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The Essentials: The 10 Best Vittorio De Sica Films

The Essentials: The 10 Best Vittorio De Sica Films

There were many different Vittorio De Sicas. The Italian maestro (and for once the word feels earned and not just thrown in there to show off the speaker’s Italophilia) was not just the revered director of indelibly authentic neo-realist classics that put forth a progressive social agenda, he was also an inveterate gambler who often got into such debt he’d accept subpar material — sex comedies and soap operas — to make money. He was not just a once-divorced Roman Catholic, he was and remained the patriarch to his two families, even to the point, reportedly, of having one household set the clock back by two hours so he could celebrate the turn of New Year in both. He was not just a four-time Academy Award-winning director, whose “Shoeshine” helped establish the Foreign Language category in the first place, he was also an Academy Award-nominated actor (he got his nod for “A Farewell to Arms“) with over 150 acting credits to his name, including a career peak in Max Ophuls‘ wonderful “The Earrings of Madame De….” Oh, and his brother-in-law killed Trotsky.

And yet we really know him today because of “Bicycle Thieves.”

That is not to do down the rest of De Sica’s remarkable directorial output (indeed there are probably other titles of his that we’re more enamored of) but to pay due respect to the colossal, monolithic reputation of “Bicycle Thieves” as not just the greatest Italian neo-realist movie, but the movement’s defining text and a frequent poll-topping candidate for Greatest Film Ever Made. All hyperbole and listifying aside, the beautiful, extraordinarily humanist “Bicycle Thieves” would by itself indeed be enough to build a legacy on — but there is so much more beyond it in De Sica’s canon.

We’ve long looked for a reason to explore his legacy further, and now the good people at Film Forum NY have supplied one: they’re running a retrospective of De Sica’s work, which includes all of the below titles and more, until October 8th. Whether or not you can make it to any of those screenings (and we should emphasize that seeing De Sica on the big screen is always, always worthwhile), if you want to explore the lesser seen, though not necessarily lesser, films of Vittorio De Sica, here are the ten we’d consider essential.

“The Children Are Watching Us” (1944)
Before “Bicycle Thieves” had its definitive take on fathers and sons, and long before “Stazione Termini” showed a more forgiving view of unfaithful wives, De Sica, working for the first time with longtime collaborator Cesare Zavattini, essayed these themes in this deeply compelling drama. Here he dallies with a less realist, more impressionist style, even incorporating a fever-dream sequence in which the central young boy Prico (Luciano De Ambrosis) conflates reality with memory and longing for the mother who has (temporarily) abandoned him. Yet there’s great authenticity in the child’s emotional journey, with De Sica really capturing the small boy’s incomprehension at the adults around him, even while making us acutely aware of exactly what every coded phrase and weighted glance means. Morphing into a kind of proto-“Kramer vs Kramer” (though actually more tragic, if you can conceive) in the development of the father/son relationship, it is perhaps marred only by its portrayal of the mother, later on especially, as a shade too self-interested for belief, and the father as a shade too saintly. Still, perhaps these extremes are necessary to give such power to the ending: it is simply Prico turning and walking away at a certain juncture, but it floors you.

“Shoeshine” (1946)
While “Bicycle Thieves” is the ne plus ultra standard-bearer of neo-realism, De Sica had a couple of arguable home-runs in the genre already before he hit that grand slam. “Shoeshine” is another urtext exemplar of neo-realism: non-professional actors grittily facing the brutal realities of the time to heartbreaking effect. A post-war tragedy not unlike Roberto Rossellini’s “Germany Year Zero,” “Shoeshine” places its lens on the aftermath of WWII, centering on Italian street children abandoned by their parents after the war. Struggling to survive, two boys Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smerdoni) and Pasquale (Franco Interlenghi) who have no one but each other, scrape together what they can shining shoes on the streets of Rome. The share a naive dream to buy a horse, but are duped by a shyster and land in a juvenile prison, where their friendship is strained to breaking point — much of the movie centers on the slow disintegration of the boys’ bond. Innocence and comradeship are destroyed by the time film’s bleak ending comes, but it’s a keenly humanist and empathic one, in which De Sica comments on the terrible after-effects of WWII even while breaking your heart. It proved so moving that the film earned an honorary Academy Award, and paved the way for the establishment of the Best Foreign Film category shortly thereafter.

