Nov 10, 2015

A Catholic Priest in Love: The Little World of Don Camillo

After I spent the night with Todd in the summer of 1976, after my sophomore year in high school, I became obsessed with all things Catholic.  One day I found The Little World of Don Camillo (1950) at the St. Pius Catholic Church book sale: a small, yellow collection of short stories, illustrated by cute, half-naked angels and devils.

I had never read anything like this before. There were lots of stories about boys in love with boys, or teenagers with adult men, but never two adults!  And one was a tall, muscular Catholic priest who assaulted people with candlesticks!  And the other, a Communist!

The small yellow hardback remained on my bookshelf for several years before vanishing; I think my mother accidentally put it in a "to donate" pile.  Then, in the spring of 1985, my Italian class in east Texas was assigned the original.

The Little World of Don Camillo is the first of eight collections of short stories about the priest of a small village in Tuscany.  Formerly a boxer and World War II resistance fighter, Don Camillo has hard fists and a hot temper.   The Mayor, Peppone, once fought the Fascists beside Don Camillo, but now he is a godless Communist. The two former friends, on opposite sides of an ideological fence, argue religion and politics as they vie for control of the village.

Peppone is married, but his wife and children rarely appear.  And almost none of the stories involve the hetero-romance of other characters.  Often they involve a conundrum that requires Don Camillo and Peppone to work together:

Vandals steal Don Camillo's clothes while he's swimming.
Don Camillo returns to the boxing ring to save the town's honor.
Don Camillo and Peppone are stuck on a ferris wheel.
Peppone is lost in the mountains, and Don Camillo must rescue him.

As the years pass, from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, Don Camillo and Peppone grow into middle age, and though they remain "enemies," their love for each other shines through more often than not.  In the last volume, Don Camillo Meets the Flower Children (1969), a young, hip priest has come to town, and butts heads with Peppone's hippie son, and the cycle begins anew.

The French-Italian movie Don Camillo (1952) starred Fernandel as Don Camillo and Gino Cervi as Peppone (above), and Franco Interlenghi (left) as the young hunk who requires their assistance.  Four sequels appeared.

There was also a 1980 BBC television series, with Mario Adorf and Brian Blessed, and a 1983 Italian movie with Terence Hill (left) and Colin Blakeley.

The author, political satirist Giovanni Guareschi (1908-1969), was a conservative Catholic, and heterosexual -- he also published humorous stories about his wife and children. I wonder what he would have thought if he knew that his books had a strong gay subtext.

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