Don Camillo is the central character, a Catholic priest, in a series of short stories by Giovanni Guareschi, an Italian writer who published in the years after WWII. The short stoies are set in a small, northern Italian town and deal with the life and complications of Don Camillio as he upholds the Roman Catholic positions as Italy steers toward communism. His arch nemesis is the Communist Mayor, Giuseppe Bottazzi, nicknamed, Peppone. Now based on that you would think that these stories are pretty cerebral, but perhaps just the opposite. It’s not that they lack depth or intellectual vigor, but that they are mostly comic, though it should be said not all. The depth is in the humor.
Don Camillo is a big, brash man, passionate about the church and perhaps at times falls into a sin or two to make his point. He speaks to Christ, and in turn Christ speaks back the moral position, which is sometimes not what Don Camillo wants to do. Peppone may not be as brash, but perhaps equally hot tempered, and he is devious. So you get a hot tempered priest, a hot tempered communist, both hot tempered Italians, and you have the ingredients of a lot of fun.
Guareschi was in some ways like Don Camillo, a big brash man, but he certainly appears to have more of a sense of humor than his character. Satire seemed to fit Guareschi’s writing well, and what could he satirize more than Church he was familiar with and the communists he detested. Middle class in upbringing, he was clearly on the side of the anticommunists and actually a monarchist in his younger days. He wrote for newspapers but his success at story telling led him to fiction. There are some six or seven collections of Don Camillo stories translated into English. Each story is typically not very long. I had a collection when I was growing up. A friend at Goodreads reviewed a collection, and it brought back some memories. So I went out and got The Complete Little World of Don Camillo, translated by Adam Elgar, which contains over thirty stories. Each story appears to be less than ten pages each.
I read “A Sin Confessed,” which may be the very first Don Camillo story. Guareschi introduces us to the character in the first paragraph as if he had never written of him before.
Don Camillo was one of those straight-talkers who are incapable of knowing when to hold back. On one occasion during Mass, after some unseemly goings-on in the village involving young girls and landowners far too old for them, he threw caution to the wind. Having started an agreeable homily on matters in general, he happened to catch sight of one of the guilty parties sitting right there in the front row. Breaking off from what he’d been saying, he draped a cloth over the Crucifix above the high altar, and planting his fists on his hips he finished his sermon in his own unique style. So blunt was the language of this great brute of a man and so thunderous the delivery that the very roof of the little church had appeared to shake.
OK, now you can see what I mean by a brash priest. In the next paragraph we get the kernel of the story:
Naturally, at election time, Don Camillo expressed his opinions about leftwing activists in a similarly explicit manner, with the consequence that, just about sunset, as he was coming back to the presbytery, a great hulk of a man wrapped in a cloak darted out from a hedge behind him and, making use of the fact that the priest was encumbered by his bicycle and a bundle of seventy eggs hanging from the handlebars, gave him a whack with a stick before vanishing as if the earth had swallowed him up.
Don Camillo said nothing about this to anyone, but once he was back in the presbytery and the eggs were in a safe place, he went into the church to ask Jesus for advice, as he always did in moments of doubt.
‘What should I do?’ asked Don Camillo.
‘Rub a bit of oil and water on your back and say nothing,’ answered Jesus from above the altar. ‘You must forgive those who offend you. That is the rule.’
Don Camillo and Jesus go back and forth, the priest wanting to take revenge, but Jesus presenting the voice of conscience. Here’s the conclusion of their exchange, Don Camillo speaking:
‘It’s pointless arguing with you, you’re always right. Thy will be done. We’ll forgive. But remember, if my silence makes that lot think they can get away with anything, and then they smash my head in, it’ll be your responsibility. I could quote you passages from the Old Testament …’
‘Don Camillo, you come here telling me about the Old Testament! I take full responsibility for whatever happens. But, just between ourselves, it serves you right. That little misfortune will teach you to play politics in my house.’
So Don Camillo forgave. But one thing stuck in his craw like a fishbone: the burning desire to know who had given him that tap on the back.
Now can you imagine, after some time has passed, Peppone comes in for a confession after 28 years of being lapsed and confesses that he was the one who hit the priest with a stick. Enraged, Don Camillo absolves him, gives him ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys for a penance and rushes off to the crucifix to speak to Christ.
‘Jesus,’ he said, ‘forgive me, but I am going to beat him into a pulp.’
‘Do not even dream of it,’ answered Jesus. ‘I have forgiven him, and so must you. Deep down he is a good man.’
‘Don’t trust the Reds, Jesus. They lure you in just so they can take advantage of you. Take a good look at him. Can’t you see what a villainous mug he’s got?’
Well, I won’t spoil how Don Camillo gets his revenge, with Jesus’ consent no less, and Peppone even takes it good naturedly. A happy ending for all.
These are a fun bunch of stories.
I came across this movie of Don Camillo, narrated by Orson Wells, of all people. It seems like a patching together of various Don Camillo stories. The opening part of the movie might be based on “A Sin Confessed.” But I’ve only watched about ten minutes.