Il Cuore nel Pozzo (Italian for The heart in the pit; often reported in Croatian media with the translation Srce u jami and in Slovenian Srce v breznu) is a TV movie, produced by state broadcaster RAI, that focuses on the escape of a group of children from Tito's partisans in the aftermath of World War II, as they start an ethnic cleansing of all Italians from Istria and Dalmatia. The word "pit" in the movie's title refers to a foiba, indicating foibe massacres.
The movie was watched by 17 million people on its first broadcast in Italy. It was the first time that a major TV event was broadcast in Italy about the dramas of Foibe and Istrian Exodus.
Giulia is a woman who lives by singing in a tavern, in an unnamed village in what appears to be an ethnically Italian area of Istria. She had, six years before, a child, Carlo, from Novak, a Slav who has now become a partisan leader. It appears that Novak had raped Giulia, but Novak will later claim Giulia reported him to the police to get rid of him: the Italian police would rather believe an Italian woman than a Slavic man. The movie does not give a clear answer to which version is true. Novak comes back to Giulia to claim his child, but she refuses to give him to Novak; she attracts the attention of German soldiers, and Novak must flee.
Francesco is an 8-year old child, only son of physician Giorgio Bottini and music schoolteacher Marta. He lives with his parents in the same village as Giulia and Carlo. He meets Ettore, an Alpino who is tired of war and drops his rifle in disgust when Francesco mentions that he likes heroes of war. Ettore has come back to meet again Anja, his girlfriend, who is slavic and works at Don Bruno's orphanage.
Don Bruno has to give Carlo to Francesco's family, because he thinks his orphanage is too dangerous for him. Francesco and Carlo become officially brothers, even if Francesco at first rejects him.
Carlo and Francesco lose contact with their friends and return to an emptied home village. While waiting for help, German artillery starts pounding the village, and a shell makes Carlo deaf. Believing he cannot take care for him anymore, Francesco tries to bring Carlo back to Don Bruno's orphanage. On their way there, they see a convoy of partisans transporting Italian civilians, among them Francesco's parents. The civilians are gunned down by the partisans and thrown in a foiba, into which Francesco climbs down shortly after to find his parents dead, chained in iron wire. There is also a dying dog, which the partisans apparently threw down in order to keep the dead spirits from haunting them.
Novak brings the children to his camp, again to show them to Giulia to understand whether one of them is his son. Don Bruno, when questioned, refuses to point out the child to Novak, because he considers him an assassin; Don Bruno is then kept prisoner by Novak.
Exiting the complex, Walter meets Francesco and Ettore, who has in the meantime escaped pursue by partisans. Ettore, disguised with a partisan's uniform, starts pouring gasoline through the base, taking advantage of the fact that most soldiers are drunk. At the same time, in the base, Bostjan rapes a helpless Anja. While Novak is interrogating Don Bruno, Ettore ignites the gasoline, causing a series of chain explosions in the base's weapon caches.
While the partisans are busy trying to contain the damage, Walter liberates Don Bruno and tells him to go with the children to Gorizia by the mountains, to avoid partisan patrols. Don Bruno finds and liberates Anja, still shocked by Bostjan's rape, while Walter finds Giulia. Ettore, in the meantime, finds most of the Italian prisoners in the base and liberates them, but most of them are rapidly recaptured by the partisans.
Giulia is finally reunited with her son Carlo, and together with Don Bruno, Ettore, Anja, Francesco and other children they take refuge in an abandoned coastal battery. They escape from the partisans' pursue by using a rope to reach the sea, but, to buy time and seal the door behind them, Giulia leaves them and surrenders to Novak. Walter reaches the coastal battery and confronts Novak, accusing him of genocide. Novak responds that that land is theirs, not the Italians', and that the Italians still have to pay a large debt (implied, in lives).
The following morning, the children's group reaches a small boat. Anja, still struggling with the memories of her rape, does not want to leave, but Don Bruno convinces her to continue. Ettore has by now understood that something terrible has happened, even if it is not clear how much he knows.
The children's group is meanwhile proceeding through the mountains, avoiding partisan patrols. Trying to catch a hare with a slingshot, Francesco sets off a landmine, attracting Novak's attention. The children have to waste precious time as Ettore bears them out of the minefield, and are eventually cornered by Novak's forces. Novak, knowing they can hear him, threatens to kill Walter, still his prisoner, if his son is not brought to him. As Walter yells to them not to surrender because Novak is killing all the Italians, Novak shoots him.
Meanwhile, the children and Anja are found by Bostjan and one of his partisans, but as Bostjan threatens to execute Anja, Ettore arrives, immobilizes Bostjan and kills the other partisan. As Bostjan tries to grab a weapon, Ettore kills him too. Anja, shocked by the memories of her rape by Bostjan that have come back, tries to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff, but Ettore succeeds in dissuading her.
