Of Realism and the Miraculous: Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan
By Robert J. Cardullo
The term "neorealism" was first applied by the critic Antonio Pietrangeli to Luchino Visconti's Obsession (1942), and the style came to fruition in the mid-to-late 1940s in such films of Roberto Rossellini, Visconti and Vittorio De Sica as Rome, Open City (1945), Shoeshine (1946), Paisan (1947), Bicycle Thieves (1948) and The Earth Trembles (1948). These pictures reacted not only against the banality that had long been the dominant mode of Italian cinema, but also against prevailing socio-economic conditions in Italy. With minimal resources, the neorealist filmmakers worked in real locations using local people as well as professional actors; they improvised their scripts, as need be, onsite; and their films conveyed a powerful sense of the plight of ordinary individuals oppressed by political circumstances beyond their control. Thus Italian neorealism was the first post-war cinema to liberate filmmaking from the artificial confines of the studio and, by extension, from the Hollywood-originated studio system. But neorealism was the expression of an entire moral or ethical philosophy as well, and not simply just another new cinematic style.
De Sica, Visconti and Rossellini attempted to create a cinema of social conscience and eschewed the gaudy costume dramas, historical epics and propaganda films that had constituted the bulk of Italy's production. "We sought to redeem our guilt," De Sica himself said, looking back on the movement he helped to begin. "We strove to look ourselves in the eyes and tell ourselves the truth, to discover who we really were, and to seek salvation" (quoted from an interview in La Table Ronde, May 1960). But the neorealists' mission was perhaps best described by one of neorealism's lesser-known practitioners, Alberto Lattuada, who wrote in June 1945:
Ignoring the complaint of commercial Italian filmmakers of the early post-war era that there could be little profit in thus airing Italy's dirty secrets when economic prosperity was just around the corner, the neorealists made gritty, scaled-down films that took the problems of contemporary life head-on.
Still, the post-World War II birth or creation of neorealism was anything but a collective theoretical enterprise – the origins of Italian neorealist cinema were far more complex than that. Generally stated, its roots were political, in that neorealism reacted ideologically to the control and censorship of the pre-war cinema; aesthetic, for the intuitive, imaginative response of neorealist directors coincided with the rise or resurgence of realism in Italian literature, particularly the novels of Italo Calvino, Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, Elio Vittorini and Vasco Pratolini (a realism that can be traced to the veristic style first cultivated in the Italian cinema between 1913 and 1916, when films inspired by the writings of Giovanni Verga and others dealt with human problems as well as social themes in natural settings); and economic, in that this new realism posed basic solutions to the lack of funds, of functioning studios and of working equipment.
Indeed, what is sometimes overlooked in the growth of the neorealist movement in Italy is the fact that some of its most admired aspects sprang from the dictates of post-war adversity: a shortage of money made shooting in real locations an imperative choice over the use of expensive studio sets, and against such locations any introduction of the phony or the fake would appear glaringly obvious, whether in the appearance of the actors or the style of the acting. It must have been paradoxically exhilarating for neorealist filmmakers to be able to stare unflinchingly at the tragic spectacle of a society in shambles, its values utterly shattered, after years of making nice little movies approved by the powers that were within the walls of Cinecittà.
In fact, it was the Fascists who, in 1937, opened Cinecittà, the largest and best-equipped movie studio in all of Europe. Like the German Nazis and the Russian Communists, the Italian Fascists realised the power of cinema as a medium of propaganda, and when they came to power, they took over the film industry. Although this meant that those who opposed Fascism could not make movies and that foreign pictures were censored, the Fascists helped to establish the essential requirements for a flourishing post-war film industry. In 1935 they founded the Centro Sperimentale in Rome, a film school headed by Luigi Chiarini, which taught all aspects of movie production. Many important neorealist directors attended this school, including Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luigi Zampa, Pietro Germi and Giuseppe De Santis (but not Vittorio De Sica); it also produced cameramen, editors and technicians. Moreover, Chiarini was allowed to publish Bianco e Nero (Black and White), the film journal that later became the official voice of neorealism. Once Mussolini fell from power, then, the stage was set for a strong left-wing cinema.
