The Rain of Tears, and Heavenly Music from the Hell – a new film by Roberto Olla

By Dr Inna Rogatchi (C)

January 2016


Re-published in Telegiornale della Storia, Italy

There are two principal approaches in the vast field of documentary cinema: an objective, absented narrative of a classic pre-1970s BBC style; and subjective portraying of phenomena and people with palpable author’s position, which becomes a strong factor of the narrative itself. The subjective portraying is very demanding job – as once it is done, the author will be always taken accountable for entire film. It can be terribly damaging – as in the case of notorious Michael Moore; but it also can be indisputably gratifying – as in the case of noble Roberto Olla, the great man of the Italian documentary world.

For the last fifteen years, Roberto Olla had immersed himself into the haunting world of the Holocaust. He has produced fifteen documentaries on the subject, marking with his new production every International Holocaust Remembrance Day on RAI, Italian National broadcast television, from 2001 onward. Such consistency is a legacy of its own. But an interest towards a subject is not enough yet to make a film a factor of life – as Roberto’s films are known of.

What makes his films to become more than a cinema production? What makes them a part of historical process, of our effort to come to terms with the comprehension of a human nature after the Holocaust which has shattered the basics of moral to the pieces?

In the latest Roberto’s film, L’Altra Meta Di Un Numero ( The Other Half of a Number) we are seeing a synthesis on many levels: in genre, in the way of documenting the narrative, in addressing the film to its audiences.

The Other Half of a Number means the wives of the Holocaust survivors who with their bottomless devotion and love did help to their men to return to life after them being in Hell. Very interestingly, two wives portrayed in the film, Marika Kaufmann Venezia, and Selma Doumalar Modiano are very similar in their characters and even appearance; one could take them for sisters, cousins or relatives easily – against the fact that their husbands, late Shlomo Venezia and Sami Modiano are very different indeed. The women who did help their men to come back to life after the Nazi-made inferno, both are very calm, very deep, loving, and incredibly strong in their fragility. Watching them, one learns what love is about, indeed – despite just anything.

In its genre, the film melts a solid reportage in the scenes of current events of bringing the group of Italian students to Auschwitz together with Venezia and Modiano couples who are telling the kids what had happened to them and the others at this very place;  the masterly essay in focusing on unforgettable details  –  it seems that tattooed by the Nazi beasts numbers on a human hands had been filmed million times; but  in the Roberto Olla’s film it is done in the deep and hardly forgettable way. Talking on detail, one would never forget the tears of the former Auschwitz prisoner Sami Modiano with his head against the old cattle wagon in the middle of Auschwitz 70 years on. This one and the other close range’ moments in the film are qualifies for a classic in a historical documentary genre.  

The film goes through many interviews as well, and it also includes the elements of an essay and meditation, especially in all episodes where the music takes its reign; the unbelievable, strong, dramatic, living music written by Gabrielle Ciampi that excludes necessity of words completely.

It seems to me that the angels responsible for the souls of exterminated by the Nazis and their collaborators millions in Auschwitz and elsewhere, were clearly helping to Roberto and his team a big way: on the day of the filming of the group of the Italian kids visit to the camp, there were not simply grey skies over the Auschwitz. It was a heavy rain, as if skies were crying along with Shlomo Venezia, Sami Modiano and their wives addressing the children at the terrible spot.

It is a well known ‘professional secret’ among those who are busy with the Holocaust theme in what they do, that the testimonies given at the camps during the hostile weather do bear yet another dimension of the meaning of reflecting on the horror occurred. In the Roberto’s film, the Rain of Tears had been pouring over the people in the front of the cameras, both young and old ones, with might and persistence, as if the Heaven itself had been participating in this film, as well. And I have had the strong impression that it was, indeed.

Roberto Olla applies the best craft of the documentary journalism into his new film. As it is customary of him, he is extremely laconic when it comes to his own presence in his productions. The classic documentary journalism is just about that – for the author to be seen at very least on the screen giving the room for his heroes. But in reality, this golden rule of the documentary cinematography is followed by only few people. There are way too many documentaries on rather interesting subjects which, however, are resolved as a mirror to their authors’ egos which is rather ironic.

Roberto Olla never comes before his subjects. His selflessness is natural for him as the author. And it gives to his films the aura of love, respect and true interest of the author on his heroes. This is where professional requirements meet human qualities, to the effect unspoken, deeply rooted decency. The films with such underneath qualities are teaching the viewers in their own, sub-conscious way, and it is as rare, as important.  

Roberto Olla tells the two very different the Auschwitz inmates’ stories in his film, the one of the very rare surviving the Sonderkommando member, the only one Italian of those people ( late Shlomo Venezia), and the one of the teenagers of the camp who had been saved to live by his father and looked after and helped in the most macabre-like situations by the elder co-prisoners ( Sami Modiano).  This mini-mosaic brings to us who are watching the film today, the multi-layer reality of the Holocaust when in order to survive you should be masked as a corpse; when you had to bury your compatriots daily, to live with it till the rest of your life. And here comes those wonderful, completely devoted, understanding, supporting women, petite and quiet ones, strong in their love as a rock.

