Vittorio De Sica 1902–1974
Italian director, actor, and screenwriter.
De Sica is regarded as one of the most important directors to emerge with the movement known as neorealism. This style of filmmaking emphasizes the importance of social consciousness. Using nonprofessional actors, realistic settings or location filming, and grainy film stock, De Sica employed true-to-life "newsreel" footage to investigate characters that audiences find moving and compelling. With screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, De Sica created a body of work which was most critically successful in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
De Sica was a successful stage and film actor before becoming a director. Dissatisfaction with Carmine Gallone's direction in the film Manon Lescaut led De Sica to direction, and his first film as director was Rose Scarlette in 1940. His first important film is felt to be I bambini ci guardano (The Children Are Watching Us), which portrays the breakup of a marriage through the eyes of a child. Sciuscià (Shoeshine) marked the beginning of the neorealistic movement. The film arouses the sympathies of the audience through its depiction of postwar Italy. De Sica's best-known works are Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief), Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan), and Umberto D. All of these films include elements of neorealism, although Miracle in Milan also contains dream sequences and comedy. The relationship between the individual and his social status is the dominant theme of these three films, and The Bicycle Thief is regarded by many critics as the best film to come out of neorealism.
After Umberto D., De Sica's artistic success began to decline. Even though Il tetto (The Roof) is viewed today as an engaging film, it was not successful upon release and marked De Sica's last effort in the neorealist style. De Sica made a great many films in the 1960s and early 1970s, but critics feel that these films are glossy and commercialized, and not nearly as significant as his earlier works. However, De Sica continued to act in many films and television series (which helped to finance his directorial efforts), and he enjoyed commercial success as the director of Two Women, Marriage, Italian Style, and Garden of the Finzi-Continis.
It is ironic that De Sica found his greatest commercial successes in films that are regarded as mere shadows of his neorealistic films. In fact, a few critics rate De Sica as a minor director on the basis of his later films and the lack of emotion in the directorial style of his early work. However, most feel that De Sica's and Zavattini's contributions to neo-realism are among the most successful and important innovations in film.
What is it about these Italian pictures which makes the impression they create so overwhelming? First, their tremendous actuality, second, their honesty, and third, their passionate pleading for what we have come to term the humane values. The uses of adversity are once again demonstrated: lack of money has made it necessary to shoot on real locations, against backgrounds which themselves forbid the phoney and the fake. But it is chiefly the impulse of generous and uncompromising emotion which gives to Sciuscia, as to the [Roberto] Rossellini films, a force unknown to the Warner heavy…. [The] setting of Sciuscia is contemporary, and … it has no respect for the old lies, the safe conventions. It is the story of two shoeshine boys loose in "liberated" Rome—Rome liberated not only from Fascism but also from order and security. It is the boys' highest ambition to own a horse of their own; in contriving to get hold of enough money, they become party, all but innocently, to a black market deal. They are caught by the police and, since they refuse to implicate their friends, sent to prison as juvenile delinquents.
The atmosphere of the exhausted, disintegrated city is superbly conveyed; the rough, newsreel quality of [the] photography, the sharp cutting, the abrupt naturalism of the acting persuade us that we are watching scenes as they actually take place, people as they actually are. This in itself is enough to make...
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Bicycle Thieves is a wholly satisfying film in that de Sica has so simplified and mastered the mechanics of the job that nothing stands between you and his intention. It can be likened to a painting that is formed in an intensity of concentration, and is as good as finished before it reaches the canvas. In fact, Bicycle Thieves, as a film properly should, relates to plastic and in no sense to dramatic or literary art. de Sica displays this with the opening compilation of visuals, which at once places his family in an environment of slow, sapping industrial poverty, where the bicycle and the bed linen represent the last claims of domestic pride, and where the pawnshop and the tenement fortune-teller batten on misery. It is, needless to say, a Rome the visitor sees though seldom penetrates, but where, before the war, he might have admired the triumphs of Mussolini's industrial architecture. (pp. 27-8)
[Although, by] some process of magnetism, de Sica has drawn from [the] boy an unparalleled child performance, it is the man who is his symbol of the human plight. He is the helpless individual, herded with, yet isolated from his fellows, who is caught in a situation. To de Sica and many Italians who have absorbed their Kafka and Sartre, this is the general theme of the century. It might be said to parallel the situation of Italy herself.
