Il Generale Della Rovere (1959)

It occurs to me, like with Jean-Pierre Melville (and so many others), that the landscape and context of the war years left such a lasting impact on Robert Rossellini, and they are made manifest in his films. Although it’s shot over a decade later, there’s still a lived-in quality, committed to a kind of authenticity.

Whereas others, namely Americans, experienced the war and then returned home (albeit with PTSD), for these men war was a stipulation of everyday life. It was the water they drank and the bread they ate, suffusing into all aspects of society.

Vittorio De Sica is called upon to play a far different kind of gambler than he was in The Gold of Naples. His blustering lunatic is displaced by a miserable loser stumbling and bumbling his way through a mediocre existence.

Emmanuele Bardone, like everyone else, is getting trampled on by this war, just trying to survive. His debts pile up, no thanks to his rampant gambling habits. He pleads with his girlfriend, a fair-weather beauty (Sandra Milo), who has had just about enough of the meager life he can offer her on his half-baked promises. It’s to no avail. She’s not intent on bailing him out again.

Thus, he must find other means to scrounge up the funds to pay off a German Sergeant Major. They’re buddy-buddy — gambling acquaintances — but it doesn’t keep them from attempting to stab each other in the back. It’s one of those uneasy partnerships engendered by the war. Because Bardone is such a man: feckless, unctuous, self-serving. He’s always looking to get ahead, whether by courting Nazis or fellow Italians frantic to track down missing relatives at any cost…specifically well-off Italians.

Physically, Vittorio De Sica strikes me as a man whose stature and features are impressive, quite effortlessly handsome. Yet, he’s capable of bringing something out of them, wringing the comedy and the tragedy with the body God has given him.

I don’t know why exactly, but I want to compare him to Cary Grant — a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously — so whether debonair or a bit of a cad, we still find it within our hearts to root for him.

He vows to help a rich widow and her daughter-in-law in what feels like just another confidence game preying on their desperation. His gambling gets interrupted by air raids, and he crawls back into the life of one of his other girlfriends (Giovanna Ralli).

Something else happens that he knows absolutely nothing about, but it changes the course of the entire picture. A famed dissident is accidentally shot dead at a roadblock, but a cover-up ensues. The capture of Generale Della Rovere is spread around town despite a botched assignment within the Nazi ranks. Now they must find a man to fill his place: Bardone is fingered for it, and he has no bargaining power in this economy.

We’re privy to the Nazi’s intricate filing systems and notecard records helping to mechanize their ruthless war machine, but they’re also more than prepared to play spy and counterspy with a sorry drifter’s carcass.

Narrative-wise it feels like the story can easily be split into two distinct segments. Because it takes a good hour before De Sica is actually cast as the Generale and suddenly the stakes of his new life are raised.

This film was one of Rossellini’s more profitable efforts and with it came an actual high-concept idea. But this never feels like what the director is truly interested in. He skirts around the “plot” as much as possible to make this story about a character and a world.

When he is finally in prison, all the rebels and convicted patriots pledge their services through cell windows and the surrounding walls. They believe him to be who he says he is…meanwhile, Bardone maintains his pact with Colonel Muller to coax out the Generale’s contact on the inside. He’s met with a crisis calling for some self-examination.

Aside from De Sica, Hannes Messemer has to be the other obvious standout as the German SS man. He’s hard and difficult to like, especially when wearing a Nazi uniform in wartime. However, he’s not a cartoon and even momentarily there are these ever so faint flashes of nobility. He cannot be pinned down; his duty as a military officer trumps everything, and yet the contours of his person make us grapple with more than we are used to in a Nazi.

Because as much as we don’t want to admit it, every Nazi was a human being. He is another soldier, driven by duty, perhaps an ideology, and yet still complicit in these grievous sins against humanity.

There’s also what feels like a level of moralizing to the picture. Because we have this space created. It is now the 1950s. Suddenly Rossellini is out from under the complete specter of the war, and he’s able to make his hapless vagabond into an unsolicited hero. A cynic could brand it as little better than a post-war potboiler.

And yet as he tramps out into the snowy prison yard, there’s a steely conviction about him for the first time in the movie. It takes the obvious arc of this character and imbues it with something fleetingly profound. Surely this is the sensibility of Rossellini.

I recall Lino Ventura in Army of Shadows, Marlene Dietrich in Dishonored, and now  Vittorio De Sica. They all share something in common. They were valiant heroes to the end and sometimes their heroism is unwonted. It doesn’t matter so much the road you’ve taken as long as you make it there in the end. There was never any doubt.

4/5 Stars

Europa ’51 (1952)

Europa ’51 is one of those films butchered by time and yet eventually, it was stitched back together to resemble how it was intended to be viewed by its director. Its serpentine history to restoration hints at its subversive elements, although on the surface, it seems like a fairly common breed of drama about a middle-class family.

It reminds me somewhat of De Sica’s The Children are Watching Us purely because it provides a striking reminder neorealism is not only an exploration of those in abject poverty. It can be about those who have a relational or familial deficit too.

In this case, we begin with the one and only Ingrid Bergman. She returns home to the bustling preparation for a dinner party. A strike is tying up the local roads, and it’s only a minor inconvenience. The same might be said of her misanthropic son.

She hardly has time or patience for his concerns because there’s so much to do. She treats him with the kind of shortness and insensitivity you can hardly begrudge parents. It feels like a momentary lapse in priorities more than a callous act of neglect. Soon enough she’s with her husband and guests — one of them brings the conversation to politics and “leftists” — and it’s easy to leave childish trivialities behind.

