Cat Ballou (1965)

When the Columbia statue whips off her toga and comes out with western wear and six shooters, the movie’s intentions are made quite clear. And if that’s not enough Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye appear on the scene, decked out, strumming their banjos. They become the accompanying bards relating the ballad of Cat Ballou.

To my mind, it’s one of the only moments in Nat King Cole’s movie career where his talents seem used in a more robust way, and it seems like he’s genuinely having a ball sending up the story. He and Stubby have an open line of communication going with the audience becoming one of the film’s primary conduits for comedy.

And of course, the world itself is ripe with screwy antics easily sharing a world with the likes of Support Your Local Sheriff if not Blazing Saddles. It feels like the West is a place filled with all sorts of oddball characters and idiosyncracies worthy of laughs and a myriad of double-takes.

Jane Fonda was still ascending on her way to becoming one of the ’60s and 1970s most visible performers, and she teems with an undeniable pluckiness in the title role. In its own likable and goofy way, it becomes a picture of empowerment for female heroines.

If hardly a feminist screed, it nevertheless has the kind of charm you might find in an episode of That Girl. It’s Hollywood not quite coming to terms with the full brunt of counter-culture (Ann-Margret was even earmarked for the role).

But if Fonda proves her mettle as a “wanted” outlaw destined to be hung and the leader of a “nefarious” gang of desperados, it’s Lee Marvin who becomes the film’s undisputed attraction. Kid Shelleen is an inspired western hybrid: the restless gunslinger crossed with the town drunk.

He’s got hair like Harpo Marx coiffed under his beat-up hat, hands twitching, married to a bottle, with his disheveled buckskins hanging down to put his long john undergarments on full display. It’s this whole package making Lee Marvin’s performance such a crowd pleaser, but this is only true because it flies in the face of so much of what he made a name for himself doing. He was tough guys, psychos, and henchmen. Here he’s more than game to lie prostrate in the street, falling over his horse, in fits of comedic inebriation.

However, it’s the scene before his auspicious introduction that really brings the picture together. The square dancing sequences become a wonderfully visual merging of characters and arcs all in one place as Cat formulates a plan to help her daddy out: enlisting the help of a gunslinger, or at least a man with a gun. It devolves into glorious chaos as all the men who have been thrown into her life (Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman, and Tom Nardini) vow to protect the elder Ballou (John Marley) to the best of their abilities.

Cat Ballou is mostly corny, and it works best leaning whole hog into this sentiment. When it tries to be something with the semblance of drama, it doesn’t quite work as if it’s grasping for something outside its comfort zone. Cat loses her father, faces a town complicit in the killing perpetrated by a rival gunman — a silver-nosed murderer (also played by Marvin). Even a storied hero like Butch Cassidy (Arthur Hunnicut) has stuck himself behind a mercantile counter.

Jane Fonda exerts herself pouting and throwing a rock tantrum to get her three male companions to see it her way. The Hole-in-the-Wall gang is revived to acquire their much-needed funds, and they do quite a job of it without a Superposse to chase after them.

These exploits are how Cat Ballou earns notoriety across the Old West although she finds herself before a scaffold for quite a different reason. The gallows humor of the noose going around her gorgeous neck feels like another unbecoming scenario until we slip back into a much-preferred gear of silliness.

Cat Ballou is at its finest as a goofball western, a bit dorky around the edges but no less lovable. It does mystify me how it became such an award-season darling, though it’s not without a few unremitting charms. Its impact on the western mythos feels minor at best if only for Fonda’s spirited heroine in a genre otherwise replete with male heroes.

3.5/5 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

Germany Year Zero (1948)

Roberto Rossellini famously dedicated Germany Year Zero to the memory of his son Romano. After such personal forays into Italy’s own tumultuous relationship with the war years in Rome Open City and then the interwoven portraiture of Paisan, the final picture in the trilogy feels a bit like an outlier.

And yet in connecting his own recent tragedy with the hopelessness of the German experience, it does feel like he’s alighted on something that feels personal and honest. At the very least providing emotional truth if not always point-for-point docudrama.