The Axis defeat happened to transform the Italian film industry into a close approximation of the ideal market of classical economists: a multitude of small producers engaged in fierce competition. There were no clearly dominant firms among Italian movie producers, and the Italian film industry as a whole exhibited considerable weakness. The very atomisation and weakness of a privately owned and profit-oriented motion-picture industry, however, led to a de facto tolerance toward the left-wing ideology of neorealism. In addition, the political climate of post-war Italy was favourable to the rise of cinematic neorealism, since this artistic movement was initially a product of the spirit of resistance fostered by the Partisan movement. The presence of Nenni Socialists (Pietro Nenni was Minister of Foreign Affairs) and Communists in the Italian government from 1945 to 1947 contributed to the governmental tolerance of neorealism's left-wing ideology, as did the absence of censorship during the 1945–49 period.
Rossellini's Rome, Open City became the landmark film in the promulgation of neorealist ideology. It so completely reflected the moral and psychological atmosphere of its historical moment that this picture alerted both the public and the critics – on the international level (including the United States), as well as the national ones – to a new direction in Italian cinema. Furthermore, the conditions of its production (relatively little shooting in the studio, film stock bought on the black market and developed without the typical viewing of daily rushes, post-synchronisation of sound to avoid laboratory costs, limited financial backing) did much to create many of the myths surrounding neorealism. With a daring combination of styles and tones – from the use of documentary footage to the deployment of the most blatant melodrama, from the juxtaposition of comic relief with the most tragic human events – Rossellini almost effortlessly captured forever the tension and drama of the Italian experience during the German occupation and the Partisan struggle against the Nazi invasion.
If, practically speaking, Rossellini at once introduced Italian cinematic neorealism to the world, De Sica's collaborator Cesare Zavattini – with whom he forged one of the most fruitful writer-director partnerships in the history of cinema – eventually became the theoretical spokesman for the neorealists. By his definition, neorealism does not concern itself with superficial themes and synthetic forms; in his famous manifesto 'Some Ideas on the Cinema', Zavattini declares that the camera has a "hunger for reality" and that the invention of plots to make reality palatable or spectacular is a flight from the historical richness as well as the political importance of actual, everyday life.
Although inconsistently or irregularly observed, the basic tenets of this new realism were threefold: to portray real or everybody people (using non-professional actors) in actual settings, to examine socially significant themes (the genuine problems of living) and to promote the organic development of situations as opposed to the arbitrary manipulation of events (ie. the real flow of life, in which complications are seldom resolved by coincidence, contrivance or miracle). These tenets were clearly opposed to the pre-war cinematic style that used polished actors on studio sets, conventional and even fatuous themes, and artificial, gratuitously resolved plots – the very style, of course, that De Sica himself had employed in the four pictures he made from 1940 to 1942 (Red Roses , Maddalena, Zero for Conduct , Teresa Venerdì  and A Garibaldian in the Convent ).
Unfortunately, this was the cinematic style that the Italian public continued to demand after the war, despite the fact that during it such precursors of neorealism as Visconti's Obsession and De Sica's own The Children Are Watching Us (1943) had offered a serious alternative. Indeed, it was as early as 1942, when Obsession and The Children Are Watching Us were either being made or released, that the idea of the cinema was being transformed in Italy. Influenced by French cinematic realism as well as by prevailing Italian literary trends, Visconti shot Obsession on location in the region of Romagna; the plot and atmosphere (based on James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice ) were seamy in addition to steamy, and did not adhere to the polished, resolved structures of conventional Italian movies. Visconti's film was previewed in the spring of 1943 and quickly censored, not to be appreciated until after the war.
Around the same time, Gianni Franciolini's Headlights in the Fog (1941) was portraying infidelity among truck drivers and seamstresses, while Alessandro Blasetti's Four Steps in the Clouds (1942) – co-scripted by Zavattini and starring De Sica's wife at the time, Giuditta Rissone – was being praised for its return to realism in a warm-hearted story of peasant life shot in natural settings. De Sica, too, was dissatisfied with the general state of the Italian cinema and, after the relative success of his formulaic films, he felt it was time for a new challenge. Like Zavattini, who had by then achieved a measure of screenwriting success, De Sica wanted to do some serious work in which he expressed his ideas about human problems and human values. And he did so throughout the 1940s and well into the 1950s in such neorealist works, subsequent to The Children Are Watching Us, as Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan (1951), Umberto D. (1952) and The Roof (1956) – all of them scripted or co-written by Zavattini.
