Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

Neorealism, History, and the Children's Film: Vittorio De Sica's the Children Are Watching Us Reconsidered

Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

Neorealism, History, and the Children's Film: Vittorio De Sica's the Children Are Watching Us Reconsidered

Article excerpt

Where children are concerned, two myths predominate on film: that of the original innocence of children, an innocence that only becomes sullied by contact with the society of grown-ups; and that of the child-as-fatherto-the-man, of childhood as a prelude to the main event of adulthood. Among films of the first kind, Jean Benoît-Levy's La maternelle (1932), Louis Daquin's Portrait of Innocence (1941), Kjell Grede's Hugo and Josephine (1967), Jilali Ferhati's Reed Dolls (1981), and Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly (2004) deserve special mention. Among films of the second kind, in the 1980s Lasse Hallström's My Life As a Dog (1985) and Bille August's Pelle the Conqueror (1988) were almost simultaneously joined by Idrissa Ouédraogo's Yaaba (1987) and Nils Gaup's Pathfinder (1988); they were preceded by such pictures as Arne Sucksdorff's The Great Adventure (1953) and Raoul Coutard's Hoa-Binh (1970), as well as followed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Abouna (2002). For the record, before 1900 the Lumière brothers had made the first films about children, and soon thereafter virtually every film culture grasped the new possibilities of capturing on screen children's cuteness and mischief and pathos.

In the vein of juvenile performance -with professional child actors as well as nonprofessional ones, or "non-actors" -no movie culture has done better than France, however. Think only, not so long ago, of Jacques Doillon's Ponette (1996), It All Starts Today (1999) -a film by the redoubtable Bertrand Tavernier about preschool children living amidst Zolaesque conditions in contemporary northern France -and Christophe Barratier's The Chorus (2003). The only possible exception to the rule of the French is Italy, which gave us Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso in 1988, Gianni Amelio's Stolen Children in 1992, and Gabriele Salvatores' I'm Not Scared in 2003. Long before these movies, though, the Italians produced such neorealist masterpieces featuring children as Roberto Rossellini's Germany, Year Zero (1947) and Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine (1946), as well as the latter's Bicycle Thieves (1948).

Given its intimate relationship with children's films, a word on neorealism is in order here. Its roots were political, in that neorealism reacted ideologically to the control and censorship of the prewar 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 postwar 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 bestequipped movie studio in all of Europe. Like the German Nazis and the Russian Communists, the Italian Fascists realized the power of cinema as a medium of propaganda, and when they came to power, they took over the film industry. …

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