Monday, June 26, 2006

Movie recommendations: Vittorio De Sica

As I often remind my students, people come to works of art when they do. If you've never read Homer or Dante (or Proust) before, so what? You can start now.

In that spirit, my wife Elaine and I have been putting together our own private Vittorio De Sica festival via our university library (which is in fact a cosmopolitan video-store in disguise). The De Sica films that we've seen have been heartbreaking. They're not melodramatic, not sentimental. They're filled with the sorrow that follows from individual and institutional wrongdoing. Here are three recommendations:

Ladri di biciclette [The bicycle thief], 1948. The Bicycle Thief is a movie "everyone" is supposed to have seen — the trailer for a mid-1970s reissue (available on the DVD) gives a good idea of the high regard in which it's held. The scene is post-war Rome. A man gets work as a poster-hanger, work that requires a bicycle. On his first day of work, his bicycle is stolen. He and his son search for it. Now get the film and see what happens.

My favorite moment: father Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) and son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) happily packing away their lunches of frittati ("omelets," according to the subtitle) before going to work. It's astonishing to learn that neither Maggiorani nor Staiola had acted professionally before.

Sciuscià [Shoeshine], 1946. Two shoeshine boys, Pasquale (Franco Interlenghi) and Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni), are arrested for selling two stolen Allied blankets and end up in a grim prison for minors, where their friendship is undone. One striking moment: Pasquale's lawyer dons his courtroom robe with great difficulty and, like every other adult in the film, fails the child who trusts him.

The videotape that we watched (from Balzac Video) uses a wretched, unrestored print with sparse subtitles. I can't tell whether that's what is currently offered for $59.99 on the sketchy Balzac Video webpage.

I Bambini ci guardano [The children are watching us], 1944. A mother's infidelity and a father's despair, seen through the eyes of their young son Pricò (Luciano De Ambrosis). The final scene is unforgettable. This film is available in a beautiful restoration from from the Criterion Collection.

The title of this last film applies to all three — the children are watching us, looking to us always, so we grown-ups had better make sure to do the right thing.

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