Vittorio De Sica

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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…. [Within] this comparatively early work are already displayed the mature qualities of technical assurance and psychological penetration which were to produce the post-war masterpieces.

I Bambini … is domestic tragedy, as distinct from the economic tragedy of Bicycle Thieves or the human tragedy of Umberto: and it may be argued with a measure of truth that De Sica's genius loses something of its essential character when not directly involved with the stiffening hardships of Italian life which he was subsequently so unforgettably to depict.

There is, indeed, at moments in the film a certain unaccustomed romanticism of style: a preoccupation, for example, with opportunities for chiaroscuro and picture-postcard composition in the seaside scenes. From a purely literary and dramatic standpoint, also, the scriptwriters have run the risk, by making the personality of the lover in their eternal-triangle story superficially at any rate such an unpleasant one, of emphasizing here and there … the archetypally melodramatic associations of this theme. Yet the lover's function is, in the end, unimportant. He serves only to precipitate the family crisis: and in a way, perhaps, his apparent mediocrity only points the more the inexplicable motives of our sexual conduct, and the fact that, criticism of morals or no, this is fundamentally a story in which no-one is at heart to blame…. The husband must have given the wife some cause to leave him, be it merely that falling off in physical attraction…. But we can hardly feel he wronged her wittingly: certainly, from the man's subsequent attempt at reconciliation …, his forgiveness to the mother, and above all his abiding tenderness towards their child, De Sica gives us not to think so. Yet she, though she returns and once more tries her best, cannot resolve the unstated crisis, and leaves again. This time not even her love for her small son stays her.

This is the most poignant aspect of I Bambini Ci Guardano. The drama and conflict are, as I have indicated, shown elliptically: because they are throughout observed by the uncomprehending eyes of the person they predominantly affect—the person who, alone not adult and 'responsible,' has done no wrong and so must suffer most….

But it is, by the very nature of the plot, in the sequences involving father and son that the bond of feeling is seen at its most intense. It is a different sort of bond from that of the father and son in Bicycle Thieves, because of the change in class milieu, and the shift of emotional stance. The characters here are of a more sensitive and refined temperament, and they are also much more acutely concerned in a mutual and embarrassing situation: true, the loss of a mother and wife is not exactly a matter of financial life and death to them; but nevertheless, a mother and wife is not a bicycle. (p. 12)

For once...

(This entire section contains 3559 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

in a De Sica film there is no 'moral recompense', not even the austerely implied one of aBicycle Thieves or a Sciuscia. The father, after committing his boy to the impersonal care of a seminary, commits suicide: and Prico, when his mother in repentance comes to visit him, turns his back on her, and in a lingering, hopeless final shot walks slowly away from her, out of the long room….

I bambini ci guardano: the children are watching us. Throughout his film, often by means of the most imaginative combinations of images, De Sica stresses the significance of this title. (p. 13)

Beyond [the] subtleties of incidental observation, there is the attempt to interpret and visually recreate the understandings and misunderstandings, the dreams and fears and confusions of a four-year-old mind, which results in perhaps the film's most striking directorial triumph. (pp. 13-14)

Sciuscia contains some fine moments. The screenplay indicts not only the adult crooks who employ the boys, but also the mixture of bad living conditions and ineffectual 'good works' provided by the adult authorities for the young prisoners. It is a telling (if slightly obvious) touch to have the escape from gaol occur while priests are treating the inmates to a film show of 'News from the Free World.' This sequence, in which riot and fire break out in the darkened, crowded hall, is one of the picture's two set-pieces of action, an expertly constructed pattern of panicking, running figures and light and shade. The other set-piece is a fight between Pasquale and another boy in the prison shower-baths, the white settings and unclad bodies blending with the stiffly pumping arms of the combatants to create a strange stylisation….

The film's closing images … possess genuine pain: as Pasquale cradles Giuseppe's corpse in his arms and cries again and again, 'What have I done?,' the police silently look on; but the horse symbol of the lost innocence and unfulfilled yearnings of all these boys, moves unknowingly away on the leafy bank, in a final sad juxtaposition of carefree life and tragic death.

