The first of the “New Waves,” Italian Neorealism was the starting gun of postwar film culture, and Vittorio De Sica, retro’d wall to wall at Film Forum, was its point runner. You really had to be there: Watching Bicycle Thieves (1948) when it was fresh and you were used to Betty Grable and Bob Hope — or used to the kind of “white telephone” movies De Sica made as an actor in Italy up to then — was a strike to the throat. “Neorealism” earned its name in its day by way of context: These films were like detergent cutting through the slick grease of Hollywood. But realism is relative, of course, and yesterday’s radical roughness is today’s humanist polish. Seven decades hence, the Italians can feel less than the “real” masterpieces they were once heralded as, and more like paving stones for the non-industrial experiments to come.
Bicycle Thieves wasn’t even that “neo-real,” being a studio film that used back projection and employed a number of supporting-role pros. But it remains one of art film’s most powerful gateway drugs, still haunting in its painful simplicity, laced with the unforgettable behavioral moments that may be De Sica’s greatest claim to posterity. Acting since his teens, and a suave theater idol in the Twenties before launching into films as Italy’s equivalent to Cary Grant or William Powell, De Sica had a miraculous ear and eye for nonprofessional actors, particularly children. The first two decades of his filmmaking career are filthy with watchful, nervy, lippy brats, but the sea change came with The Children Are Watching Us (1944). Something of an overlooked masterpiece — it didn’t correspond to the poverty-centric topography of neorealism — the film chronicles one middle-class boy’s travails as his swooningly wayward mom (the delish Isa Pola) follows her heart, abandons her family, and destroys everyone’s life.
Six years old at the time, the headlight-eyed Luciano De Ambrosis has the unaffected rawness of a bruise forming. De Sica shapes the movie around him as a low-to-the-floor centrifuge of silent bitterness, unanswered questions, and gossipy catastrophe. No one acknowledges what’s really going on — the boy’s internal ruination — because everyone has their own agenda, and the upshot might be the first great film made about parental damage.
It was written by Cesare Zavattini, who wrote or co-wrote all but a few of De Sica’s films, and merits no small share of credit for their pensiveness and eloquence. (He wrote more than 85 other movies, too, in a half-century-long career.) Shoeshine (1946) brought both men to the hardscrabble verities of postwar poverty, a landscape on which De Sica, despite his regal bearing and showbiz bona fides, focused relentlessly for years. His was not the vacationer’s idea of Italy; after Shoeshine, De Sica stayed close to the bombed-out cities’ garbage heaps, starving hordes, and collapsing structures. A rare children’s prison film, Shoeshine is glossed up with a preening score and careful compositions, but the thrust of it — street orphans abused, herded, scrap-fed, manipulated, and punished like stray dogs — is appalling, especially in today’s utopia of pre-K “purposeful play” and child tracking devices. Naturally, the kids, particularly twelve-year-old Rinaldo Smordoni, are artlessly affecting, even if Bicycle Thieves trumped it all for both gritty spontaneity and narrative suction, manifesting a modern morality micro-tale in the clotted streets of Rome and again zeroing in on the chilly collapse of the kid-parent love story.
Under the circumstances, Miracle in Milan (1951) might seem De Sica’s most daring — a pure fairy tale (with a naïf hero initially found as a baby in a cabbage patch) that traffics in angelic intervention but is set entirely in a garbage-dump squatters’ camp, among Italians crafting huts out of refuse and being bulldozed for their troubles. De Sica hits the ironic balance — the mood is buoyant and satirical, but the social commentary comes packed in grenades. (When the power to grant wishes is established, a black American ex-G.I. wishes he were white.) The same struggle surrounds The Roof (1956), a much smaller and little-seen De Sica–Zavattini tale that’s a kind of reply to Miracle‘s childlike optimism: A pair of young newlyweds are squeezed out of their brother-in-law’s cramped flat, sent into homelessness, and forced to try to build their own squat from leftover bricks beside the train tracks. Unemphatically affecting, it’s also remorselessly cynical.
As if to complete a demographic tour of how Italians of all ages are being hammered by the system, Umberto D. (1952) takes on the neglected elderly, and its attention to social terror and disregard for narrative release valves give it a queasy immediacy. It’s essentially a horror film: Unable to pay his rent, an old pensioner (amateur Carlo Battisti) begins a slickly oiled plummet into penury, and nothing awaits him but the abyss. Scrounging, worrying, trying to feed his oblivious dog — eventually, Umberto’s very home literally becomes a blast crater. However prone to trite pet tricks, this is nevertheless a crucifying tear-bath, one of the small handful of films about the aged that matter.
De Sica never stopped acting, and the retro plates some hors d’oeuvres of the man’s on-screen record, all of them very un-neo-real. It’s worth taking this, or any, occasion to see Max Ophüls’s The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) in a new print; also, don’t let the title of Alessandro Blasetti’s Too Bad She’s Bad (1954) steer you clear — it’s a rambunctious comedy with the butter-smooth De Sica and a leonine Sophia Loren heading a family of pro goldbrickers twisting naive cabbie Marcello Mastroianni into knots.
A world-famous award-winner by the mid-Fifties, De Sica dallied with Hollywood (1953’s Selznick-produced, unjustly maligned Terminal Station, an aching attempt at a Roman Brief Encounter), indulged Zavattini (The Gold of Naples, from 1954, a one-director seriocomic omnibus city tribute, featuring Loren as a pizza-seller’s faithless wife, and Silvana Mangano as a whore marrying into a very odd family), and snagged Loren an Oscar as a raped mother in wartime for Two Women (1960). Soon, almost predictably, given his actor-y savoir-faire, De Sica edged into full-on melodrama and farce, and had gender-combat hits with Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1963) and Marriage Italian Style (1964), among others, transforming himself and Loren into mezzobrow icons — and leaving poverty and its discontents far behind.
Vittorio De Sica: Attore, Regista, Seduttore
Film Forum, September 9–October 8