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Candace Weddle, PHD, Assistant Professor of Art History
South Carolina School of the Arts at Anderson University
Department of Art & Design
July 10, 2015

"I wanted to let you know how effective your film was in my class last spring. A colleague and I taught a study abroad course that included a campus component as well as a trip to Italy. We showed your movie before the trip and the students found it very eye-opening. By happenstance (or perhaps not?), when we arrived in Rome the Vatican was hosting an international conference on human trafficking. One of our Graphic Design students was so struck by that event, in combination with what he'd already learned from your film, that he decided to produce his semester project on the topic by designing a series of anti-human-trafficking posters. We will be using the film again next spring, as we will be running the same course again. I was also in Florence on my own last month and was thinking once again, while driving into town, about the women who are in such a terrible situation under the surface of a beautiful tourist destination. So, thank you for your work on the film and for sharing it with us."


Tullio Pagano, author and Associate Professor of Italian at Dickinson College, introduced THE PEASANT AND THE PRIEST at a screening at the John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute at Queens College in New York City on December 2nd, 2013.
Here are his remarks:

"When trying to find a common thread, a metaphor that could hold together the triptych that Esther composed with her fascinating documentary, I thought about a ghost. There is something ghostly, or spectral, if you prefer, in this motion picture. The images of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s frescos, masterfully edited and animated by Gregory Loser, float in front of our eyes as in a sort of dance macabre. They are expression of a world that no longer exist, but continues to haunt us as a ghost would do: allegories of an forgotten, more harmonic, relationship between humans and nature. The medieval city of Siena portrayed in The Allegory of Good Government, with its merchants, carpenters, musicians and scholars seems to overflow naturally into the countryside. Despite the walls that enclose the urban area, people, animals, and merchandise transit in and out, creating a seamless connection between the city and its surroundings.

In his seminal work entitled Landscape and Aesthetics, the Italian philosopher Rosario Assunto writes that the city is not landscape, but it should open itself and absorb it within its walls. This is something that one may still experience today in places like Siena, where the connection between the city and the surrounding countryside remains very strong. It is hard to imagine a similar relationship in our postmodern cities, for the most part isolated from the natural landscape that used to surround them, encircled as they are by ever expanding no-man’s lands that are transforming our planet into a homogeneous, desert-like periphery, as Alberto Magnagi writes in The Global Village.

The medieval walls of many Italian cities, like Florence and Bologna, have been destroyed and transformed into "beltways" (or "viali") where vehicles transit at ferocious speed, day and night. On the ashes of the demolished ancient walls other ghosts come to haunt our conscience: thousands of young women who were snatched away from their own countries, lured by a dream of happiness and leisure, lay scattered throughout the outskirts of our cities. They generally appear at night, just like ghosts. They display themselves along the sidewalks as human merchandise, dressed in provocative clothes, authentic allegories of commodities, as Walter Benjamin defined them in his essays on XIX century Paris: ghostly reminders of the debasement of human work in capitalist society. Drivers constantly pull over, approach and let them in their cars, but only for a few minutes, to fulfill their sexual fantasies and quench their desires. Very few words are spoken: after a brief intercourse, they are discharged again along the same road, where the infernal merry-go-round continues without pause until dawn.

In Esther's documentary, the only person who tries to establish a human contact with these young women is an old priest, Don Oreste Benzi. Don Oreste wanders like a ghost along the squalid periphery of Florence, trying to establish a contact with the young women who make their living on the streets. Most of them escape him, afraid as they are of being arrested by the police and deported, or beaten by their pimps who often keep them in a condition of slavery.

The third protagonist of Esther’s movie is also a ghost, one of the last sharecroppers in the Tuscan countryside, Sergio Ermini, who used to live in a small farm near Florence. Sharecropping has been very common in Tuscany, from the Middle Ages until the second half of the XX century, when that type of contract was finally outlawed. The landscape that we see in Lorenzetti’s frescos is to a large extent the product of sharecropping, characterized by small farms, whose tenants, or coloni, took great care of the land. When it originated, sharecropping represented a form of emancipation from feudalism, because the peasants achieved a freedom that had never possessed. XIX and XX century economists, however, often considered sharecropping as an impediment to the development of a more modern, capitalist-oriented form of agriculture. This appears quite clearly in the documentary, when Erminio visits the cellars of his neighbor’s winery, filled with stainless containers and modern technology, which produces millions of bottles of wine every year. Grapes are harvested by an automated machine that ploughs through the rows at considerable speed, ripping leaves and destroying the grapes, but ultimately saving money to the land owner and making the product more marketable.