The premise is very simple even childishly so staying with the neorealist attitude. Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) is a little boy scrounging around for work, sustenance, and anything else that might be of use to his family in the rubble of the bombed-out nation. It begins feeling out the world, not settling in on one story as much as the mood and milieu of the times. Because it is a very particular moment.

There’s a sense that the film is on the ground floor of something. Since The Thousand Year Reich terminated prematurely, it becomes an unprecedented moment in history — a time to rebuild and put their world back together again — although the day-to-day struggle remains real. You get bits and pieces in The Third Man or The Search and A Foreign Affair, but Germany Year Zero feels like a different perspective on the same events. 

It’s an important film for the sake of challenging our perceptions. Not exactly in the same way as Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer, and yet it’s about empathy and upending our assumptions. We see the common markers of humanity laid before us.

Edmund returns home to his family in an apartment complex running perilously over on their bills. His older brother Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger) is fraught with turmoil over turning himself into the authorities due to his military past. His invalid father (Ernst Pittschau) is a principled man, but in such dire times, his weakness feels like a familial curse. Eva (Ingetraud Hinze) becomes the maternal figure in the house, and after caring for her father, she spends the nights accompanying foreigners for the evening…

With the spiking black market prices, the Kohler’s are just trying to eke by a living. This is not the way people were meant to live, and it’s a misnomer that the war has a finite end. The repercussions of WWII on Germany continue long after the surrender sounded.

The viewpoint of a boy is, in one sense, youthful and resilient but also impressionable and malleable, shaped by all the people and things he comes in contact with. These are the most formative days of his life thus far.

Edmund takes up the company of other street vultures as they scavenge for survival, some stolen potatoes here, some fake soap there for duping unsuspecting victims. Kohler is callow, but he soon learns this pack mentality through how his friends model certain behaviors.

His former teacher has a charming manner and a dubious reputation, while he uses his former pupils to peddle goods on the black market, espousing a philosophy of survival of the fittest. He’s either a closeted supporter of the Führer and if not him, then Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s this kind of pernicious ideology leading to ungodly Holocaust.

Edmund returns home to the scolding of his sister and with his father’s health being far worse. He’s vitamin deficient and needs a hospital though they’re overflowing as is. The elder Mr. Kohler bemoans the fact that like many in his generation, he wasn’t bolder — seeing the calamity of Hitler, and doing something to stem the tide (“We saw the disaster coming and did nothing to prevent it”).

Germany Year Zero also exhibits a cynical side and not just in the satirical way of Billy Wilder. This feels like real tragedy before us without the happy ignorance of glutted Allies come to vindicate the Germans from their sinful past. There’s no comparison between their lives. It seems indecent to even try and equate the two.

Some might note that the film is not true neorealism, with interiors shot outside of Germany, nor can you very easily call it purely “Italian” neorealism for obvious geographical reasons. Somehow this rarely pulls us out of the experience.

There’s this underlying sense that very little performance is going on in Germany Year Zero. Because these are not actors. They are merely people, and there is a confident sense that almost every strewn rock or portrait of degradation is not set dressing, but something with a natural story all its own we may never know.

We get one final glimpse of the rubble-filled streets, a train cutting through the foreground as a woman’s form kneels in front of the desolate backdrop of total annihilation. It feels like a canvas — the woman an image of the Pieta — with Rossellini crying out into the bleakness of the world. Suddenly, we realize why this movie was dedicated to his son.

It’s no wonder Germany Year Zero was hardly a popular attraction in its day; it’s not a crowd-pleaser. But with the gracious gift of time, we can look at it as a crucial counterpoint. For those back home in the U.S., these were the best years, full of prosperity and endless possibility. At ground zero, it felt very much like the pit of despair, and there were no easy fixes. They have to rebuild from the bottom up. One must beg the question, does mass catastrophe occur at the end or at the beginning of an era? Perhaps it’s both.

4/5 Stars

Paisan (1946)

“Paisan” feels like a ubiquitous term. At the very least, it seems to have entered into a shared vernacular most Americans understand. And of course, this is part of the reason Roberto Rosselini’s follow-up to Rome Open City employs the word.

