Where to Start with Vittorio de Sica

Director, actor and writer Vittorio de Sica is without a doubt one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of Italian cinema.

Born in 1901 in Sora, which was then part of the Kingdom of Italy, to Umberto De Sica, a journalist for the local newspaper who also worked at the Bank of Italy, Vittorio would later describe his upbringing and family life as a state of “tragic and aristocratic poverty.” After moving to different cities upon the outbreak of World War I, the de Sica family eventually took their permanent residence in Rome where Vittorio got a first-hand experience of the world of cinema and filmmaking. At only 15 years old, he started acting in amateur plays that were put on in hospitals for recovering soldiers.

After graduating in accounting in 1923, de Sica started his career as a theatre actor. A few years later, he began acting in cinema with Mario Almirante’s Beauty of the World in 1927, reaching mainstream fame by 1932 when he became beloved for his work in comedy. Even once he started his career as a director, de Sica continued to act for the rest of his life, winning multiple awards across many film festivals, including the Nastro d’Argento in Venice. He went on to star in international productions as well, such as Charles Vidor’s A Farewell to Arms in 1957 and Terence Young’s The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders in 1965.

In the 21st century, Vittorio de Sica’s fame is primarily associated with his work as a director. His feature directorial debut was Red Roses in 1940, though he first became a filmmaking name with the so-called “white-telephones”, a genre that imitated American comedy films and was extremely popular in Italy in the 1930s and 1940s. Only later, in 1943, when he met screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, did de Sica start exploring a new genre of filmmaking: the newly-born movement of Italian Neorealism. He is almost exclusively associated with it to this day.

Vittorio de Sica is without a doubt one of the most influential and easy to recommend filmmakers in the history of cinema, but with more than 35 directorial efforts and dozens more acting roles, it’s difficult to know where to begin. So, how should you approach de Sica’s extensive oeuvre? You can start with three of his most well-known and significant films as outlined in this Guide from The Film Magazine: Where to Start with Vittorio de Sica.

The Children Are Watching Us (1943)

The Children Are Watching Us marks the beginning of Vittorio de Sica’s filmmaking career as we know it today. It also marks the first official collaboration between de Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, which would become evermore influential across the following decade and ultimately go down in history as one of the most iconic partnerships in the landscape of Italian cinema.

The plot of the film focuses on Pricó (Luciano de Ambrosis), a young Italian boy, and his parents Nina (Isa Pola) and Andrea (Emilio Cigoli). Their daily life is suddenly interrupted when Nina runs away in the night with her former lover Roberto (Adriano Rimoldi), leaving Andrea to care for their son as a single father. Despite the mother’s eventual return, the family dynamic is never the same again. This incident will forever haunt the lives of both Andrea and Pricó.

The Children Are Watching Us is generally considered to be one of the most important films of de Sica’s directorial career. Further, it is widely believed to be one of the most important in the history of Italian cinema. Together with Luchino Visconti’s Obsession and Alessandro Blasetti’s Four Steps in the Clouds (each released in the same 12 month period), The Children Are Watching Us can be viewed as a turning point from the white telephone comedies of the previous years to the theme of childhood innocence and the overall compassionate point of view that would come to define the movement of Italian Neorealism.

Fighting against censorship by touching on topics such as female infidelity and suicide, and starring some of the actors who would eventually go down in history as being among Italian Neorealism’s biggest names (including Riccardo Fellini and Marcelo Mastroianni, the latter playing a character who isn’t even named), The Children Are Watching Us is every bit on the cusp of a cinema revolution as you’d hope a film of its reputation would be.

Shoeshine (1946)

1946 release Shoeshine is widely considered to be one of the first films of the Italian Neorealist movement. It is certifiably Vittorio de Sica’s first true neorealist offering.

Shoeshine follows two children, the orphan Pasquale Maggi (Franco Interlenghi) and his best friend Giuseppe Fillippucci (Rinaldo Smordoni), who are saving money to purchase a horse but struggle to live off their limited income from shining shoes in the streets of Rome. Their dream seems impossible until Giuseppe’s older brother approaches them with some work, which turns out to be an elaborate plan to steal money from a local fortune teller. This gives them enough money to purchase the horse they had dreamed about for so long, but also leads them to a juvenile detention centre where they are separated and drawn apart.

“The camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life,” said Orson Welles when describing his viewing experience. At its core, that is what Italian Neorealism truly is: a portrait of everyday life in the most realistic way possible, with all its tragic, compassionate, and human elements included.

In its analysis of childhood and the corruption of innocence, Shoeshine offers a beautiful and heartbreaking depiction of the economic condition of extreme poverty and the daily struggles of people in post-war Italy, with particular attention paid to the children who turn out to be the most affected – and perhaps even corrupted – by all of its horrors.

In 1948, the film received an Honorary Oscar for its high quality (which would later become the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film), thus recognising its relevance in the international film industry. Similarly, in 2008, the film was included in the list of 100 Italian Films to be saved by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage for its importance in shaping the country’s cultural memory.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970)

Despite being largely associated with Italian Neorealism, Vittorio de Sica’s filmography goes far beyond that, as proven by one of the last films he ever directed, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

This film may very well be one of the most successful in de Sica’s career as it went on to win multiple awards both in Italy, with the David di Donatello Awards and Nasto d’argento in Venice, and abroad as it won Best Foreign Film at the 1972 Oscars and the Golden Bear at the Berlinale to mention only a few. In 2015, the Istituto Luce Cinecittá curated a restored digital version of the film, recognising the The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’ importance in the landscape of Italian cinema.

Based on a book by Giorgio Bassani, de Sica’s late career effort starts in 1928 in Ferrara and follows the intellectual family of the Finzi-Contini, Jewish aristocrats who live on an idyllic estate, a mansion with a park around it. When the 1928 Racial Laws ban Jews from using the city’s tennis club, the family allows their children, Micol (Dominique Sanda) and Alberto (Helmut Berger), to invite their friends to use their private tennis court. This, along with hosting regular parties, allows Micol and Albert to continue their life largely sheltered from the anti-Semitism running rampant in the country. But, as the war draws nearer and fascist movements grow stronger, the political situation in Italy ends up affecting everyone in the family and beyond.

With its beautiful and cinematic portrayal of the titular garden, which becomes a character unto itself, the cinematography and the production design are standout aspects of this special Vittorio de Sica entry. When combined with a moving story and an important re-evaluation of Italian history, these elements certify that this de Sica film is one of his undisputed masterpieces. More broadly, that it is one of the greatest films ever made.

Recommended for you: Where to Start with Italian Neorealism

With particular attention paid to the lives of the poor and common people, use of on-location shooting, and his direction of nonprofessional actors, as well as his visual style (which is both honest and stylish at the same time), Vittorio de Sica’s contributions to film are still important to this day. His incredible and prolific career as both an actor and director have certified him as one of the most famous names in Italian cinema history and one of the undisputed protagonists of Italian Neorealism.

Clotilde Chinnici
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