Documentary director to screen film on Italian prisoners of war at Fairfield University's DiMenna-Nyselius Library


Director Camilla Calamandrei brings her film "Prisoners in Paradise," an intriguing look at Italian prisoners of war in the United States during World War II, to Fairfield University on Monday, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. The screening will be held in the multimedia room of the DiMenna-Nyselius Library.

Held in conjunction with the Italian American Experience course taught by Dr. Mary Ann Carolan, director of Fairfield University's Italian Studies Program, the event is sponsored by the Italian Studies Program, the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and the Graduate Program in American Studies.

"Prisoners in Paradise" chronicles a little-known chapter in American history that Ms. Calamandrei first learned of while chatting with her uncle in Italy a decade ago. During World War II, more than 51,000 Italian soldiers were brought to the United States as prisoners of war. Captured primarily during Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's doomed North African campaign, the soldiers were loaded onto cattle cars, then put on ships. They didn't know where they were going until they saw the Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline.

Once here, the Italian soldiers, who had been living on little more than bread and water in Africa, were amazed by their surroundings. The barracks were clean, the POWs were treated humanely and there was an abundance of food. For many, being captured was a stroke of good fortune.

Shortly after the prisoners arrived in the U.S., Italy officially switched sides in the war and more than 90 percent of those captured agreed to collaborate with the Allies. Suddenly men who spoke little or no English and gained their understanding of America through movies and books found themselves living the dual life of both prisoner and ally.

Though still restricted and kept under guard, the prisoners worked with American soldiers in 26 states and were allowed to receive visitors and visit the homes of U.S. citizens on the weekends. Local Italian-American communities welcomed the soldiers and many developed long-lasting relationships with those they met. Some eventually married and set up their own homes here.

Featuring rare footage of the POW camps, "Prisoners in Paradise" follows six of the POWs, chronicling their extraordinary journey. In its final act, the hour-long film follows four of the married couples through the challenges they've faced in the war's aftermath.

Through the prisoners' touching, often humorous, stories,"Prisoners in Paradise" considers the cultural affinity between Italians and Americans and the meaning of national identity during wartime. The film has received critical acclaim, with favorable reviews in Variety, The New Republic and the Providence Journal. "Prisoners in Paradise" was named Best Documentary at the Rhode Island Film Festival and was the third place honoree at the New Haven Film Festival.

Ms. Calamandrei's uncle, Novaro Bagnoli, was a prisoner of war in the United States. After talking to him about his experiences, Ms. Calamandrei found Louis Keefer, who wrote1992's "Italian Prisoners of War in America, 1942-46: Captives or Allies?" then the only book about the imprisonment published in the United States. Keefer helped Calamandrei track down other former POWs for interviews that Ms. Calamandrei combined with newsreel footage and photographs.

"Prisoners in Paradise" is Ms. Calamadrei's first full-length feature. Her short film, "At Arm's Length," premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990 and won a Merit Award from the Dance on Camera Festival in New York City. She has shot six short documentaries. Ms. Calamandrei is also an award-winning game designer, who worked for both Scholastic Inc. and LEGO. She holds a bachelor's degree from Brown University and a master's degree in Documentary Film Production from Stanford University.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on November 15, 2002

Vol. 35, No. 113