Saturday 8 August 2015
Vittorio De Sica’s films contain much of the aching sadness of life, and much of the beauty, too. It is one of the small mysteries of cinema how De Sica, a lightweight actor (and very handsome man) accustomed to playing sentimental leads, should go on to become one of Europe’s greatest tragic film-makers. It’s as if Hugh Grant were to suddenly metamorphose into Ken Loach. Yet links remain between the comedic ham and the neorealist tragedian. De Sica enthusiastically carried his actor’s talent into his directing style, instructing his amateur performers on the way to perform, enacting the parts to show them how things should be done. There is a story that he once played Sophia Loren’s part, joining Marcello Mastroianni on set in bed; lying underneath the attractive star, he demonstrated to the two of them how they should kiss.
Though De Sica went on to work with Mastroianni and Montgomery Clift, Loren and Jennifer Jones, there are no film stars in his first masterpieces, those extraordinary works of the late 1940s and early 50s. Denying movie-star glamour, De Sica was casting according to the authenticity of a face. Lamberto Maggiorani, Bicycle Thieves’s gaunt leading man, was a factory worker; Carlo Battisti, who played Umberto D, was a retired university professor in real life. No big-name actor could have lived on screen as these people do. After all, as De Sica asserted, there are millions of characters, but only 50 or 60 movie stars; it seemed to him a strange illusion that so few people could faithfully embody the experience of so many. Yet for all the appeal of this approach, that factory worker and the university professor become players, as much bound up in artifice as Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy. For these are films that tell the truth about the contemporary world not as documentation, but through the conjured illumination of poetry.
His early films – especially Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), andUmberto D (1952) – are among the glories of European cinema. They are all tragedies of miscommunication. In Shoeshine, events turn first on a deception, and then on the separation of two boys, great friends placed in different cells when confined to prison. Apart from one other, each loses trust; words miscarry and cannot be understood. Here, as elsewhere, De Sica presents people who cannot reach each other through language, but stand hopeless and encased in their position in the world. They try to enlist or persuade others, find help, a loan, or support in their loneliness, but no help comes. Acts of charity short-circuit; sympathy fails to find its aim. De Sica was an expert on the subject of being disregarded. His characters are invisible persons made visible to us. The lack of what would be, to others, very small sums of money drives them to desperation; the loss of a bicycle can destroy a whole life. Harried by oppression and poverty, his protagonists fall into acts of moral compromise; the heroes must become that which their conscience condemns – a snitch, a bully and thief, a beggar. His people are too flawed to be the pitiable saints some repute them to be. The sadness here is not inevitable; it is a consequence of a social structure, a political pathos.
At the same time as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was receiving its first performances in the US, in Italy De Sica was also exploring the troubling radiance of failure. In Umberto D and Bicycle Thieves, we are taken inside the particular life, and yet never lose sight of the fact that even now such tragedies are playing out somewhere. The central figures embody a general defeat, and yet remain absolutely unique. This impression of the individual life finds itself in De Sica’s eye for detail, etched into the surface of things like the scratches on the kitchen wall where, in Umberto D, each morning the pregnant housemaid strikes the matches to light the gas. They are great urban films, leading us within what is, to middle-class audiences, the unseen city of the poor: the pawn shops; the cramped and ramshackle apartments; the fortune teller’s boudoir; the markets; soup kitchens and social clubs. The films permit us to penetrate both this teeming metropolitan world and also enter the individual life, drawing us in by an attentiveness to sorrows to which we might otherwise fail to attend. The films lay a claim on us, with the unemphatic persuasion that we ought to bear witness to such tragedies.
In the midst of these harrowing and marvellous explorations of defeat, De Sica and his hugely talented collaborator, the screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, turned to making a fairytale. The very funny fantasy film, Miracle in Milan (1951), gives us Totò (Francesco Golisano) and Edvigie (the adorable Brunella Bovo), two improbably sweet holy fools; De Sica’s films often looked into the depths that abide in simplicity. He liked human beings most when they are unguarded, naive and possessed by a simple faith in life. He wanted to manifest a kind of trust before things, one that often fails, but at least is there to fail. It’s in the shoeshine boys’ love for the horse they save up to buy, in Umberto D’s feeling for a lonely pregnant girl and for his pet dog; it’s the compassionate openness that allows us to love others. Yet he also shows the endearing selfishness in simplicity, too, the childlike egoism, the guiltless need for small indulgences. Few film-makers help us to share so completely the pleasure of food; in Bicycle Thieves, every time I watch the son lingering over the mozzarella in carozza, I get hungry. Everywhere in his movies, De Sica communicates a democratic delight in what delights everyone; his films presuppose that outdated concept, the normal heart, one that finds a natural sympathy with children, the old, and life’s discarded ones. Miracle in Milan may be a film obsessed with numbers – lottery numbers, times tables, the price of a bid or a bribe, the figure that might express the imagination’s largest possible fortune – but in the end it sides with what cannot be counted, but can only, for all its fragility and its inability to find a place in the world, be counted on.