Yet, despite its clear virtues, Sciuscia strikes me as having been over-praised. De Sica's technique here veers curiously from formalism (more consistently sophisticated and disciplined than was the case in I Bambini Ci Guardano, where romantic glossiness was once or twice evident) to a naturalism rather rougher (and less satisfying) than in Ladri di Biciclette and Umberto D. The latter two pictures are conceived and executed in a kind of realism which, while ostensibly documentary in its locations and plot, is actually highly calculated, both plastically and dramatically. The mood produced by this calculation is one of sustained, gradually increasing compassion, in situations, portrayals, visuals, music, sound effects and narrative rhythms.

In Sciuscia, calculation and compassion are only intermittent. At times, there is instead an emphasis on the noisy, defiant, irrepressible ebullience and toughness of the gangs of boys: an emphasis which, while no doubt more strictly truthful, is both less moving and less poetic than the approach of the later films….

But with Ladri di Biciclette (1948) … De Sica directed the first of three consecutive films which arguably form his crowning achievements. (p. 14)

The father is driven by his hatred for the theft and his displaced position to attempt to get his own back on humanity by stealing another bike, and thus depriving a member of society which has deprived him. But there is to be no salvation. Where dishonesty (in the person of the boy who stole his bike) succeeds in escaping detection, the victim himself—who is inherently honest—fails to escape when he endeavours to turn thief. He is caught in the act: but, to complete the cruel and pitiful irony, he is allowed to go free. There remains for him only the shame of the deed to torment his conscience: and the trembling, mute expression in the eyes of his small son to tear at his soul.

De Sica was not sure whether to have his hero tempted into stealing: but I feel that Antonio's trials might well have provoked him to such a step. No-one can fail to be moved by the awful torture with which this man in the concluding sequences is beset: and the drama's resolution, generally held to be in the same tradition of 'moral victory' as that of Umberto D, I don't find really so hopeful; the gesture of the child's hand gripping his father's doesn't seem quite to redeem it. But perhaps the less austere conception of the story, as compared to that of Umberto, doesn't call for such a final compensation. For Antonio and his family the pain, though not little, will end: Antonio, we feel, is young enough and strong enough to get another job; but Umberto is too old—his age, alas, is his tragedy.

Bicycle Thieves is not totally without faults. It has two plot contrivances: no sooner has the father at one point slapped his son, than he fears the boy may be drowned, thus engineering a conveniently swift rapprochement; and Antonio twice happening to meet the thief is definitely excessive—notwithstanding any compensatory sense … that other people have troubles which may lead them to do wrong…. As for Antonio's final action, though, it is dramatically credible and morally tenable where those of Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (another victim of circumstances) aren't: simply due to the difference in degree, in scale, between the two sets of circumstances and actions. The central situation of theft in Bicycle Thieves (like Umberto's being wholly without family to care for him) doesn't—as Antonio's wife herself says—happen every day. But it is an outcome of a far more widespread situation (poverty and lack of employment): just as Umberto's derives from the wholly universal one of old age's redundancy and inner loneliness.

Despite its minor limitations of theme and narrative structure, Ladri di Biciclette has the visual and verbal directness of a near-masterpiece. The script is tight as can be, unerring in the small things [as in the big]…. (pp. 14-15)

And De Sica proves worthy of it: not merely in his vivid capturing of locale and his economy of exposition, but in touches such as the bogus fortune-teller's surreptitious glance at her clients' money and her simulated disdain to receive it; in his handling of the central family group and above all of Maggiorani, whose consistently affecting performance may be exemplified by his first reaction of stupefied despair as he returns from his chase down the tunnel, and by his breakdown in the closing passages; and not least, in the film's intense feeling for atmosphere….

Miracolo a Milano (1951) … stands quite apart from the rest of De Sica's oeuvre in being a thoroughgoing fantasy: yet it is my favourite amongst his films, and it may even be his finest achievement….

One realises that Miracolo could have been a very different, more sober film had De Sica and Zavattini so intended. The position of the down-and-outs is fundamentally tragic: they are pitiable people, who huddle together, long for a place in the sun, sing their pleas for 'a hut and a bed,' stamp their feet, blow on their nails, still manage to laugh, and move as a crowd yet as a hopeful entity…. Given the opportunity to wish for anything they want, most of the characters request and receive material benefits: but two lovers (one black, one white) each secretly ask to change colour, so that they may marry without stigma; finishing up, poignantly, just as far apart as before. Thus De Sica and Zavattini with a concise eloquence and imaginatively poetic vision rare in the cinema's treatment of the racial problem, symbolise the fact we must all face: that prejudice is less easy to surmount than poverty. But the film's tragic aspects are only implicit in the exuberance of the general satire. Instead of showing the paupers rising to power, kicking out their dictators, then being kicked out themselves as new autocrats, Zavattini and De Sica have a happy ending. In the mood of fantasy, everyone flies off into 'a new life.' The situation is fairy-tale: the principle hopefully real. (p. 15)

