Rejecting Peppone. Why obsolete anticlericalism will not emancipate Maltese culture from its provincial and repressive mediocrity.

Posted in 1 by Editor on March 15, 2009














Gino Cervi as Peppone and Fernandel as Don Camillo


Ever since Graham Greene published his Monsignor Quixote in 1982, I have preferred Enrique Zancas, mayor of El Toboso, La Mancha, to Giuseppe Bottazzi, Giovannino Guareschi’s small town mayor of the Bassa Padana, that melancholic strip that runs along the Po between Pavia and the Comacchio wetlands. The Bottazzi of my youth – better known, of course, as Peppone – had been reduced to a caricature of political folklore by the black and white state television of a Cold War Italy dominated by the Democrazia Cristiana.

It must be said that Guareschi’s original character lent itself well to this sort of operation. Guareschi was himself a political caricaturist entrenched on the right wing of the DC with a penchant for penning successful electoral slogans. The well known Nel segreto della cabina elettorale Dio ti vede, Stalin no (In the secrecy of the voting booth God sees you, Stalin can’t) appears to have been his creation.

Togliatti calling Guareschi “three times an idiot times three” during a mass meeting did not prevent Peppone’s success as a media icon, as an image that acts as manipulating mediator between audience and reality, that shapes the audience’s view of reality and, ultimately, becomes the audience’s reality. He was a reassuring figure. As long as the forze laiche were led on the ground by the likes of him, determined and sincere, burly and indignant, but ultimately incapable and possibly unwilling to displace Don Camillo as moral arbiter of the last resort, Italy and the West were safe from the secularisation of morals.

Mark Anthony Falzon (The Sunday Times, March 8) fears “that things are looking pretty hopeless” for us, firstly, because this “island of Don Camillo is small and peripheral” and, secondly, because our Peppone “seems barely interested in any case” in championing the “secularisation of morals” – as I have referred to it above. This apathy of our Peppones and their tendency to retire into an erudite but cowardly individualism is, in Dr Falzon’s view, a main cause of the failure of the pluralisation of the media so grandiloquently announced by the Nationalist Party soon after they came to power in 1987.

Dr Falzon correctly points out that although under the banner of pluralism we did get a proliferation of radio and TV stations as well as the production of a large number of communications graduates, this did not result in a corresponding diversity of world-views. On the contrary, we witnessed a shrinking of diversity. We got more means for the delivery of views, more media, but the range of diverse views became narrower and tended to cluster around a set of middling values, of profoundly conservative clerical values. This, as I have argued in my blog, is the foundation of the mediocrity of our media, itself a reflection of the profound mediocrity of our culture.

Dr Falzon blames, partly at least, our Peppones for this, understood as those who should know better than to let our Don Camillos and their lay lackeys hog the media, thereby producing the dull uniformity of world-views that make our culture one of the least pluralist in Europe. Dr Falzon eloquently refers to these Peppones as “erudite renegades” and indeed they are. But, can one realistically expect any better from Peppone? I began, in fact, by reminding readers that Peppone was a caricature produced by the conservative clerical right in post-war Italy with the express intention of demonstrating the superiority of its Don Camillos, especially in the country’s peripheral small villages and towns.

That is why I prefer the manchegan mayor Enrique Zancas to the emilian mayor Giuseppe Bottazzi aka Peppone. That is why I prefer Graham Greene’s creation to Giovanni Guareschi’s. Zancas, unlike Peppone, is a complex character and not a pathetic caricature. He is not the fist-raising hero of socialist realism, far from it. He has no illusions about the moral and dogmatic infallibility of the party in whose ranks he has for so long militated.

Guareschi portrays Peppone – of course – as a shrill and strutting anti-clerical. If noisy but ineffectual anti-clericals did not exist, the clerical right would have to invent them. To Camillo’s cultural hegemony over his parishioners, Peppone can only respond with petty spitefulness and anti-clerical rhetoric. On the other hand, Zancas’ relationship with Monsignor Quixote is a rich and textured dialectic that morally enriches both. Indeed, it is Monsignor Quixote who finally rises against the Church-state phalanx and is ruthlessly suppressed.

If you haven’t already done so, read Greene’s magistral scene in which the monsignor creates a scandal during the procession – he attempts to force a parish-priest from parading Our Lady through the village clothed in banknotes – and is hunted down and killed by the Guardia Civil, much to the relief of his ecclesiastical superiors. Zancas emerges a wiser man from this experience, emancipated from any dogmatism, rising above shallow anti-clericalism. It is the adventures he shares with Monsignor Quixote that finally distinguish him from the two-dimensional Peppone.

I prefer Zancas because he reminds me of the thousands of Spanish democrats who were not prevented from developing politically and intellectually by fixation on the memories of the Civil War. It is they who have made possible today’s Spain. Josè Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Spain is a country where “plural and challenging public discourse” (to borrow Dr Falzon’s terminology)is valued as a sine qua non of democracy. Of course, there are those who look back with nostalgia but the Zancas are vigilant. Spain today is possibly the EU’s most pluralist member state.

