In Memory of Fr. Virgilio Fantuzzi, SJ (1937-2019)

La Civiltà Cattolica

 La Civiltà Cattolica / Church Life / Published Date:24 October 2019/Last Updated Date:28 July 2020

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Virgilio Fantuzzi, SJ died September 24, 2019, around dawn, in the infirmary of the International Jesuit Houses in Rome, which is located at the “San Pietro Canisio” Residence. His last few weeks had been painful, but lived with a sincere willingness to accept God’s will.

Fantuzzi was born on February 15, 1937, in Mantua. Aged 17, he entered the novitiate of the Roman Province of the Society of Jesus, in Fiesole. During his formation, he spent some time teaching – doing the so-called “magisterium” – at the College of Livorno and at the Massimo Institute in Rome, demonstrating his interest and talents in the humanities, particularly in art history and modern cinematography. After resuming his theological studies, he was ordained priest in 1969, in Cassone, the small town he so loved, where his mother lived, on the Verona shore of Lake Garda, on the slopes of Mount Baldo.

After a brief period of parish ministry in Galloro, near Ariccia, in 1972 he completed the last stage of Jesuit formation, the so-called “Third Year of Probation” in Paris. While there he had the opportunity to follow a course at the Sorbonne of the famous film semiologist Christian Metz. The intelligence of the young priest and the clear style of his writing attracted the attention of Fr. Roberto Tucci, who was about to finish his service as director of La Civiltà Cattolica and favored his inclusion in the group of Jesuits dedicated to the journal.

Virgilio arrived in Rome in 1973. He was admitted to his final vows in the Society of Jesus in 1975, and pronounced them in the chapel of the Civiltà Cattolica, in the presence of the Superior General, Fr. Pedro Arrupe.

Since then Fr. Fantuzzi has always remained in the community of Civiltà Cattolica, until a year ago when ill-health forced him to move to the infirmary; but even there he continued to work and write faithfully for the journal as long as he had the ability to do so. His last important article, published in February of this year, written with much commitment and participation, was dedicated to the memory of Bernardo Bertolucci, whom he personally knew.1 Forty-six years of uninterrupted work! Those who consult the indexes of La Civiltà Cattolica will find over 650 pieces penned by him, including articles, notes, reviews, especially on cinema, but also on other topics dear to him, such as the different arts, painting, music and theater.

In Virgilio’s youth, many authoritative Jesuits were involved in cinema in Italy (for example, Taddei, Arpa, Baragli, Bini, Bruno, Covi, Casolaro, Guidubaldi, Cappelletto, etc.). Nonetheless, he was able to find his own way, which, beyond his methodologically attentive reading of the works, was to enter into dialogue with the authors to discover with them the hidden dimensions of reality and life, to bring out the deepest questions and answers.

When it was possible, in fact, Virgilio sought a personal encounter with the great directors, who appreciated the sharpness and sincerity of his approach and honored him with their confidences, and sometimes with true friendship. This is what happened with Rossellini, Fellini, Pasolini, Olmi, Bertolucci and others, such as Paolo Benvenuti, Bellocchio, the Taviani brothers. Not by chance are these the authors to whom he has devoted most attention, time and many of his most in-depth articles, which were collected in volumes such as Cinema sacro e profano, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Il vero Fellini, Paolo Benvenuti etc. The presentation of the last of these – Luce in sala – on March 10, 2018, in the headquarters of La Civiltà Cattolica was a beautiful opportunity for his admirers and friends to display their homage and affection for Fr. Fantuzzi.2

As a good Jesuit, Virgilio aimed to “seek and find God in all things,” including through cinema. This had become his lifelong mission. For this reason his attention was not so much directed to the cinema of religious subjects, but rather to the cinema that consciously or subconsciously tried to discover the signs of the presence of the divine in the “dust” of material poverty and in the “mud” of moral and spiritual poverty. He therefore felt very much in tune with Pope Francis’ attention to the poor and the peripheries, and the difficulties  with censorship, which at times his early writings had encountered when dealing with films on delicate or controversial subjects, had disappeared altogether in recent years. To those who asked him if over the decades his human and spiritual research in the world of cinema had changed, he replied: “I did not move by a single millimeter. It is the situation that has changed.” The meaning of his journey had been understood and its full legitimacy, not only cultural but also evangelical, had been recognized. And he was genuinely happy about it.

His service to La Civiltà Cattolica was for many years accompanied by teaching at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Social Communications of the Pontifical Gregorian University, where his courses on the language of cinema have left a deep mark on his most receptive students.

But if the activity of writer and lecturer on cinema remains central in the life of Fr. Fantuzzi, we would also like to recall some other important aspects of his life as a priest and Jesuit.