Then, a catastrophic event shocks her, and the dormant maternal side reveals itself — one of warmth and affection. She racked with the kind of guilt you can never hope to placate. With the movie being so weepy at such an early juncture, there’s a question of where it might go, but Bergman remains the driving force. She goes searching for something…

On her pilgrimage, one of the people she finds is Giulietta Masina, playing a mother to all with a generous spirit and a heart of gold. She’s taken on far too many children, only some of them her own, but she loves them dearly, fussing over them and getting so much joy in providing for them. There’s a frantic charm to her as she busies herself and makes the household run in spite of her meager means. It’s appealing to Irene.

Meanwhile, her husband (Alexander Knox) remains mostly unfeeling, blowing his top when he perceives another man in her life. He fails to recognize this is the only man who has extended her any human kindness and understanding. For this and other sins, she winds up in a psych ward. Remember, we are trading in melodrama.

Irene comforts her tearful housekeeper with a newfound poise. She receives a visitation from the ward’s priest, and they share their mutual philosophies. Experience has led her to discover her own distinctive on what life is about: Love for ourselves feels too narrow; she feels compelled to reach out to others. Love has no limits. Evil is born from the fact we never give all our love to those who need it most.

Irene avoids questions from the priest about a God and his grace stating we must be filled with love for all so that all might be saved through love. The words ringing with the most resonancy go like this, “I came to earth not to lose sinners but to win them — the miracle of Christianity.”

Suddenly, I liked the movie more and more as Bergman’s developing character is revealed, and I learned Rosselini envisioned her out of the tenets of St. Francis of Assisi.

For the majority of my life, I’ve lived in a western, predominantly Christian society, where these core truths pervade the mindset in thought and word, if not entirely in our deeds. There continues to be a shift; many more people are unaffiliated with organized religion or don’t identify with a specific faith. Much of this makes sense as hypocrisy becomes more and more visible in the social media landscape.

I’m left curious. Instead of being swayed by the political or social movements of the day and age or their specific tribes and subcultures, either to fit in or to rage against the status quo, what if people decided to stand out in a far more radical way?

What if they actually took to heart the teaching to love their neighbors and God with all their heart, mind, and strength. Bergman feels a bit crazy, she is countercultural, and impossible to categorize: an exceptional anomaly.

She would play Joan of Arc later, but this is her first foray into the part of a modern-day saint who eschews and then slides beyond the conventions of her age. These kinds of characters fascinate me namely because they challenge my own convictions and hypocrisies.  “How many men condemned by their society and burned at the stake in their day were right?” It’s a sobering question…

3.5/5 Stars

Stromboli (1950)

“I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.” – Romans 10:20 (taken from Isaiah)

Isabella Rosselini gave an interview where she posited her father was not so much a neorealist but a maker of “probable films.” In other words, they were built out of reality and its probable outcomes while never having the pretense of a true documentary. They were invented yet plausible.

Stromboli is not a type of food but a remote Sicilian island. Rossellini conceived the film thanks to two auspicious events. First, came the famed letter from Ingrid Bergman acknowledging her desire to work with the Italian filmmaker. Then, there was a drive from Rome to Naples past a refugee camp where a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman made eyes at all the passersby. I have no way to substantiate this anecdote, but it all seems to gel with the movie we have before us.

As in an earlier picture like Paisan, Rossellini is content to live in the linguistic ambiguities of the moment, and it makes for something striking and different. We’re constantly trying to make sense of the world and navigate it as if it were real life.

Ingrid Bergman’s part is shaded by her roles in Casablanca and Notorious just as Rossellini has the likes of Rome, Open City and Paisan behind him. The war years left such an impression on that entire generation and the cinema was equally marked.

She plays Karin, the aforementioned woman who woos the man on the other side of the barbed wire. They have little in common. They can hardly communicate with one another; she’s trying to get her Visa to immigrate to Argentina, and her secondary option is to marry this lovestruck P.O.W. It seems like she has no choice but to accept.

The foundation of their marriage is built on sand instead of hearty bedrock, but it’s hardly the only one you could imagine during the war years.  A certain level of convenience outweighed many other cares. And so they set out on a life together back in his rural hometown.

Not only is Karin an obvious outsider, but she’s also unnerved by the new environment — it’s a humble fishing village — lorded over by an active volcano! What a strange and otherworldly film it is as we are whisked away with Bergman to a land that we do not know using a language that we do not speak. It’s at both times mesmerizing — a world full of curiosities — and perplexing.

Bergman notes it’s a “Ghost Island.” For Antonio (Mario Vitale), it’s all he’s ever known as home and so immediately we have a blatant disconnect. His wife tries to reach out and grab hold of anything reassuring.

It feels less like Rossellini is trying to shoehorn the film into English and more so that he is building a story out of what he has at his disposal. Where language comes in bits and pieces. Shared spaces must be navigated in ways where people can meet in the middle and English is the language of mediation. You never know who knows what or how they learned it. I had this experience on many occasions, and it never ceases to fascinate me. Isn’t it true so many people have intriguing histories if you only get to know them?

Stromboli showcases Bergman at her most disdainful, telling her husband how very different they are — born of separate classes — and she is a “civilized” person. Granted, most of her criticism is out of fear. Whether or not all the words are clear, he understands the emotions behind them, and they wound his pride as he looks to find work to eke by a living to support her. She spends her first days moping around the house and bawling her eyes out, always reacting to the circumstances around her. It’s rarely the other way around.

