Under Review: ‘The Peasant and the Priest’


Ambitious, intellectual, and well-researched, this insightful documentary explains effects of globalization through the lives of two wonderful old men and a famous work of art.

This film opens silently with a view of a relaxed, wholesome 14th century landscape of peasant life in the Tuscany region of Italy. Then it turns to a woman calling from an old, decaying brick window. This scene transitions to Sergio Ermini, who says, “I was born among the olive trees. I am a sharecropper. Passion itself has driven me.”

Filmmaker Ester Podemski set herself up with the ambitious task of responding to the effects of globalization, intertwining the lives of an Italian sharecropper and a priest, with the 14th century fresco, “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” by Ambriogio Lorenzetti.

The art mirrors the issues of the film. What has happened in Italy and what is happening in the world that causes governments to lose sight of the health and welfare of both our land and our people?

Podemski sees the answers in both the ancient mural and the lives of these two eight-two year old men.

The three values in the panel on “Bad Government” are avarice, pride and vain glory. The people do not fare well in this picture of corruption and self-centeredness. The land is withered, crime is rampant and there is violence against women, a symbol of social justice that is at the center of the fresco.

The values represented in the “Good Government” section are faith, hope and charity. In this panel, the land is lush and the people are eating well, trading, laughing and dancing.

In the film the sharecropper, Sergio, takes care of the land, the machinery and the people who help him with the harvest. His life is based on a peasant culture that prides itself on helping each other out without charge. During the harvest they gather together for evening feasts in a great dining room, drinking their own wine and listening to someone play an accordion. They are jovial, and connected to each other through a common goal and camaraderie.

Sergio’s farm is the last in the region where the grapes are harvested by hand and then pressed and stored in old wooden casks. The surrounding mega-farms have been industrialized in order to substantially widen product distribution throughout the world.

Juxtaposed to Sergio’s simple, fulfilling lifestyle is Father Oreste Benzi’s more frustrating vocation. He walks the Tuscany urban streets in the shadowy nights with his bodyguard. Out from both the lush overgrowth of the roadside and seedy town sidestreets, young prostitutes shyly emerge from the dark for communion. They are primarily from Nigeria and Romania where they grew up in extreme poverty and hunger. They had been promised jobs in Italy and they arrived gratefully with few questions –not understanding the new kind of suffering they would soon be entering.

Father Benzi says he can’t be called a Father if he’s not willing to take care of them. So he works to send these victimized girls to safe houses with suitable employment. However, he knows the prostitution system is powerful and sometimes he gets discouraged. As soon as one girl is taken off the streets more arrive.

One girl, Sophia, explained that she couldn’t join his program because her pimp swore that if she left him he would take it out on her parents. Father Benzi later found her body burned to death.

Benzi explains that there are over 800,000 prostitutes in Europe , mostly from the poorest countries in the world. All report that they hate it, but he remarks that “their incentive is poverty.”

This important film is playing on Thursday, Oct. 21, at the Northwest Film Center in Portland, Ore., as part of a series called “Voices in Action: Human Rights on Film.”


Director: Esther Podemski
Cast: Sergio Ermini, Father Oreste Benzi, Simona Rodano (narrator)
Runtime: 70 minutes
Language: Italian with subtitles
Genre: Documentary
Released: U.S., 2010

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