Il Tetto (1956)

A lot of memorable films are instigated with a jubilant wedding. A couple takes a photo out in front of the church and ride off triumphantly, leaving friends and relations in their wake. Like most of its brethren, Il Tetto falls back to earth with a more sobering reality.

The wife takes the bus with her new husband back to their hometown. It’s a version of The Graduate after the euphoria has burnt off, and they have to make sense of the future. Now they must come to terms with their decisions. They must cope with a father-in-law who won’t speak to them. It’s not even about unyielding conflict. They don’t get a chance to mollify him. The chance never comes so they go back from whence they came.

They seem fairly well-adjusted as a couple in spite of their youth. Although they are young, without many prospects or money to speak of, the bond between them is undeniable. Because it’s the story of many people, to get married and then become inundated by poverty.

However, these newlyweds are looking to make a life together built on the foundations of the war years with a youthful optimism for future prosperity. For the time being, they must stay crowded in the family house until they can get a leg up and a place of their own.

But anyone who loves their family to death (and sometimes wants to strangle them), knows this cannot last. Between Natale’s elderly parents and little kids bustling around, the sister-in-law Giovanna is about to have a baby and her agitated husband Cesare is always complaining about the lights being left on. He’s not particularly simpatico about the new arrangements. It reaches a tipping point when he and Natale grow chippy and discontented.

It’s sooner than expected, but they realize they need to go out on their own and find a place. The barriers up against them are obvious. They need the funds in order to swing it, and it’s still an issue finding quality housing in the city with buildings coming down as much as they’re going up.

Husband and wife make a pact to split up so they can try and find leads. Natale puts his fledgling skills to use getting a job at a construction site as Luisa calls upon her friend to get work as a housemaid.

This isn’t quite Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, but the young bricklayer mobilizes all his work buddies and scrounges around for all the money he can get for materials and labor. What’s more, they’re tasked with putting up a livable structure in the course of one evening. It feels like an act of desperation, an unsurmountable task, but he seemingly has no other choice.

Like an utter numbskull, it didn’t strike me what the core resonance of the title was until the movie was over. I was under the impression that there would be some scene on the roof — that it was a metaphor for their existence — of getting away together as a couple and starting their new life. I’ve listened to too much of The Drifters and vividly recalled a rooftop moment in A Special Day.

But De Sica makes this story even more elemental. This is about the roof over their heads — a home to call their own — and the right to a certain amount of dignity to work and raise a family.

He turns such a premise into a kind of neorealist thriller as the young husband races to literally put that roof over their heads before the local police can reach the premises and condemn them for whatever infractions. It’s a tense round of nailbiting in the final minutes as they race against time. We know what might happen; we’ve seen it already, and now it’s all up to the fates.

Il Tetto is not talked about with the most high-profile De Sica dramas nor, does it have the warm buoyancy of his later comedies as he came upon a new facet of his career.  But even as the neorealist movement was waning and beget future progeny like the French New Wave and other movements, there’s little denying the impact of this kind of cinema championed by the likes of Rosselini, Visconti, and De Sica.

It’s taken a more personal note for me because as I’m writing this, I’m in the process of moving. A lease was terminated, I was forced to rush around trying to find a place of my own, and then there’s the first-world problem of cleaning out all your excess junk.

My situation is different; it’s privileged compared to what this couple have to endure. If anything, it’s a reminder for me to stop my griping. It could be worse. Still, more so, I’m reminded we all have these same urges: for shelter and a place we can live in peace. I empathized with these folks even more than I was expecting.

4/5 Stars

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