One man who becomes a kind of confidante is the local Father (Renzo Cesana) simply because he speaks English immaculately. He recounts to her how those who have gone away help those who have stayed behind. He’s an amicable figure, exhorting Karin to be patient.

But the relationship changes as she becomes more standoffish and unadorned in a way you would have never witnessed under the watchful eye of Classical Hollywood. And although she seems to find solace in his company, it crosses a line, and he becomes uneasy. He cannot provide the kind of comfort she requires even as she cries out, “”Your God won’t help!”

If it’s not entirely a movie about self-reflexivity, then at least you have the parallelism between real life and dramatized events. Rossellini and Bergman stirred controversy because although both were married, they set off on an affair together. It became the topic of scandal and derision across the U.S.

Similarly, the women of the town become scandalized by her immodesty in herself and perhaps her interior decorating. She hangs out with women of ill-repute and other men without the presence of her husband. It’s yet another injury to Ingrid’s image, both real and imagined.

But with the rougher edges of human drama, there’s something pensive and even gorgeous about all the fishing sequences. They loom some kind of unknown danger or foreboding. Maybe this is my own projection. Because like Bergman’s character, when I look at this life I see the perceived ugliness. There’s no better indication than the moment he shows her why he bought a ferret: so it might catch rabbits for them.

For her, this is violent and repulsive. For these people, it is their way of life and their individual comfort. It’s what they know most intimately. After all, didn’t God provide people the earth and the sea so they could seek sustenance from them?

The climactic moment when the fishermen bring up the nets has something so satisfying about it even as there is a kind of real thrill in the air pulsing through all the men on screen. Water spraying everywhere, yells, and hands busying themselves with spears to bring in their catch.

This is only topped by a volcanic eruption in full force. Bergman vs. a Volcano is not something I ever thought I’d see, and yet here it is. She flees and seeks refuge up in the hills, totally crushed by her own fear and doubt. And then in a moment, she wakes up and this desolate world around her almost feels like a visitation from God — the beauty — the mystery, it’s all there finally speaking to her.

Rosselini isn’t a deeply pious filmmaker; nor did he seem ardently religious, but in pictures like The Flowers of St. Francis and Stromboli, he does show a fascination with faith and humanity’s relationship with a God. Here it’s not so much meditative as it is a struggle. Karin, like Job before her, cries out to God in anguish on innumerable occasions.

Could it be the passing birds overhead are a reminder? That God through his common grace watches over the birds of the air and all the more so his other creatures. Or is this all wishful thinking with the volcanic deathtrap soon to be overtaken by hellfire and brimstone?  Where is God and if He is there, why does He hide his face? These are the existential questions percolating in the human heart, and Karin feels the full brunt of their weight as she lashes out into the void.

The movie cuts out before we get a response. Going back to the opening quote, is this Rossellini reaching for an answer?

“I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.” Of course, the director leads us to a state of existential dissonance between what we read and what we witness. Meanwhile, he alighted on a tumultuous road with his greatest muse.

4/5 Stars

Cowboy (1958)

In Cowboy, Delmer Daves and Glenn Ford continue their fruitful partnership by examining the life of a different sort of cattleman. The movie opens on a grand mid-century establishment soon to be frequented by a  cowboy named Reece. Everything is colorful and ornate in the Spanish style with gaudy curtains and wood interiors.

Thus, it begins as a hotel drama that switches out a sulking Garbo and destructive John Barrymore for a gang of cowhands and a hotel clerk’s romance. The movie would not be the same without Jack Lemmon. He is Frank Harris, a lowly clerk with the unenviable task of moving some guests to make way for Mr. Reece. It runs deeper still. He’s fallen in love with the gorgeous daughter (Ann Kashfi) though her father dismisses the young man’s affirmations of love.

Soon enough, they will return to their native Mexico, and Maria will be a distant memory to the impressionable boy. Before he can sort out his feelings, Reece’s contingent comes pouring in and takes over the hotel.

The whole movie is built out of these two men coming together and what a glorious juxtaposition of characters it is. The dreamy-eyed idiot and a veteran cowboy, pragmatic and hard-bitten. Ford and Lemmon have been created on their most fundamental level to chafe with one another. Still, the tinge of comedy is not entirely imperceptible in the setup.

In their introduction, you have Lemmon sidling up to Reece’s bath to get in with his gang while Ford shoots stray cockroaches with some relish. Equally important is how real life intersects with film fiction because Glenn Ford built a storied career in westerns, even if you only count his films with Delmer Daves. Lemmon was always the common, everyman schmuck. Now he’s a tenderfoot barely prepared to place his backside on a horse.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo explores a modern mode of western calling for a different brand of star. Lemmon could easily be built into the City Slicker archetype, lovelorn and ready to prove himself. The first time Harris gets tossed from his horse it feels like a kind of initiation. He’s begrudgingly allowed to ride along, but there’s not going to be any concessions for him. He better toughen up or get out.

As their journey together begins, Daves does remind us about the austere beauty out on the range. It’s a tough life certainly, there is no Sabbath; you must learn to sleep in the saddle and pick yourself up when you fall. And yet there’s a newfound appreciation watching the cowboys at work against nature’s grandeur all around them. It feels like a noble profession out on the land using your heads and working hard each and every day.

Brian Donlevy was a minor icon of the 1940s, once he overcame his relegation as a tough guy, but almost 20 years later, there’s a modicum amount of joy seeing him still up to the task at hand along with such disparate figures as Dick York and Richard Jaeckel, each prone to their own sins, whether drink or violence.