As they march on, Carlo is soon unable to walk due to a wound in his ankle, but he has finally regained his hearing. The group has to slow down, and Mr. Pavan grows nervous. Mr. Pavan learns that Carlo is the reason Novak is stalking them, and when his turn comes to carry him, he lags behind until he has a chance to bring the child to Novak, hoping he would let them go. Novak finally meets his son, but is ambushed by Ettore. Novak proposes to let the child decide where to go, but Carlo says he wants to go back to his mother. Ettore orders Novak and his men to drop their weapons, that are picked up by three Italian soldiers that Francesco had just stumbled upon. They leave Novak and his men unarmed and alive, and they proceed.
At the abandoned fortress, Don Bruno quickly marries Ettore and Anja, since this could be their last time together. Mr. Pavan is forced to remain and fight, even if he tries to bribe his way out. When Novak and a dozen of his soldiers arrive, Mr. Pavan tries to surrender, only to be shot in the back by a partisan. Ettore and the other Italians continue to resist from their vantage position, and in the end only Novak and Ettore are left. Francesco, who has found a gun, runs back to the fortress to avenge his parents and kill Novak; Don Bruno runs after him, but arrives only in time to take the bullet from Novak's gun and save Francesco's life with his own; Ettore manages to grab a rifle and kills Novak.
Ettore and Francesco find Anja and the other children in a long line of refugees bound for a merchant ship that will bring them back to Italy.
Whether a neutral point of view being captured is dubious, as the concept of Italian fascism and its association with German Nazism and their crimes in the region are only vaguely mentioned in this war drama. Many (especially Slovenian politicians and some in the left wing of Italian politics) accused the movie of being tantamount to propaganda, presenting Italians as innocent victims and not as the former allies of Nazi Germany. Free from any obligations to real history, the Italian solders are pictured as those of the regular army, whereas at the time and in the region the only Italian formations could be that of the Fascist Republic of Salò. The Italian soldiers were presented as merciful and altruistic, whereas Tito's partisans were reportedly presented as ruthless assassins and rapists, the main character among them bein obsessed with taking back the son he had had from an Italian woman raped by him years before.
The director claims to have been completely free of political influences during the film's production. His defenders claim that, in the movie, previous fascist crimes are vaguely recalled but not dwelled upon in order to avoid appearing to promote the idea that one crime justifies another. They point out that both good and bad Italian characters are portrayed in the film, as well as both good and bad Yugoslavs.
The movie was sharply criticized in Italy, even by the Istrian and Dalmatian associations of exiles. It has been told that this delicate subjects had not to be presented with a low quality movie, but with some quality and historically correct productions. It has been told that the this movie was a terrible idea, because it was able to reopen sharp wounds between Italy and Slovenia, and in effect the movie was not welcomed in this Country. One year later, as a reaction, Slovenia introduced a new national day, for the "liberation of the Slovenian Littoral". This time the Italians criticized the "bad taste" of Slovenia.
The movie was also used by Slovenian and Croatian nationalistic movements, which claimed that the production was the "typical" Italian point of view about the problem. On the contrary, the movie collected only critics in Italy where it was defended just by its "political sponsor", the "Alleanza Nazionale" party, the real ideator of this politic propaganda action.
The movie received widespread criticism from the Italian left wing of politics and Slovenian public and politicians, as it portrays historical events in the way they have been described for many decades by Italian Fascists. It has been accused of being a work of propaganda, presenting helpless and innocent Italians as victims of the mindless rage of Slavic peoples, without more than just vaguely hinting to the vastly larger atrocities committed by Fascists in Yugoslavia during World War II (see also Italian war crimes) and the oppression of the Slavic population by the Italian Fascist rule of the region (1922 - 1943).
The movie, set in Istria (today in Croatia) had to be shot in Montenegro, because of opposition from Croatian authorities to a movie that portrayed them negatively. The portrayed scenery differs a lot from the real one.
Most of the controversy is based on the good vs. evil depiction made of the conflict between Italians and Slavs, with many Italians being pictured as positive and many Slavs as evil, with the exceptions of Fabrizio (an Italian, Anja (an Italian's slavic girlfriend) and all of the children.
The slavs presented in a better light were Anja, girlfriend of an Italian soldier, and a few other minor characters.
His name, Pavan, is derived from the city of Padova. Many Jews in Italy have names derived from a city or village, which used to identify their ghetto in the Middle Ages. Yet, Pavan is very common in north-eastern Italy, among gentiles. However, it should be noted that the director of the movie, Alberto Negrin, is a jew.
When the Yugoslavian partisans enter Francesco's village, they burn the Italian monarchic flag and raise the Yugoslavian one. However, in 1945 Istria was not under the control of the Kingdom of Italy, but was directly ruled by Nazi Germany as part of the Adriatic Littoral. The flag that would have flown over the village would then have been either the Nazi flag, or the flag of the Italian Social Republic, the Nazi puppet state headed by Benito Mussolini; in fact, the Italian monarchic flag was the flag of an enemy state. The choice of the more politically neutral monarchic flag seems a way to hide the fact that Italians were subordinate allies of Nazi Germany.