Venice Fest Fetes Film About a Jew-hater's 'Coming Out'

This week’s debut at the prestigious festival of a Jewish-directed mockumentary may presage a desire in Europe’s entertainment industry to address anti-Semitism.

Courtesy: On My Own Productions

MILAN – At the Venice Film Festival, now on through September 12, they are apparently not afraid of joking about anti-Semitism. Last Sunday the 72nd annual La Biennale di Venezia, one of Europe’s major cinematic festivals, together with Cannes and Berlin, hosted the premiere of a mockumentary (a film in which fictional events and personae are portrayed in documentary style), ridiculing the tide of anti-Semitism on the Continent.

While making fun of the phenomenon is not unheard of in American-made and other English-language movies (think Sacha Baron Cohen), anti-Semitism is still somewhat of a taboo in Continental Europe, where wounds from the Holocaust are still unhealed, and recent attacks – such as the 2014 shooting at Brussels’ Jewish Museum, and the killing of hostages at the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris in January – are fostering the perception that anti-Jewish prejudice is very much alive and even on the rise.

“I was a bit worried that the film could be misunderstood and that we were going to receive complaints, especially from the Jewish community. But in the end the public was very warm and everything went smoothly,” says Alberto Caviglia, the 31-year-old director.

Himself a member of Rome’s Jewish community, Caviglia tells Haaretz in a phone interview that he had been “thinking for a long time about a way to tackle anti-Semitism” in cinematic form.

“It’s a huge issue and I feel very pessimistic [about it],” he says, “so I told to myself: I might as well make a joke about it, rather than just get depressed.”

Pecore in erba,” his debut movie, is centered on a young character named Leonardo Zuliani, who is living in Rome. (The title literally means "sheeps on the grass," a reference to one of the scenes in the movie.) Zuliani has been hating Jews since he was a child, and the movie follows his quest for acceptance in a society that is portrayed as frowning upon anti-Semitism, but eventually comes to condone and even embrace it.

“We were playing around the concept of inclusiveness, setting it in a ‘reverse’ world, where it’s not minorities or gays who long for acceptance, but the anti-Semites: It’s the coming-out of a Jew-hater,” explains screenwriter Benedetta Grasso, who co-wrote the script with Caviglia and Paolo Cosseddu.

The mockumentary features a scene in which a “sociologist” warns about the “dangers of anti-Semitic phobia” and the “discrimination unjustly suffered by Jew-haters for simply being who they are.”

Zuliani is seen joining several groups that share his dislike of Jews – Catholic ultra-conservatives, right-wing groups, Holocaust-denying historians, anti-Israeli activists and radical Islamists – only to get expelled from each of them. In one such instance, he gets into a fight with a priest after he is told that Jesus was a Jew.

The movie also tackles some actual recent events, such as the appearance of anti-Semitic graffiti in Rome’s Jewish ghetto in 2014 – for example, Zuliani gets kicked out of a neofascist group when he misspells “morte agli ebrei” (“death to the Jews”), and writes instead “torte agli ebrei” (“cakes to the Jews”) on the ghetto walls – and the rise of the anti-immigration party Northern League (Nerdish League, in the film).

“Pecore in erba,” which has already received positive reviews from major national newspapers La Stampa and Repubblica, is set for release in selected Italian theaters on September 24. It was produced by the independent On My Own company, but features several cameo appearances by big-time Italian celebrities, including director Tinto Brass and award-winning actress Margherita Buy. The movie was made over the course of three months on a shoe-string budget.

The making of the film may be a sign that some elements in the realms of European show business and entertainment are starting to perceive anti-Semitism as an issue that must be addressed.

“When we started to contact celebrities earlier this year [and asked them to appear in the movie], it was right after the Hyper Cacher attack in Paris so there was a lot of attention to the topic,” recalls Grasso. “I wonder if we would have gotten so many positive answers a few years ago.”