It becomes apparent as a long-form almost classical tale, Cowboy can easily be compared with other cattle movies a la Red River. Because while we have Jack Lemmon and Ford’s not totally averse to humor, there must be hardship and conflict stirred up. They take up the mantles of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, vying for control as they exorcise personal demons and hone in on their priorities.

Later there’s a strangely poignant funeral sequence after one of the trailhands (Strother Mother) is killed in a rattlesnake attack instigated by a practical joke. These unfortunate circumstances lend a troubling undercurrent to the sober congregation. It’s Frank’s first lesson in the cruelty of the trail.

In another moment, one of their group is drinking it up at a Mexican Cantina and is obviously about to be jumped by some jealous locals. Harris is intent to help him, but they live by the credo: if a man’s old enough to get himself into trouble, then a man’s old enough to get himself out of trouble. There’s no sentimentality or loyalty as far as they are concerned. You do your work and look out for your own hide.

These events are not completely isolated, but they put the newest trailhand over the edge. We know he’s naive about what it takes to survive out on the road, but he also highlights the callous code these men are willing to live by. He barks at Reece, “I thought I would be living with men, not a pack of animals.” It changes him thereafter. He won’t allow it to affect him anymore.

Cowboy hints at Jack Lemmon’s substantial chops as an actor. And I use the term in the sense it is often used. Sometimes comedy is not considered true “acting” to the same degree as drama, but it seems comedic actors are capable of some of the best drama. Perhaps they can see one in the other or vice versa.

Because the movie begins as a kind of comedy on the range. At least this is what it hints at and what we know Lemmon can offer. And then it builds into a story with greater ferocity and also emotional depth. It’s not just about a jilted romance, but a disillusionment in this admiration he had for a certain brand of masculinity. There’s something inwardly thrilling in this transformation even as we see the change projected over Lemmon’s character.

With grit and determination, Harris gets below the border to see his girl once more, but he’s been made callous and her circumstances are different. It feels like a betrayal. In these specific scenes, Dalton Trumbo, who was currently an exile in Mexico due to the Blacklist, calls upon a locale not far removed from him or even his earlier bullfighting effort, The Brave One. Also, he would go into a further deconstruction of the cowboy archetype in Lonely Are The Brave only a few years later. It’s difficult not to view these films across the same continuum.

True, it is a tale about cowboys — their lifestyle, whether real or imagined — and both the toxicity and mythos that comes with such a life. I couldn’t help thinking, like The Magnificent Seven, it fashions itself into something greater — a broader exploration of morality. Masculinity in the West takes on many facets be it survival, gunplay, or getting the girl, but it’s movies like these making it about a kind of stalwart integrity.

Like The Magnificent Seven, it starts out as a mission — representing a job with specific utility — and becomes a parable of doing right by your fellow man. Lemmon must mature and Ford must soften until they both settle on a newfound prerogative. The movie reverts back to the cycles these men know best, and yet not without changing them.

Cowboy is easily the most unheralded picture in Delmer Daves’s western trilogy with Glenn Ford, but it’s held together by some more stunning imagery and two truly complementary performances. Now as they lounge side by side in their bathwater picking off cockroaches, there’s a mutual respect between them along with a newfound parity.

3.5/5 Stars

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

The Gold of Naples (1953)

It’s easy to be skeptical of anthologies, portmanteaus, or these kinds of thematic character pieces. However, The Gold of Naples’s structure, built out of 6 interlocking vignettes, suits the talents of Vitorrio De Sica since he’s always invested in a world of characters — emphasizing people from all walks of life — rather than a few chosen stars.

The actor-director readily provides a tableau with which to celebrate the city, and there’s no doubt a few stars stand out even as the picture is surprisingly balanced, mixing tones and subject matter one moment after another.

It opens with that charmed Italian comedian Toto as the clown prince Saviero: part Peter Sellers, part Stan Laurel. He’s slowly dying on the inside thanks to the local gangster who has all but commandeered his household on a passing invitation from the jester’s wife. It’s raged out of control.

Next, we have a portrait of a street corner pizzeria. It very well could be a dramatic scandal as a married woman is found necking with a handsome suitor before rushing off to work. The spirited beauty, Donna Sofia, as only Sophia Loren could embody her, works with her portly husband to feed the entire neighborhood, mostly on credit. Then, calamity!

Donna Sofia’s ring is gone! We know where it might be, but they go ahead and make the rounds of all their clientele. One of the digressions involves a man who’s beside himself with grief; he wants to kill himself, and they join a whole host of others looking to comfort him, raising up prayers to the Virgin Mary on his behalf. Of course, they still have their primary reason for coming.

Husband and wife throw each other glances as they pat the man’s hands and try and find a way to broach the subject. How do you ask a weeping man if he found a stray ring in his pizza? Everything is supposed to build to the scandalous reveal, but we never get that. It’s a happy-go-lucky resolution amid all the hubbub.

If the first two interludes are primarily vehicles of good-natured comedy, teasing out the absurdities of the situation, the anthology is not squeamish about taking a drastic, even daring turn toward the melancholy. It’s a funeral procession and as the little wooden casket passes by we realize this is for a child. What a horrible scenario when life is snuffed out so early and a mother is forced to bury her own child.

Watching her organize the event, it’s evident she’s a very particular woman, but not in an overly demanding way. She wants the best for her son making sure everyone is in their correct place as the Father leads them toward their destination.

The solemnity of the moment is not lost on us nor the fact that the surrounding world still operates around them, whether honking horns in the distance or a feuding couple on the second floor. But for a mother, time seems to stop still. Nothing else matters.