The story of that heartrending Sunday search after the stolen bicycle is...
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Vittorio De Sica's latest film, Miracolo a Milano, is far from the "world" which he and co-scripter Cesare Zavattini described in The Bicycle Thief. In Miracolo De Sica and Zavattini leave behind the simple, direct approach to human problems, and attempt the difficult trick of marrying realism to fantasy. They almost succeed….
[This film], for better or for worse, swings heavily towards Zavattini's side. It is not De Sica's picture primarily, and when judgment is passed this proportion of paternity should be kept well in mind. (p. 26)
The authors intended Miracolo a Milano to be a fable told against a backdrop of the harsh realities of present-day Italian life. (p. 27)
What are De Sica and Zavattini trying to say?
Several themes seem to be combined. First, there is an exhortation to be simple in heart. Second, there is an assertion that the brotherhood of man, asked for in The Bicycle Thief, is able (by the aid of a miracle) to defeat power unjustly used. Third, the authors suggest that the good must seek peace and happiness elsewhere than in this world.
But De Sica and Zavattini commit a fundamental error when they try to apply to these moral problems their particular concepts of the poor. One of Zavattini's books is entitled The Poor Are Crazy (I poveri sono matti). And De Sica upheld a similar viewpoint while he was shooting Miracolo. "Beggars," he said to me, "are in their own way quite crazy and live in a poetic, completely happy, impractical world of their own. This is the world I want to convey in...
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Sciuscia, Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan and Umberto D. are political films in the sense that they deal with problems which are subject to legislation and political control; but they offer no solutions and propagate no specific programme. Zavattini has spoken of the new style as "a moral discovery, an appeal to order" and the films themselves bear out that the impulse behind them is primarily a moral one. What remains remarkable about them as a group is that their moral passion, which was born of the war and could find expression only after the release from fascism, has grown in intensity with every film. (pp. 87-8)
De Sica's extraordinary tact with people enables him to get performances that are always real and dignified. Whether they are more than this must depend on the players chosen and in Umberto D. they sometimes fall short. In the scenes demanding strong emotional reactions, de Sica's unadorned method of observation occasionally leaves the players, as it were, too much on their own in the centre of the screen.
The best scenes in Umberto D. … have a purity of effect which gives them, in context, a profound poetic intensity. Although the episodes mount, in a dramatic sense, slowly, there is behind them a kind of passionate identification with the characters' human predicament which creates an extraordinary concentration. De Sica has brought his subject to the screen with a directness which springs from an inner conviction and faith in his characters. It gives the film, in spite of faults in execution, the unmistakable authority and completeness of a masterpiece. (p. 88)
Karel Reisz, "Film Reviews: 'Umberto D'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1953 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 23, No. 2, October-December, 1953, pp. 87-8.
In my opinion, [Umberto D.] represents undoubtedly the apex of what can be considered the first phase of the Italian neorealism; it is also the closest and most precious attempt at "filmed life."…
In Umberto D. the symbiosis of Zavattini and De Sica has reached the most perfect fusion of style and message. The escapism of Miracle in Milan, the workman's tragedy in Bicycle Thief has risen to the pathos of loneliness in Umberto D. The film maintains the dignity of an art without compromise as it reflects the anguished conditions in post-war Italy. The pessimism is gradual. The squatters of Miracle in Milan do have hope and fly with their brooms to "where good...
