Critic’s Corner Columnist
“Scarlet and the Black,” made in 1983, follows a true story about a monsignor named Hugh O’Flaherty, who works in the Vatican during the Nazi occupation in World War II. It tells of his struggle to save Jews and allied prisoners of war and hide them in Rome.
O’Flaherty forms an organization comprised mainly of Italian civilians and fellow priests who help him in his mission to save the persecuted before they are captured by the Gestapo.
O’Flaherty faces many issues along the way and not just the Gestapo. He needs the money to provide the basic needs of the men such as food and clothing. By the time the Allied forces arrive in Rome, O’Flaherty and his organization are responsible for saving 6,500 Allied soldiers and Jews.
Unlike many films made today that are only loosely based on a true story, “Scarlet and the Black” stays very true to what actually happened.
The makers of the film did their research and include aspects of O’Flaherty’s past, such as his anti-British sentiments, founded in the way Catholics were treated in Ireland. The filmmakers found an incredible story and sought to tell it without adding in, taking out or portraying the people in an uncharacteristic way.
The scriptwriting reflects this brilliantly throughout the film. Each person is introduced in a way that reflects a bit of their personality. O’Flaherty is first seen teaching a young man how to box, displaying his fighting spirit which is a key factor in the film as he strives to protect those who are in danger within Rome.
From the beginning, Colonel Kappler is shown to be ambitious and arrogant and Pope Pius XII is shown as someone who is not easily fooled.
However, the pope is also the only person who is not portrayed completely accurately as a result of the false information that was being widely spread at the time of the film’s making, which to some degree persists today.
The writing also displays a tension that can almost be felt from the beginning very well. The opening scene sets the stage with a meeting between Kappler and the pope, in which Kappler suggests a white line be painted to demarcate Vatican territory.
The writing and acting for this scene is such that it presents the rising tension between the Nazis and the Vatican, with the pope underhandedly yet blatantly letting the Nazis know they can’t fool him.
This tension is not forgotten but is skillfully carried out by the writing throughout the film as it comes up again and again with interactions between O’Flaherty and Kappler. The strain naturally escalates as O’Flaherty continues to outwit Kappler, leaving the latter increasingly stressed and using more desperate measures to bring down O’Flaherty’s organization.
Another important factor that “Scarlet and the Black” does well is making O’Flaherty, the organization, and their struggles and problems feel real. It doesn’t gloss over, sugarcoat or put too much of a focus on the problems they faced but focuses on their main goal: saving people.
Yes, they had issues with not having enough money, people being caught, having to create code names, etc. But the audience’s attention was always directed towards the people.
The many struggles and ways they were forced to adapt was portrayed as a subtheme, if you will, that never took away from the focus of the film. However, these were also what helps the characters feel real and allows the audience to connect with them more. It is far from smooth sailing for any of them as they each have their own personal struggles.
The two soldiers in the beginning of the film who are hesitant to trust; O’Flaherty wrestling with how to do more — whether he should risk his own life or help from the shadows; even Colonel Kappler is seen multiple times tired and stressed from his work and the amount of pressure that is on him. All of these inner battles help the characters come alive on screen.
The directors wrote and the actors portrayed the characters as being human, not able to handle everything without mistakes, not being purely evil and bent on destruction, but human with their own inner struggles, hardships and joys.
“Scarlet and the Black” is a marvelously done film with tension, suspense and human struggle and virtue. It’s an excellent script and a true story told without the director’s spin on it, and the actors performed very well.
It is the story of one unsung hero and how he worked to save others. It is a remarkable film that displays the struggle of trying to hide people from the Nazi during World War II and one that should be seen at least once, if not more.