She calls for the sugared almonds and tosses them off the wheels into the street. It causes an ungodly ruckus from all the little boys excited to get a taste, but the mother doesn’t scold them for their indecency. There’s a sense that she relishes it because, in their youthful, unbridled energy, her boy is alive for her again. But when the almonds are gone, so is the brief moment of comfort. It’s so transient and unsatiating. There’s no way to hold back the tears. Moments later we leave her and the emotions linger.

How do you follow up this level of sorrow? De Sica takes it upon himself as he shows up onscreen as Count Prospero, a man with a very peculiar problem — it’s a kind of gambling — although we realize it’s actually playing cards with a young tyke. Perhaps this is all he can scrounge up after a less than successful career playing chance. His wife isn’t happy with his spendthrift ways; he can’t stop the habit.

Regardless, since it’s often so easy to section De Sica’s career into his work behind the camera and then his work in front of it, there’s no small pleasure in seeing him taking on the rather oddball role, which he handles with aplomb. It functions thanks to his stately features being crossed with his character’s comic inclinations. I’ve never heard of the card game Scopa before. However, the hapless count is taken to the proverbial cleaners, that much is obvious.

He moans at the kid, “Your luck is disgusting!” Things just keep on getting worse. He’s unraveling and going completely berserk as the little boy across from him with his quizzical gaze keeps on winning hand after hand. He’ll do anything to get outside and play again.

The old man is left screaming to the rooftops as he rides up in the lift in what feels like the perfect curtain on his tale. Toto and Loren are undisputed stars, but De Sica reserves a place in our memories with a larger-than-life turn.

In the next segment, it’s all about the young woman Teresa (Silvana Mangano) who is meant to have a rendezvous with a prospective husband. We get the sense that this is one of those courting rituals out of a more traditional world. If you come from upstanding families and you’re not moral profligates, you get together in wedlock. Getting to know one another comes with time.  Love is a happy bonus.

Though Don Nicola has breeding and looks, Teresa is placed in the oddest and most uncomfortable of circumstances. Here we have a man marrying as an act of atonement for scorning another girl. You could build a whole narrative out of it — this poor young woman caught up in a loveless marriage. But we are given a slight reprieve as an audience, leaving Teresa where she is.

The final capstone is a welcomed piece of levity. The local medicine man provides all sorts of solutions to the local population. They’re particularly miffed with a local snob driving his fancy wheels through the narrow neighborhood streets. The fitting remedy a la the battle of Jericho involves blowing raspberries at an overbearing duke.

It’s incredulous how the tone of The Gold of Naples can change so rapidly — sometimes within an individual vignette — and yet De Sica manages to bridle it in and somehow make it palatable. Even a later project like Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, while utilizing the eminent talents of Loren and Marcello, was all comedy. There’s something almost more impressive watching the scenarios run the emotional gamut, albeit over 6 storylines instead of 3. It’s a pleasant surprise.

4/5 Stars

Umberto D. (1952)

I recall in middle school I was giving a current event on the horrible conditions in a hospital for war veterans. The handyman who just happened to be in our classroom overheard my report and was moved to speak. He shared his displeasure not at me but at a system that would so completely fail these people who had sacrificed so much.

As a film, Umberto D. ably tackles many of these same ideas while also suggesting to me how seamlessly Vittorio De Sica can move in documenting varying subsets of humanity. He’s often remembered for his child actors and the numerous untrained performers he put before his camera.

It’s a reminder of how, rather like Robert Bresson, he knew the types he wanted on the screen, “normal” people with features that have now become iconic all these years later. I think of Martin LaSalle in Pickpocket, Anne Wiazemsky, or even Balthazar the donkey.

But whereas Bresson always seemed to be engaged in his actors most specifically for their movements and how he could dispel them down to their most basic entities within the context of his films’ action, De Sica was always a director totally enamored with the contours of his characters as living, breathing human beings who have to go out and make a living like any of us.

In Umberto D. it’s the eponymous character (Carlo Battisti) and his dog. Part of the magic is how De SIca found people who could inform his faux reality and make it sing with what feels like a deeply honest truth. Carlo Battisti is no longer a college lecturer nor is he an actor. In the confines of this film, he is Umberto Domenico Ferrari.

Although it’s a film dedicated to De Sica’s father, it’s never heavy-handed in its implementation or maudlin in a way to manipulate emotions out of us. The story opens simply with retirement-age marchers protesting in a plaza. They take issue with how low their pensions are especially after having devoted their entire lives to work. Instead of being heard, they are hustled out by local cops in jeeps. They are seen at best as doddering old fools and at worst as a public nuisance.

He must settle instead with taking his dog Flike home to his small domicile. There’s a lovely ordinariness in the full spectrum of his apartment as the camera pans around the room. Umberto settles down to his chair still grumbling about paying rent for such a dump as the young maid gets ready to cut up a chicken.

The peppy 15-year-old Maria-Pia Casilio feels perfectly suited for her part like Battisti, and they make a venerable pair. It feels reminiscent of the two co-workers in Ikiru. The disparity in age somehow highlights how they are able to spur one another on, joining their bright-eyed naivete and jaded experience to encourage one another in unknowable ways. 

It’s soon apparent his money problems follow him everywhere. His stingy landlady (Lina Gennari) is prepared to evict him by the end of the month if he doesn’t come up with his back rent; she’s making it as difficult for him as possible. It’s very plain she doesn’t what to bargain with him and yet she’s more than willing to make allowances for trysts as long as their money is good.