Virgilio had a beautiful, warm voice and a well-cultivated memory. On festive occasions he did not refuse our request to recite by heart and with great expressiveness long passages by Dante or verses by other great poets, including Latin ones. His humanistic culture was not at all ostentatious, but solid and deeply assimilated. The value of his voice was soon noticed by the famous Fr. Francesco Pellegrino, of Vatican Radio, who invited him to become a radio commentator on papal celebrations. Virgilio was very honored to be asked, taking this task very seriously and exercising it capably and intelligently, always taking care that his comments were not only relevant in context, but also discreet and measured, so as not to obtrude over the voice of the pope or the other sound elements of the rite, to give them due prominence. Uncommon attention and ability!

This introduces us to the broader theme of the papal liturgies and their broadcasts, not only by radio, but also television, which he followed with great attention and participation (in recent days he commented on the broadcasts of the celebrations during the pope’s trip to Mozambique and Madagascar). When Piero Marini was Master of the Pontifical Ceremonies, he consulted Virgilio several times for his expertise in communications. Among his articles there are many that, with competence and clear pastoral wisdom, comment the great television broadcasts, such as the opening and closing of the Holy Door of the Great Jubilee, directed by Olmi, or those concerned with the changing of pontificates. In one of these Virgilio observed: “The papal liturgy has evolved … to become more accessible to the mentality of the modern person. The role of the radio reporter, the television commentator and the television director cannot fail to take into account the teamwork by the Office of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff to elaborate a proper liturgical ‘control room’ for each individual event, in the spirit of adaptation desired by the Second Vatican Council.”3

Nor can we forget the more directly pastoral dimensions of his life. First of all, we remember his bond with that small town that has always occupied a great place in his life and heart: Cassone, on the bank of Lake Garda, where his beloved mother lived and where he returned faithfully every year for long periods and for the main liturgical feasts, especially since there was no longer a parish priest permanently resident. At Cassone Virgilio really felt at home, ministering to the simple pastoral life of the village with a deep priestly desire, . For him that was not a place of vacation, but a true place of heart and spirit.

And then, although Virgil was not exactly a sportsman, for many years he was a dedicated servant to the world of scouting. For the cubs he was a wise and affectionate “Baloo” (spiritual assistant to the Pack), who knew how to tell the Gospel episodes with great vivacity, and invent creative and active catechesis to make children discover with joy the meaning of the liturgical signs and the sacraments… But even for the older scouts and adults he was the appreciated author of unforgettable scripts of biblical vigils and sacred representations, which went far beyond facile, run-of-the-mill sketches and involved to the full those who organized or participated with him. Many still recall vividly an extraordinary and moving vigil that took place in front of the Basilica of Loreto: it retraced the sacred story from Abraham, and culminated in the raising of a very high cross, from which was actually hung a young “Christ” in flesh and blood … Virgilio had challenged the scouts to commit the best of their “technical” skills in the service of a high spiritual experience.

Fr. Fantuzzi was an exemplary Jesuit: he sincerely loved the spirituality and history of the Society of Jesus. During his last illness it took him several months, with a friend who is a film director, to reread with extreme attention A Pilgrim’s Journey, that is, the autobiography in which Saint Ignatius of Loyola, toward the end of his life, retraces the entire path of his conversion and his spiritual life, guided by the Lord until the founding of the Society of Jesus. The purpose was to prepare the script for a film about Saint Ignatius. Virgilio had to deal for at least 50 years with ideas, proposals and projects for films about Saint Ignatius, which he heard about or which were presented to him, but he had never found anything that seemed convincing to him.

Now, during his last year of life, he had taken up the idea again himself with an interlocutor he held in high esteem, one of the directors with whom he had engaged in dialogue for many years and with whom he had the confidence of being able to achieve the necessary harmony for this arduous project. He dedicated himself to it with passionate commitment and profound spiritual attention. In July, the work was complete. We do not know if this film will ever see the light of day. We sincerely hope so. Anyhow, it is significant that Virgilio was able to retrace the entire road of life together with that Pilgrim – Ignatius of Loyola – in whose footsteps he had learned to follow the Lord Jesus so long ago a Lord who carries the cross and invites us to participate in his mission to reach the goal with him.

  1. V. Fantuzzi, “Bernardo Bertolucci: un ricordo” in Civ. Catt. 2019 I 277-291.
  2. D. Fares, “La ricerca del divino nel cinema” ibid., 2018 IV 83-91.
  3. V. Fantuzzi, “Liturgia papale, radio e televisione” ibid., 2003 III 155-166.