Transposing a literary work into cinema is not an easy task. And rarely does the film succeed in thrilling us at least as much as the book does. But this is one of the rare cases in which the director has achieved his intent.
It is a historical novel by Leonardo Sciascia set in Sicily at the end of the 18th century. We are in an era of full ferment: the Enlightenment ideas have traced the path that will lead to the French Revolution. The noble privileges are challenged by the innovative ideas of equality.
In the island the Viceroy Caracciolo, with his attempts at reform, arouses the ire of the aristocracy that does not want to give up these privileges. In this context we meet the figure of the friar Giuseppe Vella. It is December 1782 when, thanks to his presumed knowledge of the Arabic language, Vella is called by the Viceroy to act as interpreter for the ambassador of Morocco who unexpectedly landed in Palermo because of a storm. The friar, who leads a very modest and anonymous life, soon gets used to the comforts of nobility with which the unexpected event puts him in contact. He devises a stratagem that will soon put him in the limelight in a world that had never considered him before. He pretends to translate a text in Arabic (which is none other than one of the many stories of the Prophet) pretending to be a fictitious historical code: The Council of Egypt. The text, as Vella insinuates, would give back to the Kingdom the full power of the island and would deprive the nobility of their baronial privileges. The monk, who in the meantime will be awarded the title of abbot, becomes one of the most prominent and feared characters, for obvious reasons, by the aristocracy of Palermo, which does everything possible to ingratiate him. To the vicissitudes of the abbot are interwoven those of the lawyer Di Blasi at the head of a Jacobin conspiracy for which he will be sentenced to death.
The story, although it paints a precise historical period, reveals an extraordinary modernity and a universality common to many of the works of Sciascia. The value of the work finds its fulfillment in highlighting one of the paradoxes of the Sicilian reality: the indolence that the island has always shown in receiving the historical events that it perceives almost as a distant echo, in the inability to be substantially involved. The events of the time, in fact, assume an irrelevant value in the noble salons compared to the fiction devised by Abbot Vella, to the “invented history”, that is. The film is absolutely faithful to the text that becomes the main protagonist with the expedient of the narrator’s voice (entrusted to Giancarlo Giannini) that allows us to enjoy passages of the novel pregnant with an atmosphere, at times, poetically comparable to pages of Manzoni’s memory.
Elena Cristina Musso
Silvio Orlando: Don Giuseppe Vella
Tommaso Ragno: Lawyer Francesco Paolo Di Blasi
Renato Carpentieri: Monsignor Ayroldi
Antonio Catania: Don Saverio Zarbo
Luis Bacalov soundtrack