Umberto is incensed, but he has to manage the best he can, hocking all his belongings while he battles through a fever. If the movie made up of a recurring motif it might be how the old man is systematically belittled and disregarded. The building is getting refurbished with new paint and wallpaper, but the painters have no regard for his space. They have work to do.

A doctor coolly dismisses his tonsilitis because of his age. He’s already lived a decently long life so why bother? Street vendors won’t haggle with him and force him to buy useless stuff that he doesn’t want just to pay a taxi fare. Old work colleagues look at him as a lucky man, free of hassles and living the good life; they fail to notice the signs of his discontent. And finally, there are a husband and wife who mind a household of mutts and strays.

Umberto has ideas of leaving him with a husband and wife who live with a pack of mutts. Again, it’s not stated, but he doesn’t have to. We know this is his final act of love as he dishes out all the money he has left and feigns a trip. It’s all for show, but it would be worth it if Flike was guaranteed a good home.

It’s better than the pound, death in no uncertain terms, but he slowly realizes he cannot bear to do it. It’s not good enough and so he takes his dog away. A little girl’s parents scorn the idea of taking in the cur.

How he knows them and where she came from was only a passing query. Yet again he’s been brutalized. It feels like people are very pointedly rejecting him and he’s helpless. What is he to do?

There are several times throughout the movie it becomes obvious. There’s a glance out a window down to the dizzying cobblestone below. Later Umberto has Flike in a near-chokehold as he disregards the warning bells and totters toward the train tracks. Nothing happens but both instances, first by the direction of our gaze and then by Umberto’s actions, you know he’s thought about doing — ending it all. It would be so easy. But then he thinks of Flike, his best friend, and the one that means more to him than anything.

It never hinges on one singular apex of drama though it does feel like the movie is going increasingly toward the nadir. If I recall The Bicycle Thief — a film with the most crushing of exit points — it’s not simply about poverty at all; it’s about what that does to an individual’s sense of self-worth and dignity. Because De Sica makes us see these people as worthwhile, if only for the mere reason that he takes his time to put them in front of his camera.

However, Umberto D. differs from many of its predecessors because there is no obvious inflection point. We get this full-bodied totally present sense of who he is without a preconceived notion of drama. The picture never goes there, instead, leaning into the sobering sense of desolation and angst.

The fact that De Sica claimed this to be the personal favorite of his film and that it was dedicated to his father seem to be interrelated. I know nothing about the man and if we’ve seen Umberto D. we don’t need to. Not that they’re one and the same; it’s his plight saying so much about how we should treat not only our parents but our elders in general.

I’ve never forgotten that man who came into our classroom because he was right. What a sorry world we live in when the men and women who have served faithfully and put their faith in a system are so rudely cast aside. If I’m to understand this film, it’s not simply a social or political issue, though these play a part; this is about searching out and affirming the worth of other people.

4.5/5 Stars

Miracle in Milan (1951)

The title and the opening preface hint that this is a kind of fairy tale. True to form, Miracle in Milan opens with a baby being found not in the reeds like Moses but lying in a cabbage patch. He’s taken by a ditzy old lady — with a smile almost permanently placed on her face — and together, as he grows up, they share a childlike zest for life. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that she ultimately dies. He must forge on ahead with his mother’s blessing.

The boy Toto (Francesco Golisano) grows up before us in a matter of scenes, and yet his essence is still very much the same. His most salient features might be the far-off expression he wears. I can’t explain it though it seems like he’s seeing beyond the present moment into some other realm. He’s cut from the same cloth as Elwood P. Dowd and other angelic creatures who seem to walk among us.

The curious nature of the film is how it takes the visual landscape we come to equate with De Sica’s Italian Neorealism and subsequently blends it into a fantasy story which becomes a kind of fable. The dramatics are not in the same realm as Shoeshine or The Bicycle Thief, but it becomes another exploration of the plight and also the irrepressible spirit of the common people.

With this absence of natural conflict or drama, at least initially, it becomes more of a roaming, rambling character piece. This in itself is enjoyable if lightweight compared to some of De Sica’s most lasting tales of humanity. What it does allow is license to cover terrain he would not be able to reach in his other films.

The score is charged with this continual sense of peppy motion toward a certain destination though it does revise itself under many different situations. Meanwhile, the weather above feels positively empathetic with a layer of fog shrouding the city. This becomes quite literal when sunbeams break out through the dogged marine layer and leads to a frenzy of men chasing after the coveted light.

They make quite the sight: a singing, pushing, prancing, bobbing mass of humanity, all clumped together bathing in the rays. It’s a comical moment that has no equal, and yet De Sica makes his intentions quite clear even if this is just his entry point.

“It is true that my people have already attained happiness after their own fashion; precisely because they are destitute, these people still feel — as the majority of ordinary men perhaps no longer do — the living warmth of a ray of winter sunshine, the simple poetry of the wind. They greet water with the same pure joy as Saint Francis did.”

When this minor miracle dissipates and they are forced to go back to their days one voice in the crowd mutters, “Jesus wept.” There’s a bit of comedy in the scenario — visually if nothing else — but there’s also truth in these words. Because this is always cited as a definitive example of how Jesus Christ was a man of empathy; he had genuine feelings and was moved to tears for the downtrodden.

De Sica is fascinated by these types both in their innate comedy and common accessibility to us as an audience. Because we watch them as Toto with his generous spirit and warm-hearted nature helps in building a utopic colony of shanty houses. All are welcome and provided accommodations of their choosing.