Zavattini was one of the few, incidentally, who always felt that Bicycle Thieves – surely De Sica's best-known film – fell somewhat short of perfection, despite its registering of a visually austere rather than a picturesquely lush Rome. The movie's pathos strayed a little too close to pulp fiction for his taste, with De Sica a touch too canny in making his audience cry – aided once again by the mood music of Alessandro Cicognini. Still, Zavattini viewed his work on this project as a present to his good friend and trusted colleague. And De Sica, for his part, felt an immediate urge to reciprocate by turning for their next film to a subject that his collaborator had long held dear. The idea of Zavattini's fable or fairy tale for children and adults alike had gone through many stages: his early story 'Let's Give Everybody a Hobbyhorse' (1938); a treatment or outline in 1940 with the actor-director Totò in mind; a novel called Totò the Good that was published in 1943; a working script titled The Poor Disturb; and eventually the final screenplay of Miracle in Milan in 1951, which Zavattini prepared in tandem with Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Mario Chiari, Adolfo Franci and De Sica himself.
The film opens on a painting by Pieter Brueghel over which, as it comes to life, the words "Once upon a time" are superimposed, followed shortly afterwards by the discovery by an old woman, Lolotta (played by Emma Gramatica), of a naked child in the cabbage patch of her garden. This is the orphan Totò, and we follow his adventures as he grows up, becoming, through his natural optimism and innocent ability to locate a glimmer of poetry in the harshest reality, a prop or support to everyone with whom he comes into contact. After his foster mother's death, Totò is living in a shantytown on the outskirts of Milan when oil is discovered on the squatters' stretch of land. The rich, headed by the industrialist Mobbi, move in to exploit the situation, and the homeless people are forced to fight the police hired to evacuate them. Aided by a symbolic white dove that possesses the power to create miracles – the dove being a gift from the departed Lolotta, who is now her foster son's guardian angel – Totò had endeavoured to improve the earthly life of the poor, if only by making the elusive winter sun appear and beam down on them. But dove or no dove, the squatters are finally no match for the fat cats of this world; so Totò's only resource is to have his dispossessed charges snatch up the broomsticks of street cleaners and miraculously fly to a land "where there is only peace, love and good".
Miracle in Milan is understandably regarded as one of the outstanding stylistic contradictions of the neorealist period: neorealist in action – the struggle to found, and maintain, a shantytown for the homeless – this movie undercuts that action at nearly every moment with unabashed clowning both in performance and cinematic technique (special effects abound). However, this blend of stark verism and comic fantasy, which featured a cast that mixed numerous non-professionals (culled from the streets of suburban Milan) with professional leads, was not in the end such a thematic departure from De Sica's earlier neorealist films as it might at first seem: the familiar concern for the underprivileged was strongly there, as were the harsh social realities seen once again through the eyes of a child who grows up yet remains a boy full of wonder and faith; and a seriocomic tension may underlie all of Miracle in Milan, but it can also be found in the "teamwork" between both big daddy Ricci and little boy Bruno in Bicycle Thieves, as well as between the old man and his small dog in Umberto D.
As for the leftist criticism that the picture's use of the fanciful, even the burlesque or farcical, increasingly overshadows its social commentary about the exploitation and disenfranchisement of the underclass in an industrialised nation, one can respond that there is in fact an element of despair and pessimism, of open-ended spiritual quandary, in the fairy-tale happy ending of Miracle in Milan. For this finale implies that the poor-in-body but pure-in-soul have no choice but to soar to the skies and seek their heaven apart from the hopeless earth – which is to say only in their imaginations. For his part, De Sica (unlike the staunchly leftist, even Communist, Zavattini) liked to downplay the satirical overtones of Miracle in Milan, characteristically maintaining that he wanted to bring to the screen, apart from any political considerations, a Christian or simply humanist sense of solidarity: ie. the idea that all men should learn to be good to one another.
