My list of favorite directors must immediately give one a sense of my concept of film art, since all of them are realists of some kind. One of the most important realists was the neo-realist Vittorio De Sica. He was a consummate artist who used his gift for visual storytelling with an unprecedented talent with, to use that clumsy term, amateur actors. And he was one of the greatest directors of children. Several years ago I published an item for Senses of Cinema called A Noble Ruin: Remembering De Sica.
After recently noticing that De Sica is conspicuously absent from Senses' Great Directors Database, I volunteered to write an entirely new piece on De Sica. My request may have been lost in the shuffle of department reassignments. I won't go banging on their door. But just to remind them of my request, I'm reprinting my old essay (2000) here.
A NOBLE RUIN: REMEMBERING DE SICA
In a 1971 interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, Vittorio De Sica made a sad summation of his career in film: "All my good films, which I financed myself, made nothing. Only my bad films made money. Money has been my ruin." (1)
Good films. Bad films. In De Sica's filmography, it is relatively easy to distinguish them. It seems almost as if they were directed by two different men. For how could the man who made Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette, 1948)(2) have made Woman Times Seven (1967), a showcase for Shirley MacLaine's dubious talents in seven equally moribund roles? Or, A Place for Lovers (Gli Amanti, 1968), wherein Mastroianni pursues Faye Dunaway, who is dying from a brain tumor (or was it the other way around)? Or, The Voyage (Il Viaggio, 1974), his posthumous film, a turgid romance with the unlikeliest pairing of Sophia Loren and Richard Burton?
If we look closer, however, it becomes obvious that De Sica's career did not follow so simple a trajectory. It would be perilous, in fact, to uphold his criterion in the face of some glorious exceptions. For, in which category would De Sica have placed The Gold of Naples (L'oro di Napoli, 1954), which he didn't produce and which made money? Or the film that represented his comeback, Two Women (La Ciociara, 1961), which was produced by Joseph E. Levine and starred Sophia Loren and Jean-Paul Belmondo (and which, incidentally, won a few Oscars)? Or, Filumena Marturano (1964), produced by Carlo Ponti and distributed in the U.S. by Joseph Levine, who doubtless gave it the asinine American title Marriage Italian-Style?
The Gold of Naples was originally a six-part film, derived from a Giuseppe Marotta novel depicting the picaresque lives of Neapolitans. Two of the episodes were cut for its American release, presumably because they were considered too esoterically Italian. Of the four remaining parts, two stand as monuments to De Sica's ability to regenerate the sometimes forgotten art of film acting. They both climax at momentary character epiphanies that required the actors to undergo emotional transformations before our very eyes. Yet De Sica and his actors make the transformations so understated that the effect is altogether astonishing. The first of these two parts depicts a local hood who tyrannizes a family, until, having finally had enough, the family stands in unison against him. The hood stands there, in the family's kitchen, ready to tear them limb from limb, when he suddenly sees the desperate determination in their faces, even on the face of their little boy. He looks down, fiddles with his hat, and backs away, quietly closing the front door behind him.
The second great episode shows us Teresa, a prostitute approached with a marriage proposal from a wealthy young man. Never once questioning the unlikelihood of her good fortune, Teresa is informed by her new husband on her wedding night that he only married her in order to atone for the suicide of a virtuous young girl whose affections he had ignored. He assures her that she will enjoy the comfort of her new social position, but the whole town is to know of his marriage to a streetwalker so that he might spend the rest of his life paying for his unthinking cruelty to the dead girl. Tearfully fleeing from her humiliation, Teresa leaves the house and hurries down the dark street. But before getting more than a few blocks away she suddenly stops, gazing at the night and the inevitable return to her old life. Silvana Mangano gives the performance of her life as she communicates, with a few sobs and the stamp of a lifetime of hard choices on her face, how wealth and comfort can render the unthinkable somehow preferable to a hell she knows only too well. She goes back to the house - her house, and raps entreatingly on the huge wooden door.
