Film Review: My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes

Yet another valuable addition to the ever-growing canon of Holocaust-themed documentaries.
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Yet another fascinating, little-known story about the Holocaust is movingly related in Oren Jacoby's documentary about the role that Italians played in rescuing their Jewish neighbors during the height of the Nazi occupation. Relating the tales of such largely forgotten heroes as Italian cycling champion Gino Bartali and physician Giovanni Borromeo, among many others, My Italian Secret is a worthy addition to the Holocaust-themed canon.

Narrated by actress Isabella Rossellini—whose father Roberto pioneered Italian neo-realism with such films as Rome, Open City which dealt with the occupation—the film subtitled The Forgotten Heroes recounts the story of how some 80% of the Jews in Italy survived thanks to the efforts of Italians who risked their own lives in defying the Nazis.

Among the country's figures who rejected the overtures of the Fascists was famed Tour de France champion Bartali (voiced by veteran actor Robert Loggia), who hid a family of Jews in his home. Later, at the behest of the Archbishop of Florence, he embarked on a dangerous secret mission. Pretending to be in training, he cycled throughout the country delivering phony documents and ID cards to various religious institutions, including monasteries and convents, which were hiding Jews. Bartali refused to acknowledge his exploits until late in his life, and even then he downplayed them compared to the heroism of others who had lost their lives or been sent to prison.

Another remarkable story concerns Borromeo, the administrator of a Rome hospital who created a special ward to house patients suffering from a supposedly incurable disease dubbed "K" in mocking reference to the city's Nazi overseer. The patients were in fact Jews, but they escaped identification thanks to the SS men's fear of contracting the imaginary ailment. Speaking with the daughter of one of the survivors who labels his father a saint, Borromeo's son replies, "No, he was just a man…a good man."

And as the film makes clear, there were many other good Italian men and women who rescued Jews despite fear of immediate execution by the Nazis if they were found out. Descendants of both the rescuers and the survivors are on hand to relate their stories, as well as several survivors who escaped the concentration camps when they were children. The proceedings are marred only by the inclusion of the de rigueur dramatic reenactments, but they're mercifully kept to a minimum.

This nonfiction film reminiscent of Schindler's List is that rare Holocaust documentary that is as uplifting as it is moving.

Click here to cast and crew information.