Length: 108 minutes
Maturity: PG (for brief language and intense thematic elements)
Main Cast: Ben Gazzara (Don Bosco), Patsy Kensit (Lina), Karl Zinny (Giuseppe), Laurent Terzieff (Monsignor Gastaldi), Raymond Pellegrin (Pope Pius IX), Phillipe Leroy (Pope Leo XIII), Piera Degli Espotsi (Lina’s mother), Edmund Purdom (Urbano Rattazzi)
Director: Leandro Castellani
Personal Rating: 5 Stars
Italian film-makers always seem to have the upper hand in the arena of turning out biopics on saints. And this does make sense, since Italy is overflowing with canonized natives, not least among them being St. John Bosco, a visionary priest who dedicated his life to helping destitute boys during the turbulent 19th century. This movie, directed by Leandro Castellani, tells his story which stands out as a beautiful blend of drama, humanity, and mysticism.
Ben Gazzara stars as Don Bosco, urged on by his prophetic dreams and passion for the poor to open an oratory in the city of Turin where boys can have decent work and decent living conditions. He earns the trust of hardened gang members through his athletic skills, sense of humor, and straightforward approach, and soon he draws so many boys to his oratory that the government begins to complain that he is abetting a bunch of “misfits”.
Don Bosco’s funds also begin to run low even as his health begins to fail him, and he is threatened with eviction unless he can pay the rent. Instead of abandoning his mission as is suggested, he relocates his boys to a dilapidated barn which they work hard to restore. The one major down-side is that their new center is located right next to the infamous Jardinière, a house of prostitution.
But all things are meant to be for a reason. Giuseppe, one of the boys Don Bosco took from the streets, falls in love with Lena, a troubled girl who is forced to work at the Jardinière by her insensitive mother to help provide for the family. When she refuses to continue at the job, she is thrown out of the house only to be rescued by Giuseppe who takes her to a secret alcove in the streets. Don Bosco learns of this, and arranges for her to work as a shop assistant of a friend. But Giuseppe’s impatience to marry her results in his getting arrested for robbery, and a dramatic subplot steeped in trust and redemption unfolds.
Meanwhile, a student rebellion breaks out in favor of Italian unification and a constitution. But the situation quickly grows out-of-control and mobs take to streets. Don Bosco tries unsuccessfully to break up a group of rebels attacking the local government buildings, but only succeeds in incurring the vengeance of the revolutionaries who make an attempt on his life by giving him poisoned wine. They hope to lure his boys over to the side of the rebellion, but they remain steadfast behind the beloved cleric. The government officials, on the other hand, are just as ruthless in their methods of trying to stop Don Bosco’s work among the young people of Turin. When they cannot pay him off to close down his oratory, they resort to hiring assassins of their own. One is thwarted by the timely appearance of a large grey dog which Don Bosco believes to be sent by Heaven.
Even the Church officials begin to put pressure on him to give up his efforts. The pompous bishop goes so far as to suspend Don Bosco’s right to hear Confession and revoke his faculty to give Confirmation to his boys. When it is suggested that he take a restful vacation in the countryside, Don Bosco responds that instead he will travel to Rome. And so he does, gaining an audience with, and the respect of, Pope Pius IX.
Bolstered by Papal support, he returns to Turin and starts a new religious order among his oratorians known as “The Salesians” in honor of St. Francis De Sales. But his health has been broken by trials, and his final days draw near in a deeply emotional conclusion.
This film is a deeply moving story of sacrificial love. It is, needless to say, steeped in spirituality and mysticism, and Don Bosco’s dreams are used as a consistent motif. We learn that he has dreamt about having to encounter the Jardinière before they even see the new location of their oratory. When he reveals to Giuseppe that he knows about Lena, he assures him that he did not found out by spying. He knew already. Before the Pope in Rome, he tells about his dreams of the Christ Child and the Blessed Mother who inspired him to embrace his mission in Turin.
As much as this film is intrinsically Catholic in nature, it does not white-wash the failings of Church members. Both good and bad members of the Catholic hierarchy are depicted with strict honesty, but the movie never takes underhanded jabs at the institution as a whole. This is a balanced critique, and an enlightening one. Also, these spiritual elements are equally balanced with suspenseful action, from the student rebellion to the multiple assassination attempts, all of which Don Bosco handles with admirable aplomb. I love the scene when he finds himself being threatened by government officials, and declares that even though he is a man of the cloth, he is also from sturdy farm stock, and more than capable of using his strength to give them a pounding! He starts to strip off his outer cassock, and the agents decide its best to just back down!
This is an ‘80s foreign film, and as such the production quality is not always tops. And yet the purity of the story and simplicity of the setting enables it have a quiet quality in its own right. It knows its limitations, and does not try to overshoot itself. I really respect this in a movie, and many of my personal favorites are similarly small-budget, and yet beautifully intimate. Perhaps this hearkens back to time-honored truth that it is not the outward but the inward beauty that ultimately shines through the strongest.
Gazzara does an excellent job in his role, and I would say without hesitation that I find it to be his greatest. He projects just the right combination of earthy realism and heavenly mysticism that is quintessentially Bosco, and quintessentially Italian! As for the other actors and actresses, the quality of their performances tends to vary. Some of the Italian players apparently said their lines in Italian and had to have English lines dubbed in for them. This could be kind of irksome, although I’ve learned to get past it. Besides I do appreciate the fact they actually cast real Italians in the picture for the most part, and it was worth dealing with the dubbed in track. But this contrasts starkly contrasts with the decision to cast the golden-haired, English-born Patsy Kensit as Lena. Every time I see her fair face and hear her whiny voice, and I can’t help but wish some dark-haired, deep-voiced Italian signorina had gotten the part!
But regardless of this irksome choice, the production is a religious classic and a love story of the first degree. It is about the kind of love the pours itself out until the giver is bled dry. It is about the kind of love that is grounded in a prevailing humility. It a supernatural love, and not of this world. One of the most moving portrayals of this was Don Bosco’s love for the young man Giuseppe. Even after he is imprisoned for robbery, the priest still acknowledges him as one of “his boys” and is willing to risk a blow to his own reputation and even possible incarceration in order to help the young man reunite with Lena during a brief supervised outing in the country. Even when Giuseppe appears to have betrayed him, Don Bosco never loses faith in him, but through prayer and fortitude helps him turn his life around.
This is the Love of Christ; it is the kind that never falters but gives unconditionally. Indeed, being drawn into the love of Christ and reflecting that love to others is one of the definitions of being a saint. It is a dying to self, so that Christ can live within you. “I am an insect, that cries out and dies,” Don Bosco whispers in one of the final scenes in the film. He never saw himself as anything more than a broken instrument of God, struggling to fulfill His Will while on earth. And it would be the perseverance of this holy priest and visionary that would save the lives and souls thousands of impoverished boys and inspired others to carry on his work, which continues to the present day. Don Bosco, by Leonardi Castellani, does justice to this Man of God and his powerful legacy.