For world cinema aficionados, perhaps an easy introduction to Vittorio De Sica would be as the director of Italian classics. Sciuscia (Shoe polish) and Bike thievesor the marvelous comic anthology of Sophia Loren, Yesterday, today and tomorrow. De Sica won four Oscars in his lifetime for directing, an unusual feat for a non-American filmmaker, in addition to top prizes at Cannes and Berlin. He also enjoyed success acting in over 160 films and was nominated for an Oscar in 1958 as a supporting actor for his unforgettable role as Major Alessandro Rinaldi in Charles Vidor’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s film. A farewell to arms.
Moviegoers with an academic interest in movies would mention that From SicaThe lasting legacy of is due to its position as a representative of the Italian neorealist movement, which is characterized by working-class tales shot in real locations and often with an unprofessional cast. It was a movement that would redefine cinema with its unyielding gaze on societal chaos in post-World War II Italy, raising difficult questions relating to morality and ideology in the context of survival. . Although neorealism was born before his directorial career began, the late filmmaker is considered one of the movement’s most illustrious proponents along with fellow Italian masters Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini, in addition to the influential screenwriter and frequent collaborator of From Sica, Cesare Zavattini.
November 13 marks the anniversary of the death of Vittorio De Sica, it was on this day in 1974 that he died in a Paris hospital after being operated on for lung cancer. Nearly half a century later, neorealism continues to have a creative impact on contemporary films belonging to genres as radically different from each other as new extremism and the ordinary pot striving to profit from life and its countless dilemmas. De Sica’s lasting impact on world cinema is the result of the fact that, among all the Italian neorealists, he created a simple and beautiful cinema that struck a chord with the viewer despite the fact that he tackled subjects complex and dark that unfolded in layers. His cinema spoke of incompleteness and brought out the complexities of life through stories that spoke to everyone. His frames were often dark, but captured in style. He could use miscommunication as a storytelling device to define the unbreakable bond between two characters. These are cinematic tools that have inspired generations of filmmakers when it comes to setting up a narrative structure.
The ease with which he balanced such contradictions is perhaps due to various contrasting streaks in his own personality. He’s considered an arthouse powerhouse today, but he was willing to do sex comedies for the money, given his compulsive gambling streak. He was a Roman Catholic, but chose to be a communist. He was a popular comic actor in his early years, star of hits like Gli Uomini Che Mascalzoni! (What scoundrels are men!), Daro One Million (I will give a million) and Paprikaand yet he continued to carve out a niche primarily as a director of unforgettable tragedies.
De Sica’s cinema continues to matter today as his dissection of human labors remains relevant. His films celebrate humanity by drawing attention to the neglected and ignored in society. Among the author’s most unforgettable protagonists are children from disadvantaged backgrounds or orphans. He exuded a mastery in capturing the harsh world of adults through the eyes of minors in works like Bike thieves, Shoe polishand I Bambini Ci Guardano (The children look at us). In Bike thieves, Antonio Ricci’s family finds hope when he gets a job pasting posters on the walls of post-war Rome. It is essential for him to have a bicycle for work, and his wife Maria pawns their sheets so that they can buy one. On the first day of work, Antonio’s bike is stolen. As he rushes down the path of inevitable doom while struggling to find the vehicle, the tale captures the tragicomic drama through the eyes of his baby boy Bruno. While the idea of ”looking” at events from Bruno’s perspective leaves De Sica toying with innocuous feelings, an inescapable socio-political context is on a very different level.
The perspective of a miner’s gaze becomes more important in Shoe polish, a protest film that easily ranks among Zavattini’s greatest screenplays. The story tells of two Roman shoe shiners, Pasquale and Giuseppe, who saved up to buy their dream horse. A bid to sell contraband American blankets fails and the boys end up in an overcrowded juvenile facility. While the two boys then struggle to negotiate the sordid world of such installations, a small misunderstanding between the two buds has a catastrophic outcome. As depressing as their world is, the storyline is carried by the relentless optimism and spirit of life that the film’s characters exude.
De Sica excelled in bringing the nuances of life to life through his child protagonists. The simplistic reaction of minors to complicated situations involving adults consistently continues to be box office gold even today.
With the exception of the odd romantic comedy like Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, De Sica’s favorite medium was tragedy. Although he cleverly blended lighter moments into his narratives, his films were mostly about laying bare the world of the destitute. In Shoe polish, Pasquale and Giuseppe ascend a steep staircase in sequence. “Whoever invented the elevator was a great man,” comments one of the boys. “Yes I know. I slept in one for months,” quips the other. De Sica’s characters were happy to laugh at their miseries. His humor ranged from the innocent to the caustic. In another scene of Shoeshine where the two boys are held in a juvenile facility, orphan Pasquale’s joke amid the dark drama is memorable: “We’re lucky. They feed us, they shelter us, give us clothes, they even entertain us. What else could you want?”
In a way, many traits of the new-age antihero have their roots in De Sica’s defeatist hero, for his protagonists were mostly vulnerable and unhappy people, morally flexible not by choice but by compulsion. , and not without flaws. Yet his storylines welcomed sympathy for these characters rather than condemning them.
De Sica’s casting process was one reason it clicked. During a prolific directorial career spanning around 36 films, he worked with several major stars of his day, including Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, although his films were all about casting based on roles. De Sica chose faces and personalities, not actors, in line with neorealist traditions, which is why he did not hesitate to choose non-professionals if they suited the characters. So he found his perfect Antonio Ricci for Bike thieves to Lamberto Maggiorani, machine turner in a factory. Similarly, almost the entire cast of his social drama Umberto D. included non-professionals, highlighted by retired college professor Carlo Battisti playing the film’s lead role. Umberto Domenico Ferraria destitute old Roman who struggles to keep his rented accommodation.
De Sica’s sentimental approach while creating such characters within the neorealist framework allowed him to introduce the small pleasures of life amidst their misery. In Bicycle thieves, during their hunt for the stolen bike, Ricci spends more than he can afford on a sumptuous lunch for his son, in hopes that they will soon find the vehicle. In a way, De Sica’s cinema gave the message that the world actually doesn’t have bad guys, only desperate situations that bring out the ugly side of humans. It is a trait of hope that the cinema likes to defend everywhere until today.
De Sica produced masterpieces that were examples of consummate storytelling. His camera lent a patient look at life and yet, as American film critic Pauline Kael notes in her review of Shoeshine, life, as the film shows, “is too complex for easy ends”.
Vinayak Chakravorty is a Delhi-NCR based film critic, columnist and journalist.