DAVID BIANCULLI

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ERIC GOULD

Associate Editor

LINDA DONOVAN

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Contributors

ALEX STRACHAN

MIKE HUGHES

KIM AKASS

MONIQUE NAZARETH

ROGER CATLIN

GARY EDGERTON

TOM BRINKMOELLER

GERALD JORDAN

NOEL HOLSTON

 
 
 
 
 
For Whom the Bell Tolls: ‘PBS Frontline’ Takes a Stirring Look at the Medical Front Lines Against COVID-19 in Northern Italy
May 19, 2020  | By Alex Strachan
 


Little more than 10 minutes into PBS Frontline’s harrowing cinéma vérité documentary Inside Italy’s COVID War (Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET, check local listings) an exhausted doctor in Italy hears a radio broadcast, in English, on her car radio as she’s driving home at night after a 12-hour shift at the local hospital.

“Breaking news from Italy,” the announcer intones matter-of-factly, as though it were just another report from just another country on just another day: “Deaths have risen by 683 in 24 hours . . . Today Italy has passed a deadly milestone: more people dead from the virus than in China.”

What affected her the most on her shift, the doctor asks herself. “A lady asked me, crying, what was going to happen to her, while she was lying there on a stretcher, with 15 others in the same corridor and only one toilet. There is no dignity anymore. We have lost the sense of humanity. I do not know what the aim is of working in this way.”

Inside Italy’s COVID War isn’t just about the numbers. Far from. This is a deeply moving and personal story about life and death, told from one person’s point-of-view — an intensely private, ground-level window onto a global pandemic. The program is about one doctor’s struggle against self-doubt and inner demons in service of a seemingly hopeless cause, and how the empty ritual of banging pots and pans in the night and repeating empty platitudes like, “Thank you for your service,” are just not enough.

The language may be foreign, but the story is all too familiar. And close to home. Watching Inside Italy’s COVID War is more like sitting through a real-life episode of ER than forcing oneself to listen to a dry recital of facts and statistics. It goes without saying that it’s all the more powerful for being real.

First, a viewing note. There is no narration. The program is in Italian, with English subtitles. This is not something one can listen to from the next room and be able to follow. Despite the usual AI-generated maudlin music — relentless, non-stop, and unnecessary, you know, the usual — Inside Italy’s COVID War needs to be watched with undivided attention, if one is to get the most out of it.

It’s worth the effort. What emerges is a profoundly poignant experience about the small human stories that make us who we are, and while the time and place might seem foreign, it strikes a chord.

True, most of us would rather not watch a TV program about the coronavirus right now. The story is almost always the same, after all: Health workers are overwhelmed, and the system is constantly on the verge of collapse, were it not for the handful of fearless, brave and committed but increasingly overwhelmed medical professionals you rarely see or hear about — until it happens to you or someone you know.

There’s something meaningful going on here, though. Inside Italy’s COVID War isn’t just about Italy: It’s about a possible future, right here, perhaps sooner than we think. Watching Inside Italy’s COVID War from the benefit of hindsight — the program was made in March of this year — it’s worth noting that today, right now, Italy is one of Europe’s COVID success stories. It is slowly — very slowly — returning to semi-normal, though most of the experts, scientists who monitor pandemic pathogens for a living, counsel there will be no such thing as true normal anymore, at least not in our lifetimes. Inside Italy’s COVID War is both a cautionary tale of what could happen and a personal tale about one person’s struggle to find a deeper meaning to it all.

Dr. Francesca Mangiatordi is just one physician among many, of course, the world over. Her story is not particularly unique — that’s part of what makes Inside Italy’s COVID War so harrowing — but the personal stories of the countless patients she comes in contact with, some who recover, some who don’t, are important, and meaningful, if only for them and their loved ones.

The program ends with a jump ahead in time, to today — early May — and a caption scroll on where some of the real people, patients and physicians alike, some eight weeks after Inside Italy’s COVID War was filmed. Friends, family, and hospital coworkers are reunited months after being separated by quarantine and lockdown (“We are hugging our colleagues who had to suffer because of this virus”), acts of spontaneous joy (“A cry of liberation!”) and expressions of hope for a better future (“Let those of us who can, enjoy our lives . . . but always with grief, and our thoughts for those who didn’t make it”).

Life goes on. And the war against COVID-19 continues.

 
 
 
 
 
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