Vittorio De Sica

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Gordon Gow

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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 Zavattini's script piles on the agony: not exaggerating, perhaps, but certainly making the utmost of the predicament in hand. Yet as the unhappy, impoverished pair try to reconcile themselves to life in a two-room apartment overflowing with relatives, as they search in vain for something, and as they make their desperate bid to assemble four brick walls on wasteland overnight before the police arrive at dawn to demolish such semi-illegal dwellings unless they are quite complete, the truth De Sica draws from every single actor in his cast is far stronger than the sentimentality of the tale he tells.

Not for the first time he plucks from poverty, and in one memorable passage when the newly-married couple have to bed down in a room already occupied by three other people, one of them a child, he evokes a compassion as real as anything he accomplished in Bicycle Thieves or Umberto D.

The total effect of Il Tetto never quite equals its distinguished predecessors, possibly because in this case the principals are so young and alight with love and energy that even in their gloomiest moments a glimmer of hope pervades them and we know, if they don't, that eventually things will go right enough. This is consoling but it diminishes tension, and not the least of De Sica's achievements is the way he manages to generate tension here when reason and familiarity work against it….

Much of the credit for [the] performances belongs, no doubt, to De Sica's inspiration and control. Under his guidance the smallest supporting parts assume a wealth of subtle detail and even the background figures moving through the streets of Rome perform small and delicate manoeuvres that add verisimilitude to this sensitive fragment of life.

Quite possibly neo-realism has had its heyday, but it can still warm the heart when practised by a master.

Gordon Gow, "'Il tetto'" (© copyright Gordon Gow 1960; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 7, No. 1, October, 1960, p. 26.

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