Vittorio De Sica

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Robert F. Hawkins

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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 my film."

Such conceptions do not fuse well with realistic themes, and the beggars' "poetic" laziness (there is no indication, in the film, that any of them works or even desires a job) doesn't jibe with their often very real desires for jewels, houses, millions. The ensuing contradictions result in confusion and weakness all around.

For purposes of study, Miracolo a Milano divides handily into two very different halves. The first comes closest to De Sica's "world," and in it he dominated the material. The first half of Miracolo contains some of the finest things he has ever done. (pp. 27-8)

In the second half of Miracolo De Sica's warm humanity, with one notable exception (the scenes in which Toto and his girl express their love for each other with childish delight and innocence), is dominated by co-scripter Zavattini's cold intellectual gymnastics. With its many comic and satiric moments, the second half is undoubtedly more "entertaining," but shallower, and less successful. De Sica's careful, straight-from-the-heart character-sketching has given way to Zavattini's literary script and dialogue, and to the "miracles." The rapidfire of Zavattini's intelligently amusing incidents makes one lose sight, temporarily, of the film's objectives, clearly and warmly felt in the first half. Zavattini's cleverness has éclat and humor, but does not survive second thought very well.

And one wishes that some of the film's symbols had been clearer. Particularly the dove. Why is it taken away from Toto, given back, taken away, and returned once more? Why are one's sympathies for the poor weakened by making them appear lazy and often selfish? Similarly, one wishes (as De Sica surely does) that the trick photography, so vital in providing an illusion of the blending of the real and the unreal, could have been less obviously mechanical…. Finally, one wishes that the proof of Toto's "goodness" emerged more from his actions than from Zavattini's dialogue. (pp. 28-9)

What remains to be said, then, of this rich, complex, controversial film? A safe, but also well-considered, appraisal would rate it higher than the elegant failure many have called it, lower than the great, complete motion picture others have deemed it. Undoubtedly, in spite of its defects, it touches greatness, and this alone places it well above the current world level. (p. 30)

Robert F. Hawkins, "De Sica Dissected: His Humanism Succumbed to Zavattini's Devices," in Films in Review (copyright © 1951, copyright renewed © 1979, by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, Inc.), Vol. II, No. 5, May, 1951, pp. 26-30.

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