Jewish Italian spaces on the big screen: from Rome’s Tempio Maggiore to Ferrara

The exhibition “Houses of life – Synagogues and cemeteries in Italy”, recently inaugurated at the MEIS – National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah in Ferrara devotes a significant attention to events and testimonies of Jewish Rome. From the synagogue found in the archaeological area of Ostia up to the present time, it is an impressive historical and cultural legacy, which last week was the focus of a meeting at the Jewish Museum in the capital. Introduced by the director of the Jewish Museum Olga Melasecchi and the art historian Davide Spagnoletto, the event saw the participation of the curators Andrea Morpurgo and Amedeo Spagnoletto, who is also the MEIS director. It was an opportunity to present both the exhibition, which will be open until September 17, and its catalog. “Houses of life” covers over two centuries of history offering projects, designs, documents and objects, architectural features, rituals, and social features of both synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Italy. “It is an exquisite and very beautiful exhibition”, remarked the director of the Jewish Museum of Rome Olga Melasecchi. “Talking about it today is part of the project started a few years ago of an increasingly close collaboration between Italian Jewish museums, in the name of a spirit of collegiality”.
From the catalog of Houses of Life, published by Sagep Editori, we publish an excerpt by Asher Salah about the ways Italian cinema has portrayed Jewish places.

By Asher Salah*

Films basically lack representation of the places related to the (Italian) Jew¬ish experience despite a vast and available literature on the image of Jews in filmmaking and the growing influence in film studies of what has been called the ‘spatial turn’, with an increased focus on the ideological values of the representation of space. Specifically, the question is what role the images of ghettos, synagogues, and cemeteries have. This is also true for how certain characters, symbols, and objects, such as the Star of David and the menorah, are perceived in the figures and diegetic nature of filmmaking, including the synthesis of complex existential situations and how the contours of specific historical and social contexts are described.
My contribution reviews thirty-one Italian fiction feature films with sites with explicit Jewish connotations, bearing in mind the distinction between ‘place’ as a mere geographical definition, and ‘space’ as the meaning attributed to a place from a specific (film making) perspective, and the performative acts that take place there (De Certeau 2010). Given the prevalence of films that deal with the trauma of the Shoah and anti-Semitic persecution in the 20th century, the image of Jews has often found itself automatically associated with the barbed wire fences and barracks of the death camps (Marcus 2007; Minuz 2010). Here, however, here I shall focus on how Jewish architectural heritage has been represented on Italian screens. […]

Rome’s Tempio Maggiore is undoubtedly the most frequently portrayed syn¬agogue in films. The first and one of the most articulate representations of Jewish Rome dates to the short Luce film, Israele a Roma, by Romolo Marcel¬lini, a 1948 docufiction based on a subject by Luigi Barzini, the story about a Roman Jew who had taken refuge in America in 1939 and his journey in the immediate post-war period , as he makes a passing visit to his hometown before flying to Palestine. The synagogue offers the narrator a chance to reflect on the catastrophe that befell his community, while also showing life resuming in the area of the Portico d’Ottavia. The film also offers a very rare example of Shaharit in the Panzieri-Fatucci Oratory, in the presence of the head, Rabbi Alfredo Ravenna (fig. 1).
The Tempio Maggiore is also the main set for Lizzani’s film, L’oro di Roma (1961), the first to deal with Jews and the Nazi-Fascist persecution in Italy. The film opens with a long scene of almost three minutes in a packed synagogue with the procession of the Torah scrolls on Shabbat morning, reconstructed with an almost ethnographic precision thanks also to the advice of writer Al¬berto Lecco and
with an almost ethnographic precision thanks also to the advice of writer Al¬berto Lecco and Rabbi Augusto Segre a highly original choice for Italian film¬making, where Jewish religious ceremonies that had rarely been shown. The temple itself also represents as a building the community as a body based on a fundamental solidarity of faith and a living bond with the Jewish tradition, despite the dramatic tensions that run through it regarding whether to comply with Kappler’s request and how to collect fifty kilos of gold. The characteris¬tic square-based pavilion dome and massive eclectic-style body of the Tempio Maggiore become a hallmark of Rome’s Jewish area in at least four other fea¬ture films: Francesco Amato’s 2017 Lasciati andare, and in three RAI television dramas, Franco Rossi’s 1982 Storia d’amore e d’amicizia (the only Italian film to feature images of a miqveh, the ritual bath), Luigi Comencini’s 1986 La Sto¬ria, and Giulio Base’s 2020 Un cielo stellato sopra il ghetto di Roma.
In a departure from the realism of the film’s Ferrara setting, the shots of the children gathered under the ritual shawl, the tallit, of their fathers, during the priestly blessing, in Vittorio De Sica’s Il giardino dei Finzi Contini, 1970, were filmed in the basement of the Tempio Maggiore in Rome, where the Spanish-rite oratory, with its characteristic bifocal layout, was set up in 1932. The same oratory appears with greater historical authenticity in Luigi Mag¬ni’s film Nell’anno del Signore in 1969, set in 1825 during the reactionary and narrow-minded pontificate of Leo XII and in which underage nuptials take place to escape the Pope’s forced conversion policy (fig. 2).
Synagogues of other Italian communities are very seen very rarely. In Sergio Capogna’s 1973 film Diario di un italiano inspired by Vasco Pratolini’s short story Vanda, the façade of the synagogue in Via Farini in Florence, the target of a volley of stones thrown by a Fascist gang, is a metonymy of an entire community victim of persecution with indifferent passers-by.
The over ten-minute static shot of the morning Torah weekday reading in the Florence synagogue filmed from the women’s gallery in Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet’s 1976 film, Fortini/Cani, a film document based on Franco Fortini’s text, I cani del Sinai (written in the aftermath of the Six-Day War) was unusually long. The shot from above and from a distance empha¬sises the emotional distance of the camera from the ceremony, while the words of the parashah are covered by Fortini’s voice, insisting on the “unin¬telligible rites in the synagogue where his father sometimes took him” and the tallit worn by relatives who “looked to him as if they were disguised for a secret ceremony”.
The sense of emptiness of the liturgical space is further accentuated by the shot from behind of Rabbi Fernando Belgrade with by a few assistants, at a time, before the reorganization of the synagogue space in the 1990s, when the tevah was in front of the aron, thus leaving the presence of any other participants in the ritual out of sight.
Piedmont’s rich heritage of synagogues is the backdrop to Giorgio Treves’ 1980 medium-length film, Il ritorno, in which a Jewish violinist, played by Uto Ughi, performs music in various synagogues in the province, including Cuneo, Mondovì, Casale, Moncalvo and Ivrea, to revitalise those now almost abandoned places. Turin’s monumental synagogue appears in Manila Paloma Blanca (1992) by Daniele Segre, who also directed the 2006 documentary, Sinagoghe: ebrei del Piemonte.
The importance of Jewish Triest in twentieth-century literary imagery is not found in any film. An outdoor glimpse of the synagogue in Triest can be seen in Aldo Lado’s 1983 film La città di Miriam, based on Fulvio Tomizza’s novel by the same name, while Simone Segre (Alessandro Gassman), struggling with his Jewish roots, wandering dreamily among the synagogue pews in Mauro Mancini’s 2020 film, Non odiare.
Finally, the synagogue in Genoa, which appears in Carlo Carlei’s 2008 film Fuga per la libertà based on the biography of the Jewish aviator and resist¬ance fighter Massimo Teglio. It also depicts the now vanished community of Sabbioneta in the Mantuan countryside, whose cemetery is also shown, in Ghila Valabrega’s 2014 short film Felice nel box. Both are unique in terms of peripheral Jewish settlements and very few (fig. 3). […]