This is the version of The Grapes of Wrath that Steinbeck was incapable of writing. Where the world comes together and develops into a kind of benevolent order instead of continued dissolution and stratification between classes and creeds. And when trouble does come in any form, it’s met with a resounding answer — some kind of miracle — returning things to their natural, rightful order.

In one moment their encampment becomes an oil geyser. Later with their colony in danger of being overrun by authorities armed with smoke bombs, they respond by blowing the smoke from whence it came. Fire hoses are met with an army of umbrellas, and the military forces are met with humiliations of operatic proportions.

Toto, as a character, feels like the group’s talisman, and it becomes even more pronounced when his long-departed mother swoops down and grants him a magical dove from above. It’s a prodigal, practically indecent gift. Suddenly even his charmed ability to grant happiness — the finest hobby he could ever have — goes haywire in the midst of human greed. A clamor takes over the camp, and it’s hilarious at first although it soon grows tiresome.

People get their fur coats, top hats, chandeliers, and anything else their greedy hearts can dream up. Toto conjures up the frenzy of Christ-like miracles though he soon becomes much more like a genie. Even statues (Alba Arnova) come alive to dance off into the night! The young maid Edvige (Brunella Bovo) feels like the one character not looking to gain something from him; she likes him for who he is, a decent young man overflowing with an almost blind faith and geniality.

I lied a bit about the dearth of conflict because the wheels of progress and wealthy men finally do overtake them effectively pushing them off the land. They find themselves unceremoniously carted off in police wagons — Toto and everyone else. However, De Sica has already conditioned us, even dared us, to maintain our belief in the unimaginable. There are still a few spritzers of magic left for the finale.

It’s somehow fitting that Milan Cathedral becomes the final backdrop for one last miracle. Although the ensuing animation and special effects are hardly spiritual in nature, it feels like a resolution befitting such a fairy tale with a bit of pixie dust Walt Disney would have no doubt appreciated.

4/5 Stars

The Mouse That Roared (1959)

There’s something illuminating about getting a movie from our neighbors across the pond that offers a winking look at American society. The movie takes its title quite literally, scaring off the Columbia lady with a critter who subsequently carries away the animated title sequence. Because the U.S. might be the prototypical lion, but Grand Fenwick is the mouse that roared.

The minuscule duchy of Fenwick — a measly nation if there ever was one — remains stagnated in the medieval ages, economically and otherwise. Their major exports are wine, particularly popular on the West coast, though competition in the form of copycat businesses proves steep competition.

Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the Fenwick leaders resolve to declare war on America. It’s really all part of their contingency plan expecting that their quick and inevitable defeat will lead to American rehabilitation and, thus, newfound prosperity for their little principality. They no doubt are well aware of the Marshall Plan and the U.S.’s undying interest in any floundering nation, they can look to capitalize on. Better us swoop in than have the Soviets socialize them, right?

Regardless, all this poppycock and tomfoolery is made even more palatable thanks to the talents of Peter Sellers. He hasn’t reached Clousseau status nor the apex of his stardom in the 1960s, but he would be an international icon soon enough. For now, we get to sit back and witness him in dialogue with himself. First as the Machiavellian prime minister Mountjoy, then the Queen Victoria knockoff, Duchess Gloriana, and finally, the ultimate Sellers hero, Tully Bascomb.

Because it is this meek and unassuming game warden, who is called upon to lead the charge across the sea onto enemy territory. Armed with their bows & arrows, chainmail, and Fenwickian pluck, their force, 20 men strong, sets off. I mention Bascomb as the prototypical Sellers hero because he’s such a small character, and yet since he is lacking in much, it works impeccably well with the utter outrageousness of the comedy blowing up around him.

Before Monty Python and even before Dr. Strangelove, there was The Mouse That Roared, and not simply due to the trio of roles carried by Sellers. Like its future scion, it takes no umbrage about trampling over Medieval iconography in all its antiquity and finding wells of humor therein. It’s also an atomic bomb-conscious comedy. Surely, you could say almost all comedies of the 50s and 60s were informed by this reality — this pervasive fear — but Mouse takes these themes to heart.

For what generally feels like a humble picture, the moving parts are rather extraordinary. Beyond Sellers, we have director Jack Arnold remembered mostly for his Sci-Fi and monster movies of the 1950s. The marriage sounds less outrageous than it is (or maybe it’s just outrageous enough) because this is meant to be a farce. There are no creatures from the black lagoon or incredible shrinking men, but there is some extraterrestrial hysteria.

It plays with all the alarmist tendencies of the age when the Fenwick contingent prey on a passing truck and punctures its tires, leaving the victims thinking the nation’s being invaded by men from outer space. This streak of nuclear age anxiety with a distinct message is more than enough to wedge it into the rest of Arnold’s canon.

But we have yet to mention Jean Seberg. She’s no doubt at her most childish — she’s only 20 or 21 years old, after all — playing the peeved daughter of a famed scientist. It hardly accentuates her talents nor her playful mystique like Breathless or even Monsieur Tristesse, but it is something different. Because it’s her father’s Q Bomb, which could eat an H Bomb for breakfast, that is currently being tested and is accidentally discovered by the Fenwickians.

In a serendipitous act of lunacy, they instantly become the aggressors ready to take advantage of the situation and bring America to its knees by kidnapping some of its most fundamental assets. It’s the kind of goofy, lightweight stuff taking the edge off. Although there’s an agenda, no matter what implications it might have in the nuclear age, The Mouse That Roared is the perfectly tame goofball comedy we expect to see when we visit sitcoms of the 50s and 60s.