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[Umberto D.] may easily be construed as an artless and unbuttered slice of life, a testimony of "naturalism": ostensibly a method of expressing reality without inhibition, without overtones and as far as possible without style. Nothing could be further from the case. Like Shoe Shine or Bicycle Thief, and with justification even more subtle, De Sica's Umberto D.—a masterpiece of compassion …—might be termed super-naturalism if this compound had not been preempted for another kind of experience entirely. The fidelity of De Sica's attention to the plight of the man, Umberto, realistic in its living details, is enriched by a host of modulations working under and through the story...
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[The] credit line "Directed by Vittorio De Sica" has so far been reserved almost entirely for the pictures, like "Shoe-Shine," into which he has poured the enthusiasm and ingenuity of a fervent artist, in the belief that in them alone lies his chance for a distinguished place in the history of his craft. These films, so startlingly different from the ones that De Sica acts in for other producers, deal for the most part with serious subjects—notably, the subject of poverty, omnipresent in Italy—and they contrive to temper the uncompromising realism of documentaries with a compassionate humanity not often found in the output of the cinema industry. Probably not more than two of these films have been anything like...
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Il Tetto (The Roof) is the latest result of the fruitful collaboration between Vittorio deSica and Cesare Zavattini. It is only four years old but, except for its smooth technical finish, it seems much older. The story of a young newly married couple who are forced by poverty and family circumstances to join a squatters' colony (similar to the one in Miracle in Milan) which exists on the edge of Rome, it is, perhaps, too obviously the sort of material which might be expected to engage the sympathies of deSica and Zavattini. (p. 49)
The curious failure of Il Tetto brings up once again the old fundamental distinction between art and life, if only because it is on a version of this...
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Although Vittorio De Sica's Il Tetto comes late to Britain and belongs very firmly to the neo-realist tradition that one had been inclined to consider out-moded, there is an undeniable freshness about it which takes no heed of fashion, and its story of a young couple in Rome who seek a roof over their heads is as persuasive and heart-felt as anything De Sica has given us.
This is, of course, one of the films he really wanted to make, and the kind for which he labours cheerfully as an actor in other director's films, some of them quite trivial. Il Tetto involves, so we gather, not a personal financial risk but a true sense of dedication.
It could be said that...
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The sentimentality which many critics have felt in Bicycle Thieves arises, I feel, from the unresolved contradictions set up by its two themes. Ostensibly a protest against degrading social and economic conditions, this theme is never more than a cover or excuse for the theme of solidarity against loneliness, in which De Sica and Zavattini are really involved emotionally. Their embarrassment at this confusion can best be seen at the climax of the film. This, oddly enough, is not the moment of degradation when the father is caught stealing the bicycle, but the moment when the father strikes his son, and then suspects the child has been drowned (symbolically suggesting that he has killed the son himself); and it...
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Watching Two Women is like being at the burial of two friends. From neo-realism to neo-decadence, the Zavattini-De Sica life cycle has been spent. That is, providing De Sica wants us to take this work seriously and not, as has often had to be the case in the past, as one of his money-making chores with which to finance such works of distinguished genius as Umberto-D. The re-union with Za, the overall obsession with attacks of fascism and the church, the distinguished original of [an Alberto] Moravia novel … I can only believe it is intended as more than a routine chore.
What, then, has gone wrong?
The story line is simple and direct…. Superficially it is dreadful...
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[In La Ciociara (Two Women), De Sica] is less than ever concerned directly with the fate of a single class; more than ever and with more driving force than ever before, concerned with the fate of people. As before, however, his generalization is absorbed in the particular through that reconciliation of intense compassion with scrupulous objectivity which is his personal genius—and the particular, in the person of Cisera, the widow from Ciociaria, cries aloud that in "one world" there is no place to hide….
It's inseparable from the De Sica view that misery must love company, in order to purge and renew itself. Faced with a condition wherein the church stands stripped, our...