I have nothing but praise … for De Sica's incisive use of the crowds, of noise and movement…. It is a tribute to De Sica that he so packs the screen with splendid compositions that nearly every shot is concentrated visual art: yet so precisely are these pictorial effects integrated into the texture of the action that afterwards few shots stand out in the mind; this is not a 'showy' film. (pp. 15-16)

All this might suggest that Miracolo a Milano is 'true-to-life,' and therefore admired in the same way as Bicycle Thieves. This is not so. Miracolo is a fantasy, and a parable: and it has been attacked on these very grounds. The fact is that an effort of sympathy has to be made by audiences who see this film: but the sympathy is aesthetic, not emotional. No-one can fail to be moved by the characters who inhabit De Sica's film, and by their environmental predicament: in speech, action, motive, they are all real people…. Where the effort of believing must come is as regards the things which happen to these real people, because in this film, surrealism reacts on actuality: characters drawn true-to-life are involved in supernatural events.

In Bicycle Thieves this did not happen—which is why many people have called Bicycle Thieves genuine, and wholehearted, and great, and Miracolo superficial, tricksy, gimcrack. Their feeling has been that, with the fantasy of Miracolo, De Sica violated the great truthful spirit of documentary, of Italian neorealism, which he began through I Bambini …, and carried on past Sciuscia and Bicycle Thieves to its culminating point in Umberto D.

This seems to me to be a most unperceptive view. Surely neorealism, or film realism as a whole, is not a concept which depends entirely on mere technique. The grandeur of the Italian post-war movement lies in its feeling for reality in character, not for simply authenticity in incident. It is the feelings of the ordinary man which must be valid if neo-realism is to count, and not the things which happen to him. If the characters of Bicycle Thieves had been glibly novelettish, all the care lavished on details of milieu and plot would have gone for nothing….

In Miracolo a Milano, the characters remain warm and believable, however fantastic the agencies at work upon them. Emotional sincerity is preserved. This, despite its trick camerawork and heavenly manifestations, is a picture which is truly representative of the best in neo-realism. It has all the realism that is necessary: reality of feeling. And indeed, though the film is almost all artistry, for me the purest art occurs in the fantasy episodes….

What the story says, ultimately, is that God (here epitomised by the dove) will always be on the side of good (Toto), even when the flock (the down-and-outs) momentarily err. Moderation is the text preached: when the paupers become nouveau riche, show too much love for wealth and forget the humanity which caused its miraculous appearance, the dove is snatched back. Yet God does not desert His servant: and Toto (who, with Edwige, is alone immune to corruption) manages through his simple faith to make atonement for the surrender to temptation of his companions. They realise in the end that they need faith and courage to make their broomsticks fly: and though they will have to work hard in the 'better land' they go to, they will, inspired by Toto's example, triumph.

I do not think that a film more uncompromising in its depictions yet more optimistic in its conclusions has been made: and at every viewing, it evokes nothing but pity, and joy of heart…. As a result, the film now seems to me unflawed: and not only De Sica's probable masterpiece, but one of the two best Italian films I've seen….

The film is a sustained exhibition of directorial wizardry: the three-dimensional, tactile creation of a physical environment is perhaps unequalled on the screen; and there is an utter unity of image and sound—especially music…. The touches of daringly overt yet successful symbolism are innumerable….

And innumerable, too, are the flashes of visual and aural wit…. Yes, Miracolo, one feels more and more certain, marked the summit of De Sica's career. (p. 16)


Scripted by Zavattini alone, Umberto D (1952) maintained De Sica's high level. So complex is the picture that, at each viewing, I have felt its message to vary. At first sight, I took it to be that Umberto is prevented by his dog from suicide: that the animal, by shrinking from him as death approaches them, saves his master's life and renews his belief in the camaraderie of existence. The film, in fact, as it progressed, gradually mingled these two ideas (on the surface, despair; beneath, hope) to create an extraordinary dramatic concentration and subtlety….