Not everyone was content to see the movie in such simple terms, however. The Vatican condemned it for depicting the birth of a child from a cabbage, while some right-wing critics, assessing the angle of the squatters' flight at the end over the Cathedral of Milan – not to speak of the clash between the fedora-hatted rich and the grubby but kindly have-nots – figured that they were heading east, that is, towards Moscow! Predictably, from the left came the accusation, as we have already seen, that the excess of whimsy in Miracle in Milan had sweetened the bitter pill of neorealism beyond recognition. Cinephiles from abroad turned out to be less ideologically prickly: Miracle in Milan shared the 1951 Grand Prix at Cannes and also won the New York Film Critics Circle's award for best foreign film of the year.
It's not surprising that Miracle in Milan baffled so many when it was first screened, including those who thought they liked it, for the Italian cinema had never really produced anything remotely like it before. The sheer irrational magic of René Clair in combination with the irrepressibly bittersweet charm of Charlie Chaplin had, up to now, not found its equivalent among indigenous filmmakers. Miracle in Milan consciously springs from the legacy of Clair and Chaplin, but transposes it to a forlorn urban landscape that could only be identified with Italian neorealism. Indeed, for all its look-back at earlier film comedy, De Sica's ninth film actually points forward to a new brand of Italian moviemaking: with its grotesque processions of fancily as well as raggedly dressed extras against an almost abstract horizon, Miracle in Milan is "Felliniesque" two or more years before Fellini became so.
Furthermore, for all its undeniable quaintness, the movie now seems more topical than ever with its warring choruses of real-estate speculators and its huddled masses longing to become selfish consumers themselves. Thus Zavattini's social conscience is linked to a sublime anarchy all its own, particularly once the squatters' village is graced by the heavenly dove that can grant any wish. By this means, a black man and a white girl may exchange races out of mutual love, yet a tramp tries to satisfy his desire not only for millions of lire, but also for many more millions than anyone else. A glorious, richly meaningful anomaly in De Sica's directorial career, Miracle in Milan remains more miraculous than ever, enhanced by both the consummate cinematography of G.R. Aldo (aka Aldo Graziati) and a melodious score by the ever canny Alessandro Cicognini.
Although neorealism was gradually phased out of the Italian cinema in the early 1950s – precisely the years, ironically, when Miracle in Milan and later Umberto D. were made – as economic conditions improved and film producers succumbed to the growing demand for escapist entertainment, the movement's effects have been far-reaching. Neorealism's influence on French New Wave directors like François Truffaut is a matter of record, but its impact on the American cinema has generally been ignored. For, in the post-war work of American moviemakers as diverse as Nicholas Ray (They Live by Night, 1948), Elia Kazan (Boomerang!, 1947), Jules Dassin (The Naked City, 1948), Joseph Losey (The Lawless, 1950), Robert Rossen (Body and Soul, 1947), and Edward Dmytryk (Crossfire, 1947), stylistic elements of neorealism can be found together with neorealism's thematic concern with social and political problems. The Italian movement has even had a profound impact on filmmakers in countries that once lacked strong national cinemas of their own, such as India, where Satyajit Ray adopted a typically neorealist stance in his Apu Trilogy, outstanding among whose three films is Pather Panchali (1955).
In Italy itself, neorealist principles were perpetuated not only by Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, but also by the first as well as the second generation of filmmakers to succeed them. Among members of the first generation we may count Ermanno Olmi, with his compassionate studies of working-class life like Il Posto (1961) and Francesco Rosi, with his vigorous attacks on the abuse of power such as Salvatore Giuliano (1961). These two directors are joined, among others, by Pier Paolo Pasolini (Accattone, 1961), Vittorio De Seta (Bandits of Orgosolo, 1961), Marco Bellocchio (Fist in His Pocket, 1965) and the Taviani brothers, Vittorio and Paolo (Padre Padrone, 1977). And these filmmakers themselves have been followed by Gianni Amelio (Stolen Children, 1990), Nanni Moretti (The Mass Is Ended, 1988), Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso, 1988) and Maurizio Nichetti (The Icicle Thief, 1989), to name only the most prominent beneficiaries of the influence of neorealism – and of perhaps its quintessential film, Miracle in Milan.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017