In Erminio's farm, on the contrary, the harvest is a family affair, accomplished with the help of friends and family, who usually get a small share of the crop and celebrate at the end of the day with a good meal. Erminio’s wife delicately "combs" the olive trees with a small hand-made tool that she received from her late brother. We don't know how much olive oil they produce, but I imagine that most of it is either kept or sold to friends and relatives, as it happened in the miniscule farms of Liguria, the region where I was born. As a boy, I often helped my family harvesting olives in a small plot of land we owned at the edge of the city, in Genova Nervi. Men usually used ladders to pick the olives, while women and children would get the remaining ones that had fallen on the ground. It would take days to fill a single sack of olives. Back then, our family lived in the city and my dad worked in a factory, but the relationship with the land was very strong, because many of our friends and relatives, most of whom came from small villages in the Apennines like my father, had kept their plots of land and continued to cultivate them, even after settling in the city. In the fall, we always went to Piedmont and helped our friends, the Vassallo family, harvest their grapes. There was always a big dinner at the end of day, with home-made pasta, rabbit sauce and lots of wine. My family rarely bought wine from the store, since we always brought back large quantities every time we visited them. Almost every family I knew purchased their wine bulk and bottled it by themselves. The owners of the old wine bars (osterie) in Genoa were all from Piedmont and had a family member with a vineyard who provided them with wine and the occasional salami to share with the customers.

This system of exchange between city and countryside, which constituted the foundation upon which the traditional Italian landscape has been constructed, is almost entirely gone, as the supply chain that brings the food and wine to our tables has become longer and longer and more complex. At the edge of the modern city, the vegetable gardens (orti) that used to supply the residents with their products and made the landscape look like an endless natural embroidery, as we see in Lorenzetti's frescos, are gone too. The countryside has become a remote place we visit for an occasional picnic, where we consume food bought at the local supermarket. Erminio’s farmhouse does not exist anymore. His vineyard is gone like the ones of the Vassallo family, where we used to buy demijohns of Barbera and Dolcetto wines at a ridiculous price.

Esther's documentary resonated with me because it made me remember those distant landscapes of my youth, ghosts of a civilization that is gone forever, like Erminio and his farm. With the powerful simplicity of its images and dialogues the film also forces the viewer to confront the reality of human trafficking, by giving a human face and a voice to those countless ghostly creatures who sell their bodies every night for a few euros through the outskirts of the modern metropolis, like cheap commodities that men pick up, consume and discard, before returning to their normal family lives, where they may resume their role of productive members of society."

-Tullio Pagano

"The Peasant and the Priest is an intelligent, beautiful, poetic and political work-- a synergy of rhetorical stances not usually found in a single document. Every time I travel in Tuscany, I find myself looking at the picture-book scenery through the critical lens of Esther Podemski's thoughtful, sensitive film. Never preachy or cheaply nostalgic or ideologically formulaic, The Peasant and the Priest lingers in the mind as a provocative think piece."

Lena Lencek, Reed College, Professor of Russian. Author of Beach: Stories of the Sand and Sea, editor of How to Write Like Chekhov: Advice and Inspiration, Straight from His Own Letters and Work.

"The Peasant and the Priest portrays a world that is rapidly changing under the pressure of globalization. This documentary tells current and geographically specific stories shown to be timeless and universal by use of visual references to Ambrogio Lorenzetti's fresco, The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, a powerful document of medieval Siena and the eternal struggle to pursue balance at times of political and cultural upheaval. This ability to span the continuum from the medieval to the modern world makes Podemski's film invaluable in the analysis and discussion of Italian culture and history."

Marina Della Putta Johnston, University of Pennsylvania, Lecturer of Italian and Assistant Director of the Center for Italian Studies.

"Making use of the parallel lives of two Italian contemporaries, a peasant and a priest, along with a 14th century fresco as counterpoint, this film reveals the heavy price humanity pays when greed corrupts government. The Peasant and the Priest leaves us with a compelling blend of love for humankind and the timeless pastoral beauty of Italian life that lay the foundation for the Italian Renaissance. The Peasant and the Priest is both a documentary film with a strong message and a contemporary work of art."

William J. Havlicek, Laguna College of Art and Design Professor of Art History and Aesthetics. Author of Van Gogh's Untold Journey- Revelations of Faith, Family and Artistic Inspiration.