I heard about The Peasant and the Priest from my sister, Judith, who went to art school with the film’s director, Esther Podemski. Podemski is a New York City filmmaker who has taught at the New School, but my sister knows her as “a fabulous painter.” Having seen her latest documentary, I’m not surprised to hear that. The Peasant and the Priest, a protest against the price we pay for globalization, captures the texture of a vanishing way of life with delicate precision.
The priest of the title is Oreste Benzi, who ministers to sex slaves in Florence. The first words we hear from him say is to one of his “daughters,” a roadside prostitute. “Be joyful,” he tells her, before blessing her. He clearly follows his own advice, finding meaning and joy, as well as frustration and sorrow, in tending to his bedraggled flock. The peasant is Sergio Ermini, who lives 12 miles south of Florence on the small estate farm he manages. The last of the sharecroppers in his part of Tuscany, Sergio does almost exactly what his father and a long line of fathers before him did, tending to grapevines and trees (in one of the parallels Podemski draws between the two, he refers to his plants as his children) and turning their fruits into wine and olive oil.
Both men were in their 70s when Podemski started filming, and both are portrayed as among the last of a dying breed. Her premise is that the social fabric that supported men like Sergio and Father Oreste has been shredded by “the financial and political realities of the world,” as the owner of Sergio’s farm puts it. We hear from many people—social workers, neighbors, and others as well as Sergio and Father Oreste themselves—about how those forces are changing Tuscany, even its softly rolling hills now lost to long rows of machine-made furrows. Podemski also provides context in the form of a 14th-century Italian mural, an allegory about good and bad government whose three parts show a happy, well-functioning society, a sick society ruled by despots and the just rulers who stand between one possible fate and the other. Returning frequently to the mural to tease out its messages, the film keeps the image fresh by using animation to separate it into a series of layers, which we float through before closing in on the relevant part. (This film’s co-editor and animator, Gregory Loser, was co-editor of Godfrey Cheshire’s excellent Moving Midway.)
It’s not clear why Podemski sees Father Oreste as an endangered species. I believe the film’s references to the power of the system that profits from and perpetuates the global appetite for sex slaves, but I didn’t get why it should be any harder now than it ever has been for priests like Father Oreste to do what they can to counteract the effects of an evil system. I also had my doubts about Podemski’s portrayal of sharecropping as a kind of paradise lost, since sharecropping is often just another form of slavery. After all, as Sergio’s daughter points out, her father’s way of life is dying out partly because none of the young people in the area want to live like that any more.
But if Podemski’s movie can be vague about the political and economic forces changing Italy, it does make it clear that those forces are destroying lives, and it’s crystal clear in conveying the dignity and meaning of its main subjects’ work. When we see Father Oreste talking to his “daughters” or hear from them ourselves, we feel the urgency of our need for people like him, and the quietly observant camera makes life on Sergio’s farm and in his community look achingly beautiful and fulfilling. The ambient sound also helps, piping in such realistic sounds of farm life that my cat, who could usually care less about the movies I watch at home, leapt up and was searching for birds until I plugged in my earbuds.
And so, though I may not agree with Podemski that Good Samaritans are on the way out, I resonated to the sentiments expressed by her final voiceover. “When the last peasant and Good Samaritan are gone, we will have lost the wisdom they acquired over many centuries,” she said. “Their watchfulness over the fleeting moment. Their insistence upon justice in a world of unending scarcity. Their suspicion of progress. This is why we will miss them.”
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.