Friday, August 5, 2011

Remastering the Film: Vittorio De Sica

As sometimes happens at certain moments in history (the Bolzhevic Revolution, for example), politics and art can become enmeshed to produce works that are socially as well as artistically important. As the films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Vertov were a direct and powerful reflection of the revolutionary fervor of Soviet society in the 1920s, so the films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica were both inspired by (and inspiring to) an Italy that had finally got rid of fascism.

With films like Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Miracle in Milan (1951), and Umberto D (1952), De Sica was the greatest practitioner of a mode that quickly became known as neo-realism. De Sica's art, of course, was far more sophisticated than it looked. He imposed a subtle design on his subjects, while maintaining a simplicity of means, like his preferred use of non-professional actors, that created the illusion of artlessness. His films are as structured, in fact, as some of the more rigid stylists, like Antonioni. As Vernon Young wrote, in his review of Umberto D,

"Sociological film criticism is forever mistaken because it is forever misled – on humanitarian principles or by self-righteousness or from color-blindness – into confusing ends with means. Asserting that importance lies in subject matter, it fails to recognize that no subject is important until awakened by art; assuming (to give its charity the benefit of the doubt) that love is greater than art, it fails to acknowledge that the art is the love... To praise the film for its human appeal is as needless and as miserly as to praise a beautiful woman for her conspicuous virtue." (1)

Despite the acclaim that De Sica's masterworks earned, they did not make enough money for him to continue working independently. Besides directing, he was a beloved film actor, appearing in 157 films. But he managed to create a few distinctive films after Umberto D, like Gold of Naples (1954), La Ciociara (Two Women-1960), Marriage Italian Style (1964), and the two late flourishes of his long career, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) and A Brief Vacation (1973), even if they were worlds apart from the struggles of the poor in his early films.

In the documentary,
Marcello Mastroianni: I Remember, Mastroianni describes a confrontation with De Sica, whom he revered, over the script for the film, A Place for Lovers (1968). Mastroianni hated the script so much that he felt he had to tell De Sica, "Signor De Sica, the script is shit!" When he discovered that De Sica knew this, but had gambling debts he had to settle, he agreed to do the film.

De Sica was a lifelong gambler, and in what is perhaps a self-portrait, he played an inveterate gambler, Count Prospero B, in an episode, "I giocatori", from his beautiful omnibus film, The Gold of Naples. He is such a compulsive gambler that he resorts to forcing the little son of his concierge to play cards with him - and always loses. In his best films, De Sica gambled - and always won.

As Vernon Young concluded:

"De Sica’s films in the naturalist vein have been accusations of the fascist aftermath; they take their place with the most profound cinematic achievements by sounding vibrations in a dimension larger than the political. . . . When Umberto D. twirls down the path under the trees with the jumping dog, we recall not only the other De Sica “conclusions” – Pasquale, in Shoeshine, facing a lifetime of expiation; the frustrated “bicycle thief” and his son renewing the life-circuit by joining hands; the poor, of Miracle in Milan, flying away on their brooms to an unlikely heaven – but also perhaps Baptiste, in Les Enfants du Paradis, striving against the tide of revelers cutting him off from Truth, the woodchopper in Rashomon, undaunted by fearful disclosures of moral ambiguity, deciding to adopt the abandoned baby – and Chaplin disappearing into a California horizon (the first time!)."

(1) Vernon Young, "Umberto D.: Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Super’-naturalism", The Hudson Review, Vol. VIII, No. 4 [Winter, 1956].

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