Some might recoil at the prospect of having their hearts warmed in this way. Yet the film never forgets how hard life is, and how in the end the only escape for the poor is to leave the confines of the Earth altogether. In film this provides a fairytale uplift; in contemporary Athens, for example, it would be harder to pull off. Zavattini and De Sica know that the film provides consolations that only a work of art could offer. We are shown people paying to watch a sunset – that stereotypical end of the classic Hollywood movie – or handing over 100 lire to be told by a charlatan reader of faces that they are amazing people: “who knows what you’ll become!”. This plays like a necessary moment of cinematic self-critique, the film telling us that it knows such flattery is what cheap films perennially offer us. Yet De Sica himself very rarely falls into this trap; rather his pictures affirm human dignity without insinuating (as Hollywood might) that this means we shall receive extraordinary rewards.
In De Sica’s films people go unrewarded; the story takes us beyond the moment of loss, and leaves us only with the small resolution to keep going that sometimes comes in loss’s wake. At the close of Bicycle Thieves, when driven beyond despair, the father and son take each other’s hands as they move among the anonymous crowd, it’s a symbol of human compassion and solidarity that proves almost unbearably moving. Yet as they walk on, they are lost from view. They have each other, but are gone. At the end of Indiscretion of an American Wife (Stazione Termini, 1953), we are taken into the extremity of separation; the married woman remains on the train, while her lover is thrown from it, and sprawls on the station platform. Someone comes to help him up. “Are you hurt?” he asks. “No,” says the lover, and walks on down the platform, going forwards as there is nowhere else to go, and with that the film abruptly ends. For De Sica, there is an answer to everything, except death. When the worst thing has happened, life nonetheless goes on.
Indiscretion of an American Wife is a strange paradox, a bad “very good film”. The producer, David O Selznick (the husband of the film’s female star, Jennifer Jones), butchered it. Almost nothing in it properly works, yet it has long haunted me in ways that few other movies have. In it, two illicit lovers wander Rome’s central railway station, alternately endeavouring to be noble, or giving themselves up to their mutual desire. Yet wherever they go, there’s no place for them to express their love; they are constantly watched, spied on, interrupted. These are lives under surveillance; it’s a film of glances, whether lascivious, mocking, pitying or reproachful. It is a companion piece to a film that De Sica acted in that same year, Max Ophüls’s truly wonderful Madame De … , in which De Sica and Danielle Darrieux play innocent adulterers, almost childlike in their helpless twinned passion. As an actor, De Sica is at his best here (along with his very different role in Roberto Rossellini’s Il Generale della Rovere of 1959), summoning an affable but passionate dignity. Yet Ophüls requires the husband (played by Charles Boyer) to perform the role of the sophisticated villain; in De Sica’s film, there are no bad guys, only the impossibility of circumstances.
De Sica’s genius was for tragedy, though as the 50s turned into the 60s, he tried his hand at popular comedy. The best of his Loren and Mastroianni films are charming and likable pictures, as long as we banish the thought that they were made by the same man who made Bicycle Thieves. The best and funniest of them is Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), which won the Oscar for best foreign film. It’s an early swinging 60s comedy about the frustration of sex, carried by Loren’s mesmerising self-confidence (her tantalising striptease is one of the most sensual moments in cinema), and her three-fold unmanning of Mastroianni, an actor who was always at his greatest when at his most feckless.
A nostalgia for a lost Italy impregnates De Sica’s best late films, even though he never forgets how fascism had compromised and stained that past. Nonetheless, a dissatisfaction with the country in the era of economic reconstruction, the boom years of the late 50s and 60s, is palpable. The only values now are cash values; the cities have been stifled with the arrival of the tower blocks; the heart has grown small. De Sica’s late masterpiece The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) is most suffused with nostalgia; based on Giorgio Bassani’s melancholy novel, it’s a study of what WB Yeats described as “that monstrous thing, returned and yet unrequited love”. Here De Sica frames another mire of miscommunication in a movie of frustrations and incompleteness. It’s a self-consciously beautiful work, replete with that early 70s Euro-emptiness: stylish, sexualised and somehow vacant. As filmed, the garden itself doesn’t exist, though in Ferrara people still search for it; it’s a constructed setting, pieced together through the art of film. This luscious place, from which the hero finds himself exiled, represents a fragile beauty soon to be crushed by the Holocaust. To connect Auschwitz, as the film does, to the small anguish of a frustrated love affair, might invite accusations of kitsch. But it seems to me an assertion of what is constant in human experience, the petty losses and sorrows of the personal life pitched against the enormous horror of the camps. In dwelling on the life that was lost, with all its heartbreak and yearning, the film memorialises the vanished even as they were: ambivalent and troubled. That was long the motivating impulse of De Sica’s art, one that portrays the world and people as they are, with all their failings, and yet knows the value and beauty of their being there, and of the faint, tender links that connect us.
• Vittorio De Sica: Realism and Romance runs at the BFI Southbank, London SE1 until 31 August.
Now best known for Bicycle Thieves and other neo-realist classics made with writer Cesare Zavattini, De Sica was a matinee idol long before he began directing in 1940. Even before Shoeshine in 1946 – shot on location with a non-professional cast and dealing with social injustice – De Sica had demonstrated, in The Children Are Watching Us and The Gate of Heaven, his skill with actors and a passion for social, psychological and emotional authenticity. His finest films, like his best performances (Il Generale della Rovere is one such) offer a persuasive impression of spontaneous ‘reality’, notwithstanding the preparation and artifice involved in their making. And by steering clear of sentimentality, De Sica rendered many of his films almost unbearably moving.
Here, then, is an opportunity to discover a highly rewarding body of work too rarely seen in recent years.
Geoff Andrew, Senior Film Programmer