Catholic priests shield Jews from the Nazis. Based on a true story. [ The Assisi Underground credits: Dir: Alexander Ramati/ Ben Cross, James Mason, Irene Papas/ 115 min/ Drama/ Italy, USA/ Filmed in English/ Democide]
“[During World War II], altogether eighty percent of the Italian Jews were saved from Nazi execution, the very opposite of what happened in the rest of Europe, where eighty percent of the Jews perished. This film is a tribute to the compassion and the daring generosity of those individuals that made this [Assisi] rescue possible.” So says the narrator here, referring to the depicted heroic acts of some Italian clergy, particularly Padre Rufino Niccacci.
The story begins in 1943, when the Germans occupied northern Italy and began rounding up Jews for shipment to the death camps. Under orders from the bishop of Assisi, Padre Rufino made every effort to block the deportations. With great cunning, and despite enormous risk, he transported dozens of Jews through the war zone to the Allied side. Others he hid in the sacred buildings of Asissi itself, playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with the SS. Rufino saved Jews by any and all means—lies, false identity cards, promises of postwar protection for those fascists who helped him. Ultimately the SS got suspicious, imprisoned him, and threatened him with death, but he was saved by a sympathetic Catholic Nazi commander.
This telling of Rufino’s heroism in the face of tyranny makes for an inspiring and suspenseful story. The Assisi Underground also benefits from some quality in the cast—Ben Cross in the leading role, as the self-doubting but ultimately courageous Padre Rufino, and an elderly James Mason as the bishop. It’s likely to have special appeal to Catholics, as it’s clearly intended as a salute not just to the heroes of Assisi, but to all those of like faith who set aside old differences to lend a hand to persecuted Jews during World War II.
“Unlike many World War II melodramas, The Assisi Underground rings true because it is true, and its good acting (James Mason is the bishop) and simple direction add to the authenticity.”
–The Fifty Best Catholic Movies of All Time