The Children Are Watching Us (1944)

What begins as a day out at the cinema turns into an excursion out to the local park watching a Punch and Judy show with all the kiddies. A mother (Isa Pola) is out in public with her boy (Luciano De Ambrosis) and his scooter — sharing is hard whatever generation — though her mind is on other things aside from parenting.

Because we also have the core dramatic situation playing out only meters away unbeknownst to the little boy. His mother comes across a man — a lover — and he vows to take her away for good. They can have a life together, and the boy catches the end of it, though he probably cannot fully comprehend that more is going on than a few pleasantries. Why should he? Because children are not normally predisposed to distrust people’s intentions. Especially their parents. That only comes with time.

This sense of a child’s perspective framing adult situations is very much a precursor to Fallen Idol and its own dilemma involving a kind of heartbreaking, illicit romance. In this iteration, she seems to make her choice once and for all.

You can see it in her face and through her actions; she loves the boy dearly and then the door closes and her face is gone. So too is her presence in the household. We are conditioned and still hardly believe this could be happening.

They are a middle-class family nevertheless packed into a building with nosy neighbors and landlords — it’s the kind of environment where gossip spreads like wildfire. We have a father (Emilio Cigoli) holding down a job while trying to figure out what to do with his son. First, he’s looked after by the housekeeper, and then a sister-in-law who works as a tailor with a host of other women.

They become Prico’s surrogate babysitters. But the division of responsibility end there as the boy is sent out to the country to live under his imperious grandmother, cared for by his older cousin Paolina. Though few of these people are callous, it’s evident how quickly abandonment issues arise with everyone passing the buck. Still, there is a certain amount of care depicting all involved.

Because what sets its impressions apart from Brief Encounter or even Fallen Idol is how the “other spouse” in this case is not asinine or tyrannical but a person of dignity who wants the best for his boy and does not want his wife to be spoken poorly of.

De Sica is considered one of the formative figures in Italian Neorealismb and yet the movie has several sequences that are cut to the emotion. Aboard a rumbling train, the passing dreams flow through the boy’s feverish, listless mind culminating with his mother departing into the recesses of his memories. It’s a near-premonition while simultaneously speaking to his longings. I mean this sincerely; sometimes a boy’s best friend is his mother.

Sure enough, she comes to pay a visit when her little darling is in bed and his father is away. But she doesn’t take off her hat. Prico begs her to take it off — to stay with them — and it’s a prolonged moment of agony. Because she is not a heartless woman. She cannot bear to break from her family completely. Thus, she came back and makes the reparations of these relationships all the more difficult. Where can they go from here?

I never feel like I am being played like melodrama because the situations ring with a very core and incisive truth flowing out of the characters. In these adult situations between husbands and wives, children are very real and present collateral damage caught up in the middle.

They might be innocent bystanders but they are crucially affected. It’s irreparable and there’s no denying it feels like an uphill climb to repair the relationships. How helpless the little boy is and how oblivious he remains about the situation. There can be two levels of understanding going on in one scene and De Sica allows us to be privy to both.

Part two of the film offers a change of location and with it a change of tone. It’s an understandable decision because what it does is provide a reprieve. The family seems nominally happy again frolicking at the beach on their vacation. They are making a valiant effort to pick up the pieces and come together again.

Alas, we already know it cannot last. The flirtatious beachcomber Dada seems like another portent as she holds court with her amorous friends. Eventually, Andrea leaves and his wife and son stay behind. They’re both vulnerable. She to a visit from her former lover, and Prico because his mother is not around; he tries to run away. It’s the habitual cycle of infidelity and resulting fear and abandonment that cannot be broken.

Later in the film, the little boy shares a POV similar to that found in Fallen Idol peering down at the world below him although in this case, it’s watching his tearful father leave him behind at his new boy’s school. Again, it’s a scene injected with the most sincere of emotions, and they only build from there. Because for one final moment Prico must reunite with his mother. He’s already beside himself, and he feels so totally betrayed.

He goes toward the reliable arms of his housekeeper, then, looks up at his mother’s solemn face and tentatively backs away. She’s done so much to hurt him and his response is valid, and yet regardless of what words you put to the moment, it still sears the heart.

Obviously, the movie takes place in a specific era, but there is an air of timelessness about it. Because one cannot help but consider the war years and what impact they might have had on the production. In truth, the picture was shot in 1942 and not released in 1944. During that time De Sica was offered a position by the fascist film industry, which he purportedly refused.

Hardly a pro-Fascist diadem, it would become a stunning prototype for a new kind of cinema that would take the international world by storm in the post-war years. It still astounds me I had never heard of this early De Sica work. Part of the reason is due to how it moves me like some of his finest works do. It’s hard to leave a movie like this and not feel changed.

4.5/5 Stars

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