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If we would rush to see new films by [Federico] Fellini, [Luchino] Visconti and De Sica, should we not rush with even more enthusiasm to get the three for the price of one? Perhaps we might, but if we do we shall be disappointed [in Boccaccio 70]. The three stories have only the vague and hopeful connection with Boccaccio that they are all faintly saucy, one being comic, one fantastic would-be satirical, and one sentimental. None of the directors is anywhere near his best and De Sica, as a matter of fact, is (one hopes) absolutely at his worst….
De Sica's episode, The Raffle, is an attempt to do Sophia Loren's pizza-seller bit from L'Oro di Napoli over again in colour and wide...
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[Carlo Ponti, the producer of The Condemned of Altona, should have realised that Vittorio De Sica was the wrong person to tackle Les Sequestres D'Altona, Jean-Paul Sartre's] penetrating play about the German problem….
Altona is a typical example of how Rome is trying to copy the Hollywood formula, and is not getting away with it. De Sica and Zavattini are too sensitive and intelligent to be able to make films in [this] manner…. (p. 131)
De Sica, who nowadays seems to accept directorial assignments as casually as he once accepted acting roles in every other film, deserves most of the creative blame. After all, he is still one of the world's top ten living...
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Although De Sica's Altona is a muddled piece of film-making, lunging erratically from melodrama to neo-realism, it retains the dramatic onslaught of Sartre's play. Essentially, of course, it is a thing of theatre, too organised and extravagant at any rate to belong in De Sica's kind of cinema. But the problems that form its core are vital and thought-worthy, and the acting … is outstanding. (p. 21)
[The] direction is all over the place. De Sica is strong whenever he has an opportunity to expand into real exteriors: at the industrialist's shipyard there is some fine visual stuff high up amid the scaffolding, and there is a good bit when the recluse finally ventures out into the world and...
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"We are showing three divergent views of Italy today, cutting across the entire social scale," explains De Sica of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. "Although different in time and place, the three episodes are bound together by universal qualities of humor, humanity and compassion and hopefully stand for modern society everywhere."
De Sica and his scenarists have fabricated a largely successful entertainment, but his statement about the film is pompous (so unlike De Sica). Humor he gives us, and I suppose, "humanity" (whatever that is); but of compassion there is not a trace, nor need there be for such a charming, light-hearted work; finally, the characters and situations appear, in many ways,...
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It is true that Vittorio De Sica's work has deteriorated considerably in the past decade. But it is also, I would submit, still equally true that both the overall body of his films and his best pictures (Bicycle Thieves, Miracolo a Milano, Umberto D, and to a somewhat lesser extent I Bambini Ci Guardano), remain fully worthy of comparison with those of Antonioni, Visconti or Fellini….
Made under Fascist rule, I Bambini Ci Guardano (1943) was regarded at the time of its issue as being sufficiently dangerous in its implied criticisms of contemporary Italian morals to be banned from showing outside Rome: and even today, the fame of De Sica's later pictures has overshadowed it…....
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According to Stanley Kauffmann, scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio de Sica got their ideas for depicting contemporary youth in A Young World by visiting the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris and there looking at nouvelle vagueeries.
Critic Kauffmann regards as sad this stategem by which two sixty-four-year-olds hoped to disguise the second-hand quality of their projected truckle to the most numerous portion of today's movie-goers (the young).
I don't think it's any sadder than what de Sica and Zavattini have been doing throughout their entire collaboration, and in saying this I do include Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief, Miracle in Milan, Umberto D...
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It is important that the audience be taken unawares by Shoe-Shine, that it should experience fear and hope and be unable to guess the outcome of the story.
It is a story that unfolds before our eyes; the children caught in it do not realize what is happening to them…. [They] do not try to express themselves nor even to influence their own lives. It is their innocence, in fact, that creates the story and makes it great. (p. 17)
Since Shoe-Shine is neither an accusation nor a propaganda work, we are spared a "crucial point." The story simply proceeds, step by step, until there is nothing further to narrate. Great skill is shown in putting the single moral-bearing...
