The films of Vittorio De Sica are among the most enduring of the Italian post-war period. His career suggests an openness to form and a versatility uncommon among Italian directors. De Sica began acting on stage as a teenager and played his first film role in 1918. In the 1920s his handsome features and talent made him something of a matinee idol, and from the mid-1950s he appeared in a number of films by Mario Camerini, including Gliuomini che mascalzoni!, Dar? un milione, and Grandi magazzine.
During his lifetime, De Sica acted in over one hundred films in Italy and abroad, using this means to finance his own directorial efforts. He specialized in breezy comic heroes, men of great self-assurance or confidence men (as in Rossellini's Generale della Rovere). The influence of his tenure as actor cannot be overestimated in his directorial work, where the expressivity of the actor in carefully written roles was one of his foremost technical implements. In this vein De Sica has continually mentioned the influence on his work of Charlie Chaplin. The tensive continuity between tragic and comic, the deployment of a detailed yet poetic gestural language, and a humanist philosophy without recourse to the politically radical are all elements of De Sica's work that are paralleled in the silent star's films.
De Sica's directorial debuts, Rose scarlatte and Maddalena, zero in condotta, were both attempts to bring theater pieces to the screen with suitable roles for himself. In 1943, with I bambini ci guardano, De Sica teamed with Cesare Zavattini, who was to become his major collaborator for the next three decades. Together they began to demonstrate elements of the post-war realist aesthetic which, more than any other director except Visconti and Rossellini, De Sica helped shape and determine. Despite the overt melodrama of the misogynistic story (a young mother destroys her family by deserting them), the filmmaker refused to narrow the perspective through an overwrought Hollywoodian mise-en-sc?ne, preferring instead a refreshing simplicity of composition and a subdued editing style. Much of the film's original flavor can be traced to the clear, subjective mediation of a child, as promised in the title.
De Sica's intense feeling for children's sensibilities led him to imagine how children viewed the failing adult reconstruction of society after the war. Sciuscia, a realistic look at the street and prison life of poor, abandoned children, was the result. It is the story of how the lasting friendship of two homeless boys, who make their living shining shoes for the American G.I.'s, is betrayed by their contact with adults. At the end of the film one boy inadvertently causes the other's death. Although Zavattini insists that his creative role was minimal in this instance, the presence of his poetic imagination is evident in the figure of a beautiful white horse. This horse serves to cement the boys' mutual bond and their hope for a future. Though a miserable failure in Italy, Sciuscia marked De Sica's entry into international prominence; the film won a special Oscar in 1947.
For the balance of the neorealist period De Sica fought an uphill battle to finance his films through friends and acting salaries. Ladri di biciclette anchors searching social documentation in metaphor and a non-traditional but highly structured narrative. Workman Ricci's desperate search for his bicycle is an Odyssey that enables us to witness a varied collection of characters and situations among the poor and working class of Rome. Each episode propels the narrative toward a sublimely Chaplinesque but insufficiently socially critical ending in which Ricci is defeated in his search and therefore in his attempts to provide for his family. Reduced to thievery himself, he takes his son's hand and disappears into the crowd. Like De Sica's other neorealist films, Ladri di biciclette gives the impression of technical nonchalance only to the indiscriminate eye, for De Sica planned his work with attention to minute details of characterization, mise-en-sc?ne, and camera technique. During this period he preferred the non-professional actor for his or her ability to accept direction without the mediation of learned acting technique.
The story of Toto the Good in Miracolo a Milano remains one of the outstanding stylistic contradictions of the neorealist period (there are many), yet one which sheds an enormous amount of light on the intentions and future of the De Sica-Zavattini team. The cinematography and setting, markedly neorealist in this fable about the struggle to found a shanty town for the homeless, is undercut at every moment with unabashed clowning both in performance and in cinematic technique. Moreover, the film moves toward a problematic fairy tale ending in which the poor, no longer able to defend their happy, make-shift village from the voracious appetite of capitalist entrepreneurs, take to the skies on magic broomsticks. (The film has more special effects than anyone would ever associate with neorealism; could De Sica have left his mark on Steven Spielberg?) Still, Zavattini, who had wanted to make the film for a number of years, and De Sica defend it as the natural burlesque transformation of themes evident in their earlier work together.
By this time De Sica's films were the subject of a good deal of controversy in Italy, and generally the lines were drawn between Catholic and Communist critics. The latter had an especially acute fear (one that surfaced again with Fellini's La Strada) that the hard-won traits of neorealism had begun to backslide into those of the so-called ?calligraphic? films of the Fascist era. These were based on an ahistorical, formal concern for aesthetic, compositional qualities and the nuances of clever storytelling. However, it was their next film, Umberto D, that comes closest to realizing Zavattini's ideas on the absolute responsibility of the camera eye to observe life as it is lived without the traditional compromises of entertaining narratives. The sequence of the film in which the maid wakes up and makes the morning coffee has been praised many times for its day-in-the-life directness and simplicity. Il Tetto, about a curious attempt to erect a small house on municipal property, is generally recognized as the last neorealist film of this original period.
Continually wooed by Hollywood, De Sica finally acquiesced to make Stazione termini in 1953, produced by Selznick and filmed in Rome with Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift. Unfortunately, neorealist representation formed only an insignificant background to this typically American star vehicle. A similar style is employed in La ciociara, which was created from a Moravia story about the relationship of a mother and daughter uprooted by the war. De Sica attempted to reconstruct reality in the studio during the making of this work, making use of a somewhat unsuccessful stylized lighting technique. But as usual, he obtains excellent performances in an engaging dramatic vehicle (Sophia Loren won an Oscar).
The filmmakers returned to comedic vehicles in 1954 in L'oro di Napoli. Human comedy emerges from the rich diversity and liveliness of Neapolitan life. Though still within the confines of realism, the film foreshadows the director's entrance into the popular Italian market for sexual satire and farce. The exactitude with which he sculpts his characters and his reluctance to reduce the scenario to a mere bunch of gags demonstrates his intention to fuse comedy and drama, putting De Sica at the top of his class in this respect?among Risi, Comencini, and Monicelli. Often with Zavattini but also with Eduardo De Filippo, Tonino Guerra, and even Neil Simon (After the Fox), De Sica turned out about eight such films for the lucrative international market between 1961 and 1968, the best of which are: Il giudizio universale, which featured an all-star cast of international comedians; Ieri, oggi, domani and Matrimonio all'Italiana, both with Loren and Mastroianni; and Sette volte donna.
Il giardino dei Finzi Contini, based on a Bassani novel about the incarceration of Italian Jews during the war, shows a strong Viscontian influence in its lavish setting and thematics (the film deals with the dissolution of the bourgeois family). Una breve vacanza, an examination of a woman who has managed to break out of the confines of an oppressive marriage during a sanitorium stay, reinstitutes the tensive relationship between comedy and tragedy of the earlier films. De Sica's last film, Il viaggio, is from a Pirandello novel.?JOEL KANOFF