The Baroness, Don Mauro, Kirsten and Anne at the Abbey Morimundo.

Here, the final day of shooting and the final dispatch from the road from WVFC’s Elizabeth Hemmerdinger. Jet lag and the demands of life notwithstanding, a back-in-New-York post-script may appear in the coming days or weeks. Meanwhile, a good flight home to the Baroness and her film crew!

We began the morning yesterday with breakfast at 7, then piled into the SUV with David, our line producer here in Milan. We had turned to David—an American actor and friend of Anne’s now living in Milan—to secure all the permits and appointments, and to translate for us as we went along. He also became “Sound” when Anne handed him the boom (a big microphone on the end of a long stick). This involves skill and muscle, as the mike has to be kept out of the frame (that is, the picture in the camera) but close to the subject and quick-moving, as the camera (mostly operated by Kirsten) keeps up with the moving subject. Even little tilts of the head make a huge difference, and the dark tip of the boom mike can ruin a spontaneous and important moment.

Stefan drove us to the outskirts of Milan. His exquisite technique was hampered by the herky-jerky traffic, which left us inching along for more than an hour as we headed to Moromundi Abbey. David had made it clear that we might be given a less than fulsome welcome at the church, because the priest in charge had been rather uninterested in accommodating us. So we hoped at best for a short shoot outside a simple country church and a long shot of the woods, both of which play a part in Mariuccia’s story.

It was at this abbey that Mariuccia hid with her parents when the bombing was too heavy in and around their Milan neighborhood. The church looks small from the outside, and we grew cold as we waited for the priest, who emerged rather dramatically through the front doors, his shiny black cassock swaying as he came down the stairs. Within moments, Mariuccia had charmed Don Mauro and he welcomed us into his church, and into what has become his life’s work.

Morimundo is a beautiful structure built of handmade red bricks—even rounded ones for the columns—on top of which sit stone capitals from the year 0 (yes, zero) B.C. At first, Mariuccia didn’t recognize the church, where she had attended mass daily. But then, it had been 70 years since she had left. She had remembered a white interior.

Don Mauro told us the beautiful masonry had been plastered over early in the twentieth century to stabilize the shifting bricks and cracks in the walls. The removal of that plaster began the reconstruction that Don Mauro has supervised for the decades. Over the centuries, one church had been built upon another smaller church, several times over, until the space we were standing in was quite a way up the hill.

Connected to the church is a building that had been a dormitory for monks in earlier times, but when Mariuccia hid here, was a vacant building. Coincidentally, it was this apartment that Don Mauro was having renovated as a library for the abbey, a place for study and contemplation for future generations. He had not known that the little apartment had been a sanctuary once before, and he had certainly never expected to meet Mariuccia. And yet, with a matter-of-fact grace, he led us all up a stone staircase, round a corner and into the rooms that overlook farmland and . . . the very woods we were seeking. Here, Mariuccia’s family had felt safe—until English planes would strafe the countryside. Then the family would return to Milan, coming back to the abbey when things got too dangerous in the city.

Don Mauro told us that when the English Air Force attacked the neighborhood, the Germans would fight ferociously.  It’s all rather complicated, but when Mussolini surrendered early in the war and abandoned Germany, Hitler essentially occupied Italy. Once (only once??) the Germans shot down a plane with three English fliers in the woods that began across the field. They hid in the woods and an Italian man brought them food and water until they could evade the Germans. That man was Mariuccia’s father! We had heard the same story from her.

Don Mauro toured the entire church with us, down to the earliest levels of building, with a staircase built in 600 A.D. and a small nave built shortly after 1100. Stone floors and fine workmanship, and intimate, warm spaces made us, too, feel safe in the foggy chill.  On the third floor, we saw the frescoed rooms of the prior who governed the place in the 18th century. And there, in the floor, an excavated amenity called “the necessary:” a hole with, presumably, a pipe to carry the sorts of things that a person–even a man of God–creates as a byproduct of eating. I had always wondered…

We were all rather done in as we took our leave. Mariuccia was again confronted with images and impressions she thought long gone, about most of which she was interested but rather dispassionate. We walked the square of the ancient cloister. Off the walkway was one small room that had perfect acoustics, and here she and our David sang “Ave Maria.” Gorgeous. As we were leaving, we came upon a plaster medallion in the cloister wall. It commemorated Cardinal Schuster, whom Mariuccia recognized instantly—with tears of joy and the shock of recognition—as the man who had given her first communion.

We walked around the surrounding grounds, and then Don Mauro gifted us with wonderful books, including one called “In Verita, Il Paradiso e ai Piedi Delle Madri, Ricordi di una mamma.”  It’s a rare mamma whose son publishes a 327-page encomium to her, with photos of her whole life—that is, as it began when she married, as her four sons grew, as three became priests, and, yes, as she lay dying in her bed, and then in a coffin borne by nuns.

As I sign off, I think of dear Kirsten, shoulders tense, eyes glued to the tiny camera screen, focused on the scene, intent on capturing the story that Anne had been so kindly encouraging Mariuccia to remember. I’ll remember the day always, as our small, disparate group had grown into a team: a woman midway through her ninth decade, loving friends whose ages spanned fifty years, working comrades, and  Kirsten’s baby-boy bump. Soon he will love her as much as we do.

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