Why Vittorio De Sica’s neorealism continues to matter today – Entertainment News , Firstpost – Firstpost

For aficionados of world cinema, an easy introduction of Vittorio De Sica would perhaps be as the director of the Italian classics Sciuscia (Shoeshine) and Bicycle Thieves, or the marvellous Sophia Loren-starrer comedy anthology, Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow. De Sica won four Oscars in his lifetime for direction, an uncommon feat for a non-American filmmaker, besides top prizes at Cannes and Berlin. He also found success acting in over 160 films, and was nominated at the Oscars in 1958 as a supporting actor for his unforgettable role of Major Alessandro Rinaldi in Charles Vidor’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms.
Cinephiles with an academic interest in films would mention that De Sica’s lasting legacy is because of his standing as an exponent of the Italian neorealism movement, which is typified by working class tales shot in real locations and often with a non-professional cast. It was a movement that would redefine cinema with its unflinching gaze at societal chaos in post-World War II Italy, throwing up difficult questions pertaining to morality and ideology in the context of survival. Although neorealism originated before his directorial run began, the late filmmaker is considered one of the most illustrious proponents of the movement along with fellow Italian masters Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini, besides the influential screenwriter and De Sica’s frequent collaborator Cesare Zavattini.

November 13 marks the death anniversary of Vittorio De Sica, it was on this day in 1974 that he passed away in a Paris hospital after being operated due to 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 regular mainstream potboiler that strives to cash in on life and its myriad dilemmas. De Sica’s lasting impact on global cinema is an outcome of the fact that he, among all the Italian neorealists, crafted simple, beautiful cinema that struck an emotional chord with the viewer despite tackling complex, grim subjects that unfolded in layers. His cinema spoke of incompleteness and brought out the complexities of life through stories that reached out to all. His frames were often bleak, yet stylishly captured. He could utilise miscommunication as a storytelling device to define the unfailing bond between two characters. These were cinematic tools that went on to inspire generations of filmmakers, when it comes to setting up a narrative structure.

The effortlessness with which he balanced such contradictions perhaps owes itself to sundry contrasting streaks in his own persona. He is deemed an arthouse powerhouse today but he was open to making sex comedies for money, given his streak as a compulsive gambler. He was a Roman Catholic, but chose to be a communist. He was a popular comic actor in his early years, the star of hits as Gli Uomini Che Mascalzoni! (What Scoundrels Men Are!), Daro Un Milione (I’ll Give A Million) and Paprika, and yet he went on to carve his space mainly as a director of unforgettable tragedies.
De Sica’s cinema continues to matter today because his dissection of human travails remains relevant. His films celebrate humanity by drawing focus to the overlooked and the disregarded in society. Among the auteur’s most unforgettable protagonists are children who belong to less privileged backgrounds or are orphans. He exuded mastery in capturing the harsh world of grown-ups through the gaze of minors in works as Bicycle Thieves, Shoeshine, and I Bambini Ci Guardano (The Children Are Watching Us). In Bicycle Thieves, Antonio Ricci’s family finds hope when he gets a job of pasting posters on walls in post-war Rome. It is essential for him to have a bicycle for the job, and his wife Maria pawns their bed linens so they can afford one. On the very first day at work, Antonio’s bicycle is stolen. As he hurtles down the path of inevitable doom while struggling to find the vehicle, the narrative captures the tragi-comic drama through the eyes of his little boy Bruno. While the idea of ‘watching’ the events from Bruno’s perspective lets De Sica play with innocuous sentiments, an unmissable socio-political context runs at a very different level.
The perspective of a minor’s gaze becomes more significant in Shoeshine, a protest film that easily ranks among Zavattini’s greatest scripts. The story is about two Roman shoeshine boys, Pasquale and Giuseppe, who have been saving to buy their dream horse. A bid to sell smuggled American blankets backfires and the boys end up in an overcrowded juvenile facility. As the two boys then struggle to negotiate the sordid world of such facilities, a small misunderstanding between the two burgeons into catastrophic outcome. Depressing as their world is, the screenplay is buoyed by the ceaseless optimism and spirit of life that the film’s characters exude.
De Sica excelled in bringing alive the nuances of life through his child protagonists. The simplistic reaction of minors to complicated situations involving adults invariably continues to be box office gold even today.
Barring the odd rom-com as Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow, De Sica’s preferred medium was tragedy. Although he laced lighter moments intelligently in his narratives, his films were mostly about laying bare the world of the deprived. In Shoeshine, Pasquale and Giuseppe are walking up a steep flight of stairs in a 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 laughing at their miseries. His humour ranged from the innocent to the caustic. In another scene of Shoeshine where the two boys are held in a juvenile facility, the orphan Pasquale’s jibe amidst 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 find genesis in De Sica’s defeatist hero, for his protagonists were mostly vulnerable and hapless people, morally flexible not by choice but by compulsion, and not without flaws. Yet his screenplays accommodated sympathy for such characters rather than condemning them.
De Sica’s casting process was a reason it clicked. In the course of a prolific directorial career of around 36 films, he worked with several top stars of his era including Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, though his films are about casting in accordance to roles. De Sica cast faces and personalities, and not actors, in sync with neorealist traditions, which is why he didn’t hesitate to choose non-professionals if they suited the characters. So, he found his perfect Antonio Ricci for Bicycle Thieves in Lamberto Maggiorani, a machine turner in a factory. Similarly, almost the entire cast of his social drama Umberto D. comprised non-professionals, highlighted by the retired university professor Carlo Battisti playing the film’s titular Umberto Domenico Ferrari, an impoverished elderly Roman struggling to keep his rented accommodation.
De Sica’s s sentimental approach while creating such characters within the neorealist frame allowed him to introduce the little pleasures of life amidst their misery. In Bicycle Thieves, in the course of their hunt for the stolen bicycle, Ricci spends more than he can afford on a sumptuous lunch for his son, in the hope they will recover the vehicle soon. Somehow, De Sica’s cinema gave the message that the world actually has no villains, only situations of despair that bring out the ugly side in humans. It is a trait of hope that cinema everywhere loves to champion to this day.
De Sica made masterpieces that were instances of consummate storytelling. His camera lent a patient gaze to life and yet, as American film critic Pauline Kael noted in her review of Shoeshine, life as the film demonstrates, “is too complex for facile endings”.
Vinayak Chakravorty is a critic, columnist and film journalist based in Delhi-NCR.
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