Yet after my most recent viewing, I believe that the heart of the film does lie in Zavattini's philosophy: but that this philosophy is less affirmative than stoical. Zavattini shows us other people who are no better off than Umberto, whose pride cannot tolerate Umberto's pride, who will not help him—because they cannot help themselves. The secret of the piece, in fact, lies not so much in its painful portrait of old age, poverty and loneliness, as in the sense it builds up that not only Umberto, but everyone around him, the whole city (country, world?), has its own struggle, its own troubles, its own hopes: and consequently that sympathy for any other individual is short. (p. 51)

De Sica's creative degeneration began … with the Italo-American, Selznick production Stazione Termini (Indiscretion), made in 1953…. Although Zavattini's basic plot-theme smacked unsatisfyingly of commercial romantic requirements, a director of De Sica's stature could hardly fail to elevate it to some extent above its mere amorisms. That the elevation is not great enough is due to De Sica's preoccupation with the complexities of background detail, minor characterisation, cutting and visual effect being offset partly by the fundamental, slightly novelettish narrative idea, but much more damagingly by the dialogue grafted on to this idea by Truman Capote. (pp. 51-2)

Visually, nonetheless, there is much to admire in Stazione Termini: the crowds in genuine De Sica tradition, full of strange characters colourfully introduced; the firm line and chiaroscuro of Aldo's camerawork; the roving images of platform and track, office and cafe, accentuating the immense, inhuman impersonality of the location….

[In] Il Tetto (1956), one felt a falling-off from past summits. This story …, while directly in the line of De Sica's greatest work with Zavattini (for all its rather bizarre and local plottheme), seemed to lack the intensity of treatment that marks his masterpieces: to remain a realistic, second-rate Miracolo a Milano.

One sequence, that early on where the couple can't make love in the communal sleeping quarters and have to go outside to do so, has the tenderness, sadness and poetry of this director at his best…. But the power is not sustained throughout, as it is in De Sica's finest achievements: and so by its makers' highest standards Il Tetto must be called a disappointment.

Nor nearly, however, so heavy a disappointment as its successor: La Ciociara (Two Women), made in 1960, and easily the least distinguished De Sica-Zavattini collaboration I have seen. Admittedly, in adapting Alberto Moravia's novel, scenarist and director were unwisely moving from their established sphere of peacetime back into the wartime territory of Rossellini. Yet even so, I am surprised that they could not have invested this territory with a greater illusion of reality. By comparison, Il Tetto seems almost a model of neo-realism….

Some of the weaknesses of La Ciociara, such as the stock characters of the bespectacled idealist student and his counterpart the intellectual Nazi officer, are the fault of Moravia and Zavattini. But most of them, disturbingly, must be laid at De Sica's own door. Only at … brief moments … does the director approach his former marvellously unaffected level of visual statement.

Elsewhere, his deployment of composition, incident and characterisation again and again lapses into banality. (p. 53)

[It's hard to understand why De Sica directed The Condemned of Altona.] But then De Sica's whole career in the past decade has become a puzzling let-down. The artist who once devoted himself so consistently and poetically to everyday people and situations has gradually turned to melodramatic events and grotesque characters….

The first half of the narrative is decidedly wordy and stagey: and on celluloid, this staginess is in no way decreased by De Sica's handling….

The second half slowly improves: an episode where Franz, the conscience-ridden ex-Nazi, breaks out of his self-imposed, fifteen-year imprisonment, and reels incredulously through rebuilt Hamburg, briefly revives memories of De Sica's old mastery of candid-camera reportage…. Yet the total impact remains distinctly remote. One is chilled by the grey, grim, cautionary tale: but no more….

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow is … a tolerable enough entertainment. Yet it still seems disappointingly flimsy by comparison with Vittorio De Sica's finest work. True, it is intended as little more than a romp. But when one looks at the director's latter-day serious films (La Ciociara, The Condemned of Altona), one can't help feeling that [De Sica, Italy's poet of postwar, has lost his sensitive technique] through endeavouring to return to the years of conflict. One can only hope that the future will prove this feeling to be wrong. Vittorio De Sica's yesterday was fruitful. His today is less so. What will be his tomorrow? (p. 54)

Douglas McVay, "Poet of Poverty, Part One: The Great Years," and "Poet of Poverty, Part Two: Umberto—and After" (© copyright Douglas McVay 1964; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 11, Nos. 1 and 2, October and November, 1964, pp. 12-16, 51-4.


Gordon Hitchens


Gwenneth Britt