Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Against All Odds

As we examine America's celebrity-crazed culture, it's interesting to see what passes for heroism. Was forging documents designed to lead America into an unnecessary war in the Middle East an act of courage or treason? Was Kirstie Alley really all that brave when she wangled a contract from Showtime to star in a mockumentary about her efforts to lose weight? Did President Bush make a grave sacrifice, putting his own life at risk, by giving up golf? The people responsible for these acts are not what anyone in their right mind would describe as "profiles in courage."

That's why, when confronted with the real thing, the shock of recognition is so startling. Winning a sales contract does not make you a hero. Eating your vegetables does not make you a hero. Conquering the unknowable -- resisting tyranny when there is no need to put your own life at risk -- these are the challenges which make men heroes.

Two films recently seen merit the "Brass Balls" award for focusing a spotlight on heroes with major cojones. James Marsh's breathtaking documentary, Man on Wire, revisits Philippe Petit's aerial stunt on August 7, 1974, when the French wire walker illegally rigged a wire between the tops of the World Trade Center's twin towers and, with great skill, spent nearly 45 minutes walking back and forth, dancing, kneeling, and even lying down on the wire before abandoning his perch some 1,350 feet above the sidewalk.

Even though this documentary's story is told entirely in flashback by Petit (who celebrated his 60th birthday this week) and his co-conspirators, it plays out like a grand international thriller. Aided by Michael Nyman's solid musical score (I particularly liked the mischievious use of Edvard Grieg's "In The Hall of the Mountain King"), this film leaves audiences in awe of Petit's acrobatic skill, his laser-like focus, and his playful personality. It also explores -- in a surprisingly intelligent and articulate way -- the effect that one person's instant celebrity can have on his relationships and how, having achieved the seemingly impossible, one needs to readjust one's future goals.

Although obsessed with the World Trade Center from the very first moment he saw a picture of it, Petit's remarkable achievement demonstrates what can happen when bravery is supported by careful -- nearly maniacal -- planning with multiple chances to pull back, rethink things, and refine one's approach. Quite the opposite happens in Alberto Negrin's Perlasca: An Italian Hero, which was recently screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Based on a true story, this film relives the amazing chain of events through which Giorgio Perlasca (an Italian businessman and veteran of three wars who had been a devout supporter of Fascism) managed to save nearly 5,000 Jews by impersonating the Spanish consul general to Hungary. Unlike Petit, who was racing against time (but always had the option to abort his adventure), Perlasca's tough business tactics and quick thinking allowed him to bluff his way through numerous confrontations with the Nazis. Not only did he outwit the Nazis who planned to burn down Budapest's Jewish ghetto, without knowing who he was confronting, he once even stared down Adolf Eichmann.

With a clear understanding of the difference between the return on investment of an utterly futile -- albeit polite -- diplomatic letter of protest and the ability to achieve instant, real-time results with hard cash, Perlasca asks "If I can pay for cattle, why can't I pay for humans?" as he tries to determine which Nazi can most easily be bribed.

Portrayed with a bull-headed athletic strength by Luca Zingaretti, Perlasca's incredible chutzpah propels the plot forward with a rapidly accelerating momentum. In a period of 45 days from December 1, 1944 to January 16, 1945, this Italian saved several thousand Jews with his quick thinking and creative smuggling techniques (all fueled by a genuine sense of moral outrage). One of the more remarkable facts about Perlasca's story is that, following World War II, he returned home to Padua where he lived in relative obscurity until found by a group of Hungarian Jews in 1987.

Jerome Anger lends strong support as a timid Jewish diplomatic attache who admires Perlasca's bravado but can't bring himself to act with such fearlessness. Mathilda May is the beautiful Hungarian countess who helps Perlasca in key moments and eventually stops trying to deny her Jewish heritage. Gyorgy Cserhamli is appropriately threatening as Bleiber, a Nazi officer whose path keeps crossing Perlasca's, and Zoltan Bezeredy appears as the corrupt minister Vajna.

Strongly aided by Ennio Morricone's powerful score, this film (which was created for Italian television in 2002) easily outpaces and outshines Steven Spielberg's black-and-white Holocaust epic Schindler's List (1993). At the end of the film, there is some archival footage of Perlasca being interviewed for the Italian media. I don't know if it is available on DVD, but if and when you can find a copy of this film, grab it and make it your own. You can watch the trailer below:

It's all too easy to watch today's news and listen to lots of political blather in which people make grandiose statements but take no action. Whether one frets about the crises in Darfur and Somalia or the scandalous dereliction of duty by members of the United States Congress, we don't see many heroes in today's world. Giorgio Perlasca -- who was not even Jewish -- was the real thing.

We desperately need more people like him.

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