«The last time we were children» by Bisio: the beauty of friendship in the horror of the Shoah


By John

One of the greatest tragedies in history reinterpreted through the disenchanted gaze of children in a story between drama and comedy that recalls Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” in terms of theme and perspective. Claudio Bisio makes his directorial debut with «The Last Time We Were Children»adaptation of the novel of the same name by Fabio Bartolomei (Edizioni e/o), in theaters with Medusa.

Done 80 years after the roundup of the Rome Ghetto (16 October 1943), the opening title of the latest Giffoni, the film was the most watched of the weekend with over 66 thousand admissions and a total taking of half a million euros. Today it will be screened at the Cinema De Seta in Palermo, in the second of the three Cinema Days for Schools, with a rich program of initiatives, including the collateral workshops of Anec Lab Educational, promoted at the Cityplex Tiffany. After the screening, Bisio will meet teachers and school directors to discuss the story told, that of four Roman children playing war in the summer of 1943, while the bombs of the real conflict explode around them. They are Italo (Vincenzo Sebastiani), the rich son of the Federal (Bisio himself), Cosimo (Alessio Di Domenicantonio) with his father in confinement, Vanda (Carlotta De Leonardis), an orphan girl, and Riccardo (Lorenzo McGovern Zaini), of a wealthy Jewish family. On October 16th the latter will be taken away from the Ghetto, and the other three friends will decide to leave in secret to convince the Germans to free him.

«Yesterday we held a screening for schools in Rome, with the Jewish Community and Mayor Gualtieri and it was a success – Bisio tells us – . I didn’t think of it as a film for schools, but the teachers said they would talk about it in class because it’s a light film, you laugh, you smile but it doesn’t make you forget the setting in the period of war and the Shoah.”

The book and film are linked to the genre that tells the story of the Holocaust from the point of view of children, from Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” to Mark Herman’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” or “Jojo Rabbit”. Did you and co-writer Fabio Bonifacci take inspiration from titles like this when adapting Bartolomei’s novel?
«I would also mention “A Bag of Marbles” and cults like “The War of the Buttons”, “The Goonies” and “Stand by Me”, which have nothing to do with the Shoah but are adventure films starring kids. There is also that universe in this film, but the Holocaust theme is preponderant and the films of Benigni and Herman were our beacons.”

As in Benigni’s film, the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust is reiterated, left in the background in favor of the dimension of the game. How much can imagination and fantasy overcome reality and overcome real evil?
«They can help a lot. The book and screenplay were written before the war in Ukraine, but when we shot it the conflict had already broken out: Russia had already invaded Ukraine, not to mention what is happening in the Middle East these days. A film cannot solve problems bigger than us, but it can make us think. Through children’s play, their naivety also makes us adults see how they have experienced enormous tragedies such as war. The title of the film is perfect because these children are young at the beginning of the film, protagonists of a three-day journey to save their Jewish friend. At the end of the journey they will no longer be, and looking through their eyes is a way to delve deeper into the story and teach adults something.”

So could adults learn from younger people, even with respect to major issues such as friendship, or adopt a fresher, freer outlook?
“Absolutely yes. It is not an ideological film, a thesis, but about friendship, which is easier to live between children than between adults and wins over everything. If in these hours we adults also found a little of the child within us, something would happen. I know that there are some very beautiful initiatives they are doing in the Middle East, such as bringing together people who have suffered bereavements on both sides, to get to know the enemy even through pain and establish a friendship. In the film the boys seal their friendship through a pact not “of blood”, because they are afraid of blood, but of “spit”, which has the same value, if not even greater. For them that pact is more important than anything, it is for life. Only children can imagine that a “spit-deal” is worth risking your life for a friend.”

Photo by Paolo Ciriello