lean a bit to the Left, but Guareschi himself pulled sharply Right, as can be seen in LA RABBIA/’63, a piece of crap essay-challenge film for Guareschi and film auteur manqué Paolo Pasolini.