Film-makers at war over PoW’s forbidden love

The Italian Chapel is a lasting monument to the PoWs who built it. Picture: James W. Sinclair
The Italian Chapel is a lasting monument to the PoWs who built it. Picture: James W. Sinclair
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The story of a forbidden affair between an Italian prisoner of war and a local woman on a Scottish island is at the centre of a battle between two rival film companies.

Both are planning to make a movie with well-known stars based on a true love story and the creation of the Italian Chapel in Orkney.

During the Second World War, captured Italian soldiers were brought to the islands to provide labour to build the Churchill Barriers defences.

But out of their enforced stay emerged the “Miracle of Camp 60” – the creation of an elaborate chapel from two Nissen huts on the island of Lamb Holm.

Its building also shielded Giuseppe Palumbi’s secret love affair which is the inspiration for both films.

Earlier this year it was announced that a joint Italian/Scottish production The Melted Heart would be filmed on Orkney in 2015.

Now it has emerged that a rival Italian/British company has been working on the same idea, also to be filmed next year, probably on Orkney too.

The movie, The Italian Chapel, already has its “seven figure” finance pledged by investors, engaged a top casting director and is in final discussions with a British director, who is expected to be named soon.

The screenplay by John Wrathall was previously selected for Working Title’s emerging writers scheme and has been developed by UK company Blue Horizon with support from the BFI Film Fund.

The production has shocked those behind The Melted Heart – who visited Orkney last month to announce their project.

Writer Italian-born Inga Sempel, who lives in Glasgow, said it is due to film on Orkney and in Italy in 2015 and will be directed by Matteo Piccinini.

She admitted she knew nothing of the other project. “It is totally new to me. I’m trying to digest the news,” she said.

“I’m half way through the script, I’m going to Orkney in August for a week to get it finished for the producers by September. We are on track 100 per cent. I don’t know if the others knew about our film. We have both waited 70 years to tell a similar story at the same time, so it seems.”

Ms Sempel’s script is for London-based Storm and Light Pictures. It already has private investors for the project.

But Andrew Bendel of Blue Horizon Productions and Cristiano Bortone of Italy’s Orisa Produzioni are to co-produce The Italian Chapel at the same time.

Mr Bendel said the film was due to be filmed next year and released in the UK in early 2016.

He said it was not for him to say if there was room for both projects. “It is a great love story. We see this as The Bridges of Madison County in Orkney – that is what we are aiming for. It is a wonderful story.

“I would love the film to be on Orkney. We want to find a small space similar to Lamb Holm,” said Mr Bendel. “We are working with Creative Scotland to get the locations.”

In The Italian Chapel, a former PoW, now happily married, returns many years later with his wife to restore his work on the chapel, only to find his wartime flame still living in Orkney.

Mr Palumbi was one of the 1,200 prisoners sent to the islands as an enemy. He left having helped create the chapel and with a broken heart. The identity of his lover to this day has never been revealed. Mr Palumbi was repatriated to Italy after the war, clutching a picture of the mystery woman.

He told his wife of his love for the islander. In a rage she burned the picture and Mr Palumbi never saw – or corresponded with – his lover again. He also never returned to Orkney.

But he told his son Renato who documented the story which was translated for a book by Mr Palumbi’s grandson.