Pius XII film sparks new debate of old controversy

Pius XII film sparks new debate of old controversy

At a premiere screening in the Vatican, 'Shades of Truth' director says the movie is an act of love for the Jewish people

Pope Pius XII in 'Shades of Truth.' (courtesy)
Pope Pius XII in 'Shades of Truth.' (courtesy)

VATICAN CITY – Under a gray sky in Saint Peter’s Square, hundreds of pilgrims and tourists waited in line to visit the Vatican. Only meters away, a different queue formed as the Vatican played host to a movie premiere for a controversial pope Pius XII film, “Shades of Truths.”

Written and directed by Italian Liana Marabini, “Shades of Truth” was shown for the first time at the Catholic Institute Maria Bambina on March 2, the day that marks both the anniversary of the birth of Eugenio Pacelli in 1876 and of his appointment as pope Pius XII in 1939.

The film will be released in movie theaters all over the world in April and screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May. A September screening in Philadelphia at the Catholic World Meeting of Families will be attended by Pope Francis.

Pope Pius XII is a divisive figure, described by some historians as “Hitler’s pope,” and by others as “the Schindler of the Vatican.” The movie, full of inaccuracies and unlikely characters, portrays Pius XII as saving over 800,000 Jews all over Europe.

“No true historian in the world would support such a statement,” historian Marcello Pezzetti told the Italian daily Corriere Della Sera.

“How can anyone claim that Pius XII saved 800,00 Jews? It cannot even be considered a misinterpretation; it is simply an ideological statement,” said Pezzetti, the president of the Foundation of Shoah museum of Rome.

“Shades of Truth” features the actor portraying Pius XII wearing the infamous yellow star sewn on the white papal vest. This scene, which will likely be considered offensive by many, has also been chosen for the film’s poster.

'Shades of Truth' director Liana Marabini, center, at the premiere screening in Vatican City, March 2, 2015. (courtesy)
‘Shades of Truth’ director Liana Marabini, center, at the premiere screening in Vatican City, March 2, 2015. (courtesy)

“The poster reflects the emotional reality of Pius XII’s actions, because he acted as if he himself was wearing a yellow star,” director Marabini tells The Times of Israel. “The image appears to the protagonist in a dream toward the end of the movie, when after his extensive research, he is finally convinced that he was mistaken in assuming Pius XII colluded with the Nazis.”

The director, who specializes in films inspired by the history of the Church, explains that she decided to make this movie after a personal encounter with a Holocaust survivor.

“About ten years ago, during a vacation in southern France, I met an old gentleman who had just moved next to my house. He was Jewish and the first time he invited me over, I noticed a picture of Pius XII on a shelf. Intrigued, I asked him why he had that image in his house and he simply explained to me that he owed the pope his life,” she recalls.

Over the next few years, she met several of her neighbor’s friends who also claimed that they or their parents were saved by the pope.

A turning point for the project, says Marabini, was a meeting with Gary Krupp, an American Jew who has over time become one of the most adamant defenders of Pius XII’s conduct during the Holocaust.

Pope Pius XII (photo credit: Wikipedia commons/Maximus0970/File)
Pope Pius XII (photo credit: Wikipedia commons/Maximus0970/File)

Krupp was the director’s inspiration for the movie’s main character, David Milano, a fictional Jewish journalist of Italian origin who decides to investigate the matter. While deeply critical of Pius XII’s involvement at the beginning of the film, Milano completely embraces Pius XII’s supporters and subsequently discovers his own parents were also saved thanks to the pope’s efforts.

The charged question of whether Pius XII did indeed do enough to save Jews during the Holocaust has been the object of a very heated debate for years, engaging historians, Holocaust survivors, and representatives of the Church.

Among the core criticisms of his conduct is that he did not publicly condemn the extermination of Jews, that he also refrained from signing the Allied declaration about it, and that he failed to acknowledge the roundup of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto. On October 16, 1943, over 1,000 Jews were arrested and deported to the death camps only few hundred meters away from the Vatican.

In Italy and all over Europe, many Jews survived the Holocaust thanks to the help of Catholic institutions or priests. However, there is no definitive evidence that the pope was the one who ordered or inspired these actions.

The controversy rages on: In 2012, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial, decided to soften the wording of the captions devoted to Pius XII in the exhibition. Roman Jews reacted in outrage and disbelief.

‘You must understand the impact of this decision on the people of our community. They are not historians, they were subjected to history’

“Notwithstanding the pathetic denial of Yad Vashem, it is hard to believe that this move was not the result of diplomatic pressures from the Vatican,” said Riccardo Di Segni, Rome’s chief rabbi.

“You must understand the impact of this decision on the people of our community. They are not historians, they were subjected to history,” Di Segni said in a message he sent to Yad Vashem.

Similar feelings and doubts have been expressed by many in regards to the Cause of Canonization of The Pope. The case of Pius XII, which was opened in 1965, has progressed, making specific advancements in 1990 and 2007. But the pope has still not reached the level of beatification, a precursor to sainthood.

“Shades of Truth” also gives a positive reading to another painful event, the conversion to Christianity of Rabbi Israel Zoll, still an open wound for many Roman Jews.

Zoll, who was Rome’s chief rabbi from 1940 to 1945, converted in 1945 and took the name Eugenio, with the explicit intention of honoring Pius XII.

“What other meaning could the conversion of Zoll have had?” points out director Marabini. She adds, after the pope’s death, then Israeli foreign minister Golda Meir declared, “The people of Israel have lost a great friend.”

‘The freedom of expressing different ideas, for or against a belief, is sacrosanct’

“I can’t prevent people from arguing. The freedom of expressing different ideas, for or against a belief, is sacrosanct. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. I would be satisfied and I would thank God if even one single person could see the truth [about Pius XII] thanks to my film,” says Marabini, who is a fervent Catholic.

To write the script of “Shades of Truth,” Marabini says she read hundreds of documents and met dozens of witnesses, with the help of historian Martin Gilbert and the Pave The Way Foundation, founded by Krupp.

“I consider my movie an act of love towards the Jewish people,” the director concludes. “In my daily prayers I address Pius XII and he fulfills even my most difficult requests. I admire him and, inspired by what he did for the Jews, I also try to do what I can. In this case, by making this movie.”

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