“Bicycle Thieves” (1948)
Why does De Sica’s 1948 neorealist masterpiece remain as powerful as ever to this day? Sure, the universal import of its barebones story is one major reason for its lasting power, with its everyman main-character father, Antonio Ricci (played by nonprofessional actor Lamberto Maggiorani), embodying the struggles of the working class to provide for their families. But perhaps the quality that remains evergreen about “Bicycle Thieves” is its sense of exploration. Bursts of desperate activity alternate with stretches of even tenser low ebb as Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) search for the former’s stolen bike — surely as would happen in real life. Such attention to cinematic rhythm allows the film to expand luxuriously into a devastating portrait of an entire society: one clearly divided into haves and have-nots, populated by people who are focused entirely on their own immediate concerns at the expense of empathy toward their fellow man. Alas, our main character isn’t above such insularity, as his desperate final act proves — but the beauty of De Sica’s film lies in how we are made to fully empathize with his plight by then, making the act as gut-wrenchingly inevitable as it is heartbreakingly tragic.

“Umberto D.” (1952)
A heartbreakingly humanist film, and the De Sica title most likely to rival “Bicycle Thieves” in terms of cinephile appreciation, “Umberto D.” is perhaps the most overtly emotional of the Italian neo-realist masterpieces. But while it plays a veritable symphony on our sympathies, in perhaps a more overt way than the strictest realism should allow, it is simultaneously so boundlessly sincere that it can hardly be accused of manipulation. Simple and devastatingly humane (it was said to be Ingmar Bergman‘s favorite film ever) the story details the onset of genteel poverty for middle-class pensioner Umberto (Carlo Battisti) in post-war Rome, whose only companion is his devoted dog Flike — the human/canine relationship being drawn with such grace and gentle fervor that it highlights the cruelty and indifference of many of the human interactions by counterpoint. Near penniless and homeless, the only thing postponing Umberto’s suicide is concern for Flike, so the film becomes not just about the love of a pet, or the lonely invisibility of old age, it becomes about legacy. And about how sometimes, while there are so many reasons to die, loyal unwavering love, even from and for a dog, might just be enough of a reason to live.

“Indiscretion of an American Wife”/”Stazione Termini” (1953)
There are two distinctly different versions of De Sica’s 1953 romantic melodrama starring Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift (at his gorgeousest), but surprisingly, both are pretty great, especially if you come to the shorter, inferior, Hollywood version ‘Indiscretion‘ first. Quite the Harvey Weinstein of his day, superproducer David O. Selznick spearheaded the teaming of De Sica with two U.S. stars, but the resulting 89-min real-time film, “Stazione Termini” was not at all to Selznick’s liking. So he cut over 20m out (meaning he had to shoot a separate short “Autumn in Paris” to bring the package up to distributable length) mainly by shearing away a great deal of De Sica’s trademark ground-level observations. The joins show particularly in the scene where Jones’ unfaithful wife and mother give chocolate to some kids: when the camera’s on them, it’s could be an outtake from “Bicycle Thieves” (complete with potentially excessive sentiment). But when it cuts back to their patroness eyeing them limpidly, it feels pointed: America as benevolent provider. Still, castrated and cauterized though Selznick’s ‘Indiscretion’ is, it can’t conceal the genuine emotion, and surprising sexiness of this doomed romance, as Monty and Jones battle their irresistible attraction in Rome’s main train station, while life thrums and buzzes all around.

“The Gold Of Naples” (1954)
De Sica began his career as an actor in light comedies in the 1920s, so perhaps it’s not so surprising he returned to that milieu for a palette cleanser after directing a slew of uncompromising neorealist dramas. Co-writing (with Cesare Zavattini, and Giuseppe Marotta) as well as directing, in 1954 he turned in the first of many anthology films in “The Gold Of Naples,” a collection of 6 stories, some comic, some tragic, set in his Italian hometown. It’s certainly a lighter affair then his classics, but its aesthetic — black and white, raw and relatively unadorned — feels of a piece with his more famous films and Sophia Loren scored one of her first starring roles in “Pizza On Credit,” about an unfaithful wife trying to retrieve her missing wedding ring from her lover before her pizza-making husband can find out. She makes it one of the movie’s most entertaining segments. De Sica himself stars in “The Gambler” an amusing tale about the dignified scion of a rich family who’s been cut off from the coffers. “The Racketeer,” about an ungrateful mobster turned overstaying houseguest is also comical, while “Theresa,” about a prostitute duped into even more dishonorable marriage gives a poignant edge to the frivolity. European omnibus movies became all the rage in the 1950s and ’60s, but form a most uneven genre — many masters (even Fellini) stumbled hard in this format. Which makes the sturdy, diverting “Gold Of Naples” a near-gold standard. (And though originally released in the U.S. as only four shorts, Film Forum is screening the uncut version with all six segments.)