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["The Garden of the Finzi Continis"] is certainly the best film that Vittorio De Sica has made in years, but the shabby habits he acquired when directing such things as "Sunflower" and "A Place for Lovers" keep intruding upon this new, much more ambitious work to render it less affecting than it has every right to be.
Mr. De Sica's way with end-of-an-era romance is to shoot almost everything in soft focus, as if he didn't trust the validity of the emotions in what seems to be a perfectly decent screenplay. The film's mood of impending doom is not discovered by the viewer, but imposed on him, by a syrupy musical score and by a camera that keeps panning to and from the sky, and shots of the sun, seen...
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I love Vittorio De Sica's films of his best period, from the end of World War II to 1952, preeminently The Bicycle Thief and Miracle in Milan…. But I don't like The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. It attempts a serious theme and is neither good art nor good show biz. (pp. 95-6)
The subject of the Jews under Mussolini has never been the main matter of a film, as far as I know; it's an interesting idea and I wish the result had been better. The fundamental flaw is the script.
The story is about the love of a middle-class Jewish youth for the Finzi-Contini daughter and her inability to return anything but sisterly love. So the chief motions of the plot are utterly...
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The late Vittorio De Sica was a fine artist, a polished hack, and a flabby whore—not necessarily in that order. His film career, as director and actor, was neither a slide nor an ascent: it simply varied. From a beginning in flossy drivel during the early 1930s he moved to his best films between 1946 and 1952 (The Bicycle Thief, Miracle in Milan, Umberto D.) and moved from them to too wide a range of quality. Much of his subsequent directing was not even shown in this country…. He surfaced again as a fine director with Two Women in 1961, then in 1972 he made another serious attempt with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis—unsuccessful, I think….
A Brief Vacation is...
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When Vittorio De Sica died a few months ago, he had just released a last film which is remarkable because it could easily have been his first film. It has been a quarter of a century since De Sica did his classic work—Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D—as part of the Neo-Realist movement in Italy. Yet this final film, A Brief Vacation, again renews and extends the vision that those Neo-Realist films established as De Sica's own. Whereas most of De Sica's earlier films deal with periods of extreme adversity in their characters' lives, this film is about a period of relative happiness. But this doesn't represent any basic change in De Sica's sentiments. His films have always suggested a sort of...
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Neo-realism lives again in an opening sequence [of Una Breve Vacanza (A Brief Vacation)] where De Sica and Zavattini perpetrate another of those familiarly strident tableaux in which an Italian family swap vociferous recriminations amid the squalor of a cramped and rancid apartment. 'Lives', however, is hardly the word for the larger-than-life melodramatics resuscitated here, and Breve Vacanza is as dead as a doornail from the word go. Arguably, this opening sequence might be marginally more affecting were it not subjected to the grotesque distortions of dubbing, but nothing could save the fiction that follows from looking like anything other than a masturbatory fantasy by courtesy of women's lib....
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In common with many other great men, Vittorio de Sica … had a chronic weakness that was as disorienting to him as a whiff of booze can be to the alcoholic. Mr. De Sica, the social critic ("The Bicycle Thief") with an immense talent for comedy as both an actor ("It Started in Naples") and as a director ("Marriage Italian-Style"), was from time to time subject to fits of teary sentimentality that upset his balance and completely dissolved his judgment.
As a sentimentalist Mr. De Sica never went on a bender by himself. He surrounded himself with friends, as if the making of these ponderously romantic movies were really occasions of great conviviality. Perhaps they were, though it never shows in the...
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In some ways it is humiliating that De Sica should go out with such a whimper [with The Voyage]. His career, between the highlights of Shoe Shine and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, could be described as a march from the Paris theatre to Third Avenue in popularizing both neo-realism and the modern commercial Italian film; he was conqueror of the Bloomingdale's gold coast and standard bearer of the New York art house during its many crises of identity. But those days are gone forever, and The Voyage, a sedate jewel of a film, is one of De Sica's quietest, least compromising works….
"The voyage" itself refers to Cesare and Adriana's journey for a cure, their first chance to...
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