The fish out of water commentary about America dries up when the prisoners are carted back across the pond. Tully and his men make a triumphant return only to be met with some chagrin from the hoodwinked cabinet. They’ve mucked things up. Not only have they not surrendered, they’ve gone and taken hostages and ran off with the most dangerous superweapon in the world!

By this stage, the heart of the comedy has mostly dried up too, though there are a few passing gags relating to the hot potato bomb that wheezes and sizzles to the touch just waiting to annihilate mankind. Likewise, Tully finds himself smitten with feisty young Helen in a love affair that could be telegraphed from miles away. Ultimately, it plays the best when its intentions are made clear with the goofball inanity of it all before didacticism and treacly romance are allowed to give their final stamp of approval on the story. For what it’s worth, I’m one Yank who enjoys being invaded in such a manner as this.

3.5/5 Stars

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Otto Preminger famously combed through headshots and plucked Jean Seberg out of her Iowa hometown to be groomed as his latest star. St. Joan was far from a stunning ascension for the young starlet, but her follow-up with Preminger, Bonjour Tristesse, showcases her incandescence.

Adapted from Francoise Sagan’s novel about youth set on the French Riviera, I cannot think of a better environ to augment Seberg’s talents. Her Cecile is a carefree spirit and rather noncommital when it comes to anything like marriage, but Seberg imbues her with a poise well beyond her years.

The fact that the picture is positively cascading with ritzy, sun-soaked opulence more than suits a jaunty David Niven and the pixie-haired Seberg — they’re a father and daughter duo — who know no other existence than utter extravagance. Preminger more than matches his stars with gorgeous tones drifting from black and white to vibrant color.

They feel all but compelled to recline on the veranda to soak up the sunbeams with a cool beverage or take a refreshing dip in the water. Who can blame them?  The audience is allowed to live vicariously through all their pleasures, and it makes the interim portions of Bonjour Tristesse both light and luscious in content.

If you haven’t gotten the idea already, Preminger’s picture conjures up ample comparisons to Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief or Demy’s Bay of Angels sharing much of the same world. What happens exactly? That is and it isn’t easy to say because it’s the mood and the time spent with the characters in their environs that’s both scintillating and charming. Some characters almost evaporate between the beaches, casinos, and champagne bubbles. The most important ones give the film buoyancy and a dash of substance sprinkled in.

However, to hone on any sort of plot, it begins rather simply as a comedy of the situation with father and daughter pulling off shenanigans together. They have such a cultured camaraderie, that it’s second nature to refer to each other by their first names. Romantic dalliances are also expected, between Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) the pretty young thing Raymond traipses around with and Cecile’s latest fling, a strapping young man named Phillippe (Geoffrey Horne). He’s one out of a laundry list of past suitors. They’re contented enough with their free-flowing lifestyle.

Then, follows the auspicious day when Anne (Deborah Kerr) arrives. She’s been invited for the summer holiday as a friend of Raymond’s late wife. She’s not of their ilk with a sense of propriety that they’ve never taken much time to worry about or even consider. One can only imagine what she will think of the laissez-faire romantic lifestyles of Cecile and Raymond. The tensions in the fresh sea air from the outset.

However, we must take pause because there is also a sense of deja vu in the atmosphere. Surely Niven and Kerr have played these characters before in other movies — their dashing playboy and refined prude — this time falling in love with each other. Even Seberg with her iconic pixie cut looks utterly familiar if only due to the ubiquitous iconography of Breathless a few years later.

Whether totally conscious or not, it does feel like Bonjour Tristesse is totally in dialogue with the onscreen personas of its three stars. This feels very much like a component of Old Hollywood where stars were built around their types and somehow instead of disappearing into roles, they brought their own individual sense of authenticity and emotional truth to whatever part they played. For the best ones, it’s like each subsequent role was built on the foundation of their previous work.

Jean-Luc Godard even acknowledged, “The character played by Jean Seberg [in Breathless] was a continuation of her role in Bonjour Tristesse, I could have taken the last shot of Preminger’s film and started after dissolving to a title: “Three years later.”

In the latter half of the film, it’s the character’s youth that becomes strikingly apparent as she grows jealous of their new houseguest who has tamed her father and taken away some of her long-held freedoms in an attempt to make her a more traditional young lady.

And yet the happy-go-lucky gaiety remains up until the very brink of devastation. Otherwise, we watch with rapt interest as she goes darting after her lady oppressor like the epitome of her gamine self ready to watch her fall into the emotional trap orchestrated by her girlish ploys. Suddenly all the merriment isn’t so merry after all and it’s terrifying in its incisive cruelty. We are reminded of the selfish vindictiveness of youth. C’est la vie.

For garnering such a tepid response in its heyday, Bonjour Tristesse represents much of the allure of Old Hollywood though it rarely gets the plaudits of some of its brethren. Somehow, between Preminger and Seberg, Niven and Kerr, and sweeping Cinemascope, it’s easy for the picture to get lost in the shuffle because the four of them have innumerable other productions of note.

This one deserves at least a second chance for its mise en scene alone. Preminger actually does something with it to the point that the final moments of the movie mean something. It’s not the same film we thought we were signing up for.

It’s gorgeous, vain, at times, even superficial, but we would be remiss not to pick up on the inherent melancholy played in sharp contrast to the vibrant palette. Suddenly, it makes complete sense why their present is in black and white and only the past can remain in color.

4/5 Stars