“Two Women” (1960)
After vacillating between frivolous comedies, portmanteaus and heavy dramas, De Sica went back to neo-realism one last time of consequence. “Two Women” is a harrowing loss of innocence tale set during WWII, starring Sophia Loren, Jean-Paul Belmondo and a young Eleonora Brown. Cesire, a widowed shopkeeper (Loren) and her devout 13-year-old daughter (Brown) flee Rome after the Allies bomb the city and find refuge in the village where Cesira was born. During their journey they face all kinds of obstacles but Cesira does whatever she can to protect her young daughter. Belmondo plays the man who falls for Cesire but just as her daughter begins to see him as a father figure, starving German troopers roll into town. The women try to flee, but are captured, and — this is where the movie becomes utterly harrowing — both are gang-raped. The traumatized young girl detached from reality, her mother mourns and they both struggle to move forward. The film meanders in the middle, but builds to a devastating finale and deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar for Loren, so it’s a little sad it has been so neglected (even now, poorly dubbed, low-quality transfers are the best you can find). Hopefully it’s just a matter of time before someone (ahem, Criterion) lovingly restores this underrated gem.

“Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (1963)
Though this anthology — with Italian icons Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni featured in all of them — is De Sica in his later crowd-pleasing mode, his old neo-realist obsessions can be glimpsed throughout. In the first episode, the working-class community that protected the young bicycle thief in “Bicycle Thieves” is transmuted into a working-class community protecting Adelina (Loren), who initially gets around going to jail for stealing by giving birth to a slew of kids, thus exploiting a legal loophole to a ruthlessly absurd degree. Class division is the focus of the second episode: a romantic drive with aristocrat Anna (Loren) and artist Renzo (Mastroianni), the former expressing boredom with her lifestyle — until Renzo accidentally crashes her Rolls-Royce whereupon she only expresses concern for the vehicle. And the clash between the worldly and the spiritual underpins the final episode, as prostitute Mara (Loren) at first tries to seduce young priest Umberto (Gianni Ridolfi) until, upon his grandmother’s tearful pleas, she not only tries to convince Umberto to return to the priesthood, but vows to swear off sex for a week, to the dismay of current paramour Augusto (Mastroianni). The three segments range from intriguing (the third episode) to insufferable (the first), and the whole falls some way short of classic status, but Loren and Mastroianni bring their characters to life with all their not-inconsiderable star power.

“Marriage Italian Style” (1964)
Sophia Loren plays another prostitute in this, her fourth collaboration with co-star Marcello Mastroianni and director Vittorio De Sica… but instead of the randy comedy of the third segment of “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” “Marriage Italian Style” is something of a sweeping romantic saga. Spanning 22 years in the on-and-off relationship between Filumena Marturano (Loren) and callous businessman Domenico (Mastroianni), it is basically the story of him using her at his convenience until she decides to take a stand for the financial security of not only herself but the three children she bore over the years. The film’s narrative structure provides some passing formal interest, especially during Domenico’s extended flashback, in which De Sica jumps through time in a boldly elliptical manner, without any title cards to indicate how much time has passed between scenes. Mostly, though, “Marriage Italian Style” offers a showcase for Loren’s brassily comic and poignantly dramatic sides; for once, Mastroianni’s mustachioed cad is hardly a match for Loren’s life-force energy, even at her character’s most worn-out.

“The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (1970)
After a run of strident comedies and soapy romances De Sica, nearly as old as the century, seemed unlikely to produce another masterpiece. And yet along came this Oscar-winning adaptation of Giorgio Bassani‘s famous novel, to prove that there was life, insight and profound emotional depth to be found in De Sica’s filmmaking yet. A deceptively clever film ostensibly dealing in the romances and class conflicts within a group of well-off Jews in pre-war Italy, ‘Garden‘ reveals itself in its final act as an allegory of the most distressing kind. Middle-class Giorgio (Lino Cappolicchio) has loved Micol Finzi-Contini (Dominique Sanda) since childhood, but self-centered child of privilege Micol rebuffs him. Instead she, along with her sickly brother Alberto (Helmut Berger), favors the company of communist firebrand Malnate (Fabio Testi), as the encroaching tide of anti-Semitism leads the whole family to sequester themselves in the prelapsarian idyll of their home — a quiet place full of culture, sunshine and tennis parties. A moving caution against the “if it doesn’t affect us directly, say nothing” school of thought, ‘Garden’ is also an ache for loss, not so much of life as for the beauty, drama and intrigue that every single one of those lives contained. 

If there are other De Sica titles you feel we’ve unfairly excluded, let us know about them in the comments. Meanwhile the (terrific) Film Forum season runs through October 8th.

–Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez, Kenji Fujishima

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