Perhaps we are not seeing the increasing number of persons who are quietly but steadily emancipating themselves from this country’s cultural mediocrity because we would not recognise them if we saw them. We are looking for Peppones when these persons reject the Peppone model. No wonder we fail to see them. No wonder some of us say that “things are looking pretty hopeless” and see only the “grotesque line-up of ubiquitous faces” extolling the virtues of mediocrity on the media.

Mario Vella

This article appeared in The Times of Malta on Monday, 16th March 2009. You may access it directly at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090316/opinion/forgetting-all-about-peppone


12 Responses

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  1. bugeja said, on March 16, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    if the times of malta reporting is anything to go by the following are quotes from Dr. Muscat’s speech with proposals on immigration:

    “the migrants too needed to understand and respect the Maltese way of living and culture. They had to understand that women had a right to wear what they wished, that people queued for what they needed, and they did not relieve themselves in public. They needed to adopt to Maltese norms so as to help the Maltese understand them better There should therefore be courses for community living for the migrants.”

    “In Marsa residents saw migrants relieve all their natural needs in the middle of the road. In Safi and Kirkop residents locked their doors whenever they heard a helicopter flying low, because migrants would have escaped, and some were found on people’s roofs.”

    I genuinely ask you if such speak should belong to any European progressive/leftist party? to me the language and wording used is more akin to lega nord’s

    • Editor said, on March 16, 2009 at 11:36 pm

      We normally assume that comments on this blog are made in good faith. We would like to assume that this comment, too, was posted in good faith. On the other hand, in this case we have our doubts. Observe that the two short paragraphs quoted from Joseph Muscat’s long speech are evidently torn out of context and that the correspondent has (innocently or maliciously?) ignored the many paragraphs emphasising the absolute value of the person regardless of ethnic origin and religious faith. The point of Joseph’s highly articulated speech was that if we stick to abstract declarations of principles we will be the pious accomplices of those ruthless speculators that are becoming rich on the skin of those driven to our shores by despair.

  2. J. Borg said, on March 21, 2009 at 12:18 am

    One day Joseph Muscat is attacked for having supported the idea that third-country nationals (just like EU nationals) would be given the right to vote in municipal and EP elections. Now the spin is that he’s far-right. Yesterday I heard Simon Busuttil on Net saying that it is very dangerous that Joseph Muscat and Azzjoni Nazzjonali are “saying the same thing” (sic). Some way or another, Muscat has to be demonised.

  3. bugeja said, on March 21, 2009 at 9:18 am

    @j borg in my opinion it was the language used that was far right not the proposals.. for instance he could easiliy have left the ‘relieving in public’ thing out and make his point anyway.. regarding the point that joseph is demonised anyway, who said that those who criticised him on gving the vote to third country nationals and those are criticising him on being far right are the same people.. i for one would agree with that proposal as with other proposals he made

  4. J. Borg said, on March 21, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    bugeja, the nationalist media attacked JM for supporting the voting proposal AND for his stance on immigration.

    Regarding the relieving in public bit, it is usually such incidents, which might seem to be trivial, which create antagonism. Such issues have to be dealt with if tension is to be avoided.

  5. bugeja said, on March 21, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    @ j borg yes the nationalists attacked him in both but doesnt labour do the same i.e. attack whichever way… anyway i speak for myself and not for any party and i am sure ther are many like me..

    regarding the ‘relieving in public’ bit i am not saying we should ignore it or that its trivial, anzi personally something like that would really irritate me.. BUT again I am of the opinion that political leaders (especially progressive or in d centre) should refrain from using a kind of language which to me looks like its designed to capitalise on hate and fear.. ultimately if such cases exist and im sure they do Muscat or anyone should alert the auhorities about it without going public

  6. bugeja said, on March 21, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    afterall, what are we really after? to stop immigrants from relieving themselves in public and take care of public hygiene jew biex nitkazaw fil publiku fuq l immigrati u inhossuna superjuri

  7. J. Borg said, on March 22, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    bugeja, so Labour should let citizens feel that only the far-right is protecting them? Should Labour sit back while some of its grassroots (who might be more sensitive on this issue due to the concentration of detention camps in Labour-leaning areas + the fact that African immigrants are more likely to take up blue-collar jobs, where Labour has a strong following) feel that none of the main-stream Parties are acting about their every-day problems? Labour is dealing with this issue without being racist or xenophobic (JM actually condemned the sorry state in which immigrants have to live in the detention camps).

  8. mario said, on March 22, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    you can act on people’s everyday problems without using such language.. did he actually stop anyone peeing in public by saying it in parliament? i dont think so

  9. mario said, on March 22, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    by the way i live in cottonera

  10. How to Get Six Pack Fast said, on April 15, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    I can tell that this is not the first time you mention the topic. Why have you chosen it again?

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