Alexander Stille is San Paolo Professor of International Journalism at Columbia. His most recent book is a memoir, The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace. (November 2017)

Follow Alexander Stille on Twitter: @a_stille.

IN THE REVIEW

The Last Slaves in Mauritania

Noura, an elderly haratin woman in front of her house in the village of Tejala, Mauritania, 2013

Prêcher dans le désert: Islam politique et changement social en Mauritanie [Preaching in the Desert: Political Islam and Social Change in Mauritania]

by Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem
You can both see the desert and feel its presence in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, which goes months at a time without rain. Although it is a city of one million people, rivulets of sand collect along the main paved thoroughfares of the city center, in front of a …

The Pope Who Tried

Monsignor Francesco Borgongini-Duca, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Francesco Pacelli, Benito Mussolini, and Dino Grandi at the signing of the Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Vatican, February 1929

The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe

by David I. Kertzer
During the past fifty years, most of the debate on the Catholic Church’s relationship with fascism has focused on the wartime period and the Vatican’s response to the Holocaust. Did the virtual silence of Pius XII, who became pope in early 1939, about the mistreatment and extermination of Europe’s Jews …

Italy Under a Microscope

A train in Gravina, Puglia, Italy, 1991

The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church

by John Thavis

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo

by Tim Parks
An ophthalmologist visiting an exhibition of the artist Chuck Close spotted what he suspected was a serious condition in the eye of one of the subjects of Close’s larger-than-life, hyperrealistic portraits. The doctor left a note for the artist to urge the subject, Close’s own father-in-law, to have a checkup.

The Strange Victory of Padre Pio

Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (center) with friars of the Capuchin order and several carabinieri, San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, 1966

Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age

by Sergio Luzzatto, translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall
In the summer of 1960, the Holy Office of the Vatican dispatched an apostolic visitor to investigate Padre Pio, a friar of the Capuchin order who had apparently borne the wounds of the stigmata for more than forty years. A genuine religious cult had grown up around Padre Pio in …

NYR DAILY

A Film Without a Country

A scene from Paolo Virzì’s Human Capital

Rightly or wrongly, we expect something different from the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars—something specific to the country that produced it, something that takes us out of the usual Hollywood way of making movies. The case of Human Capital, which was Italy’s entry for this year’s Oscar but was not nominated by the Academy, may be instructive in this regard.

Dancing to Nowhere

Toni Servillo and Galatea Ranzi in Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)

Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza is a visual feast, one of the few films that takes full advantage of the hallucinatory beauty Rome. The overripe city stands in stark contrast to the dull, futile, and empty life of the film’s main characters—the frenetic partying, the not-so-hidden desperation and the endless “blah, blah, blah” of their conversation.

From Cocaine to Fascism

Benito Mussolini; drawing by David Levine

Behind Italy’s official façade of bourgeois morality, traditional family life, and patriotism, the early twentieth-century novelist Pitigrilli saw a world driven by sex, power, and greed. Cocaine, his most successful novel, describes a world of cocaine dens, gambling parlors, orgies, lewd entertainment, and séances; the principal occupation of the characters is distracting themselves from the horrors of real life. Cocaine appeared in 1921; the following year, Benito Mussolini and his fascist party came to power. Interestingly, Mussolini, himself a deep cynic and perhaps the shrewdest interpreter of the post-World War I mood, appears to have been a fan of Pitigrilli’s novels: “Pitigrilli is not an immoral writer; he photographs the times. If our society is corrupt, it’s not his fault.”

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