Two Women was based on an Alberto Moravia story named after its heroine, Cesira, "la Ciociara" (i.e., woman from Ciociara). The Gold of Naples introduced a voluptuous young actress to the world named Sophia Loren. By the time Loren's producer-boyfriend Carlo Ponti approached De Sica with the project of adapting the Moravia story to film, she was on the verge of international stardom. De Sica had made only two films in the seven years after The Gold of Naples. He had produced The Roof (Il Tetto, 1956) with his own money - again addressing social concerns, this time a young couple's attempts to put a roof over their heads. True to De Sica's dictum, it made no money. Two years later, he made Gina Lollobrigida a star in Anna of Brooklyn (Anna di Brooklyn, 1958), without managing to contribute a tincture of luster to his own reputation. With Two Women, De Sica returned to familiar terrain, in a thoroughly neo-realist mode. The other woman in Two Women is Cesira's daughter, Rosetta. Together they leave war-ravaged Rome for the relative safety of the countryside - eventually returning to Cesira's village. Along the way, they encounter various instances of war's ultimate obscenity. Spared in their encounters with Germans and fascist Italians, both mother and daughter are ultimately raped by the Allies - a truckload of leering Moroccans - within the presumed sanctuary of a derelict church. Nothing and no one is spared the indiscriminate barbarity. De Sica, by concentrating less on events than on the effects they elicit in his characters, managed once again to humanize his material, to subsume history in the life of his heroine.
By the time De Sica made Filumena Marturano in 1964, neo-realism was quite belatedly dead, and no one but its inveterate hardliners were lamenting its passing. Nonetheless, De Sica managed to discover, in widescreen Eastmancolor, a style to suit the Eduardo De Filippo play he had chosen to adapt - a dramatic approach to life embracing both the glorious and the ridiculous. Here we are once again introduced to a familiar acting pair, Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. But we are quickly convinced through superb acting and a genuine feeling for the city of Naples that this is to be something more than yet another bathetic love story. Sure, the flashbacks are handled rather quaintly, and the music is awful, but the film embraces so much that it would be useless to complain that its embrace is sometimes clumsy. De Sica takes us well past the usual melodramatic conclusions in his characters' lives to an ending that is neither final nor quite fulfilling. It may be the cheeriest ending to any of his films: Filumena/Sophia marries Domenico/Marcello. But why is Filumena crying as the camera tracks discreetly away from her?
In 1952, after his last "good" film - Umberto D - flopped (read: "made no money"), De Sica answered the call of David O. Selznick and directed Stazioni Termini (1952), clumsily renamed Indiscretion of an American Wife in the U.S., starring Selznick's wife, Jennifer Jones. Living up to her reputation as a notorious pain in the neck, Jones was required to wear a Christian Dior hat that she hated so intensely she attempted to flush it down a toilet. De Sica explained to her morosely that he could have made another Bicycle Thieves with what her hat was worth.
De Sica never made another Bicycle Thieves. He became the pampered captive of the likes of Joe Levine and Carlo Ponti. Even his old comrade, Cesare Zavattini, with whom he first found his authentic voice in I Bambini ci Guardano, (The Children Are Watching Us, 1943), would follow him into obscurity. Their commitment to examining the lives of the poor was derived from their devotion to Communism, which Mussolini helped arouse, and which a crippled economy after the war allowed to blossom into what is probably the single most important movement in film - only later to be codified by the term neo-realism.
Neo-realism would quickly become a political, as well as an artistic, creed. Every Italian film was scrutinized for its fidelity to an inviolate code. What saved De Sica from becoming merely doctrinaire, and what would arouse the disfavor of doctrinaire Italian critics, was his unflinching honesty and his unwavering compassion for what most of us have since forgotten - the "invisible ones" who unwittingly fell through the cracks in our universe: the shoeshine boys of Rome; a paper-hanger who has to sell his nuptial linen to buy a bicycle; an orphan boy whose only escape from a Milanese shanty town is with an enchanted dove; an old man driven to beg for a few lire so that his dog can have a saucer of milk. It is the measure of the humanity of any age if it can sometimes find its heroes in such company.
© Dan Harper, December 2000
1. Charles Thomas Samuels, Encountering Directors, G.P. Putnams's Sons, New York, 1972, p.187
2. I insist on calling the film Bicycle Thieves, instead of the usual The Bicycle Thief - since that was De Sica's point. The conditions in which we live, namely capitalism, have forced everyone to steal bicycles to survive.