Roberto Olla listens to his heroes by heart. He has this talent of creating intimate, refined character of the Holocaust testimonies. Both his heroes and their wives are speaking to the author with a complete trust, almost as if talking with themselves. This level of trust produces not only very touching monologues, but it opens up a treasury box of a complete sincerity. As we know, sincerity is vulnerable. But paradoxically, deeply moving and emotional monologues by the heroes of Roberto Olla are creating a sense of increasing strength. What can be stronger than disarming truth straight away from Inferno, especially the one said in slow and quiet way?..

In everything he does, Roberto Olla demonstrates a very rare quality, both professionally and human-wise: his films and books are the products of heartfelt mind and minding heart.

But as intimate and personal the most of the film’s narrative is, the author masterly places it into the bigger context, and Olla’s intuition is the best of the kind. It is artistic, intellectual and historical intuition of an erudite. In the end of the film telling two personal stories, Roberto Olla shows us a rare footage from the USA military archives. It is clear that the author undertook a serious work in order to find the footage which would be new and meaningful. He succeeded in that a great way. The coloured footage shown by Roberto Olla in his film was sensational to me. Firstly, there is not much of the coloured Holocaust related footage from 1945, it is a rare material. Secondly, the colour of the footage creates unexpected effect. It brings those prisoners, whom I call ‘shadows of men’, to life. It gets into the stark contrast with so well known and absolutely awful black & white pictures that we all had to use to some degree by now, and especially after the new release of the Hitchcock’s The Night Is Dark footage on the Holocaust.  

The coloured footage shown by Roberto Olla in his film does show those people much more alive and real, as they were in life. Yes, very dramatic, but still a part of life, not shadows.  That coloured footage did show us those people, just after the camps, in the middle of their daily routine, and it was an extra-ordinary statement. The men in the stripped uniforms, some with the stripped prisoner hats, were sitting under the sun, and were preparing some food for themselves over the fire. Their motions were so very slow, and they did everything in clearly slowed down rhythm, being fixated on practically everything, mostly on the food that they were stirring slowly over the fire. It was the returning to the life, literally. But it was also a half-returning as you can see that the people being profoundly traumatised.  The footage is simply heartbreaking.

The quality of music in the film is outstanding. The Gabriele Ciampi’s music played at the Santa Cecilia school by young musicians today, with survivors and their families and friends present, seemed to be the best – and the most honest, intellectually  – way of telling the story and also to keep the memory about it alive. It is important element of the film, but also, in the way it has been done, the small concert at Santa Cecilia was a very good and meaningful deed. The music has a special effect: played at its crescendo in the film’s end, it is not rounding up its content in the way it is done in so many films; but it awakes the viewers to the film’s beginning, to its theme, to the people whose innermost dramas and tragedies were just shared with those young students visiting Auschwitz, and us all. It was another elegant and masterly finding of Roberto and his team in the film, and a very talented creation by Gabriele Ciampi.

And the last, but not least impression.  Roberto Olla did succeed in very uneasy task: in personification of the Holocaust memories. Sami Modiano is a very emotional man, and his image gets into one’s memory easily. But one should be able to see into people and to talk with the Holocaust survivors in a very special way to make them open up in the way which Roberto did it with Sami Modiano. Thanks to that extraordinary work of love, everyone who saw the film would remember Sami and his story for ever. And for many, Sami and his eyes, his hands, and his voice would also personify the Holocaust, and thus make a personal tragedy a universal one, and visa versum. This fact alone has made the Roberto’s mission absolutely successful.

Two days after the Italian premiere of the film at the Rai 1, the president of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella hold the state reception in commemoration of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He, who had visited Auschwitz, too, spoke very deeply, being moved and thoughtful. In the Quirinale splendid hall, among the distinguished guests I saw Sami Mondiano whom I related now almost like to a family member, thanks to Roberto Olla. I was proud and happy for Sami and his family. And I knew that everyone in that hall, in the heart of the Italian state, did know on the Sami’s, his father’s, his family’s, his friends’, his fellow inmates’ history; that everyone there, even unwittingly, remembered that number on the Sami’s hand which we all were seeing so very closely just a couple of days before on our screens. And I also knew that the hearts of many people in the Quirinale hall, including the highest leadership of the country, as the hearts of so many of us who did see the L’Altra Meta Di Un Numero film, had been also tattooed with the number of the Sami’s hand, from the story that had been brought to us by Roberto Olla and his team with such love, such devotion, and so masterly.But there are many other things in the film, and in general in the Roberto Olla’s work for which we all should be very grateful to this big master and great man.

When a film is becoming a human deed, it is the best legacy of its creator. And this very much is the case of L’Altra Meta Di Un Numero and its author, the great Roberto Olla.

Inna Rogatchi


January 2014

Dr Inna Rogatchi is the writer, scholar and film-maker. She is the president of the The Rogatchi Foundation –  Her recent film is The Lessons of Survival. Conversations with Simon Wiesenthal – , and her forthcoming book is Dark Stars, Wise Hearts: Challenges of the Post-Holocaust Legacy .