In a corpus of almost three hundred films on Jewish topics over one hundred and twenty years of Italian film history (Salah 2007; Salah 2012), the small number of synagogues shown demonstrates the little significance in the Italian collective imagination of places where Jewish worship takes place. In fact, it would almost seem that the main religious ceremonies of Jews took place in the private sphere of the family or at least in spaces other than those officially conceived with a ritual function.
The arvit evening prayer of the Jewish military chaplain of the American army in the fifth episode of Paisà (Rossellini, 1946) takes place in his room, in Il generale della Rovere (De Sica, 1959) the Jewish hostages in the Regina Coeli prison Psalm 94 by, the minyan at Ellis Island in Nuovomondo (Crialese, 2006) in the immigrants’ waiting room, as well as the Jewish weddings in Il grido della terra (Coletti, 1948) on the deck of a ship or Hotel Meina (Lizzani, 2007) in the hotel on Lake Maggiore.
The same applies to funeral rites, such as the wake of the deceased in a ghetto in L’oro di Roma (Lizzani 1961) or Professor Emanuele Wald Luzzatti’s hashkavah in front of the memorial stone in Volterra in Le vaghe stelle dell’Orsa (Visconti, 1965).
Moreover, the small number of places connected to Jewish ritual and liturgy in Italian cinema, all after the end of the Second World War, although they have increased in recent decades, speaks to a perception of Jewish otherness not necessarily in religious but rather in cultural terms. However, a drastic choice while there were many other possibilities, such as ritual baths, kosher restau¬rants, Jewish schools, unlike in other countries are almost completely absent from our screens.
This leaves synagogues and cemeteries as the main Jewish ‘anthropological places’ par excellence in cinema, that space where, according to Marc Augé, there is a “perfect coincidence between spatial arrangement and social organisation”, as they include the main founding characters: identity, relationship, and history.
Indeed, despite the variety of meanings according to contexts and eras, in almost all the films in this review, the images of Jew¬ish anthropological places tend to converge in a similar semantic universe, in which, as in Umberto Saba’s Via del Monte verses, the synagogue seems to be placed side by side with the cemetery in a single view.
In Trieste, which has sorrows a plenty
And beauties of skyscape and landscape
There is a rise called via del Monte.
It starts off with a synagogue,
to finish in a cloister; half way up the slope
a chapel stands; there the black rush
of life can be surveyed by a meadow,
and the sea with its ships and the promontory,
the crowd and the market awnings down below.
Also, beside the rise, there is a graveyard,
Abandoned – they don’t
bury people or host funerals now, as far
as I recall: it’s the old cemetery
of the Jews, so dear to my memory
if I think of my ancestors buried, after
so much suffering and dealing, in that place
all alike in spirit, as in face.
Traslation by Wornisp, Carcanet press, Manchester, 2022

*From the essay Jewish spaces in Italian filmmaking: ghettos, synagogues and cemeteries in Houses of Life – Synagogues and cemeteries in italy, edited by Andrea Morpurgo and Amedeo Spagnoletto (Sagep, 2023)

Above, the Jewish cemetery of Sabbioneta, Felice in the box, Ghila Valabrega, 2014.