His newfound audience would be able to appreciate its very simple meaning with some amount of recognition. But it hardly seems like a ploy because it illustrates the core themes of the picture. And this is not done through an epic narrative stretched out over a couple hours time. It is built out of these mini-scenarios coming to represent a breadth of WWII experience between Italians and Americans.

We open in 1943 in Sicily with a group of American soldiers making their way through the villages for recon. As has a habit of happening in these cross-cultural pictures, the English language sounds like tin to the ear, but when they meet our first Italian characters and the dialogue is interspersed, we immediately get something richer and more intriguing because we have both languages dancing off one another and fighting for some primacy over the scenes.

Much of the movie is negotiated in these spaces in-between what is understood and what must be inferred and left only to the imagination. The benefit of subtitles gives us a privileged position, but not all of these characters have the same luxury.

Even when one soldier is called upon to keep watch over their guide in the caves — a young Italian girl looking for her family — we settle on something so basic. It’s their lack of communication and it can invoke fear and conflict, but it can also remind us of our most basic commonalities.

Conversation about cows and milk progress as the soldier reminisces about his family back home in photos. This pleasant interchange is really only a momentary flame, quickly snuffed out. Because we are reminded there is a war at hand and conflict comes from the outside and kills their moment together.

Before we are left to dwell too much on the present, we march ever onward toward Naples. Here is a tale we might see from De Sica and later in Germany Year Zero. It’s a story of youthful vagrants — one named Pasquale — who lives on the streets buzzing around G.I.s like a misquito looking to suck them dry out of pure necessity. It’s an extraordinary scene to watch the young boy latch onto a drunken black MP (Dots Johnson).

Their saga drags them all across town and, again, they hold two-sided conversations that are totally at odds with one another. As they sit on a pile of rumble together, it strikes me how this little boy sees the man for what he has. Yes, he’s black, but he’s American, and what a privilege that is. He runs off with his boots with a kind of fatalistic inevitability and that could be the end of it.

Instead, they meet again in another chance encounter. The soldier seeks restitution and yet Joe’s attempt to get back his stolen property feels almost inconsequential when he recognizes the desolation around him. This disparity is especially complicated when you put it next to the hypocrisy of racial discrimination back home.

He represents wealth and prosperity and still must feel some relegation to second-class citizenship in his own right. In 1946 Harry Truman had yet to integrate the military and, at best, even this felt like a symbolic victory at best.

The way Paisan links together these individual studies in character and relationship means the movie offers up this extraordinary breadth while still maintaining a hypersensitive level of intimacy. Because it takes a single interaction between disparate people and allows them to play out in such a way they come to represent something so much broader.

Later, it’s June, 1944. There’s a voice in the darkness shouting about American cigarettes ready to smoke. Glen Miller’s “In The Mood” is instant shorthand, and it coincides with a dance hall packed with folks. This is a new Rome from the one in Rosselini’s original film, until the military police soon shake up the joint and send the locals into a tizzy.

A fugitive in furs (Maria Michi) evades the authorities and picks up a soldier boy (Gar Moore) on the street over cigarettes. Remember, this is the era of Now Voyager and Bogey and Bacall. They are the cultural tastemakers. It’s a portrait of how even a short span of time — 6 months — can change people drastically, where the hopeful optimism and jubilation of the liberation can quickly be displaced with rowdy opportunism and disillusionment. And with it, a final reunion is precluded in a turn of events that might as well be anticipating the wistful fates of Jacques Demy over 15 years later.

The movie continues in Florence along the Arno River. Here a young Allied nurse (Harriet Medin), who knows the area intimately from time abroad, sets off on a singular mission to find an artisan friend, who is currently in the midst of the local skirmishes. The streets are full of firefights playing out in unsentimental terms.

In one way it feels ludicrous watching this woman and a fellow searcher streaking through the treacherous zones of no-man’s-land, and yet we cannot turn away. In a Hitchcock movie, we might term the arbitrary goal they are pursuing the Macguffin. It makes no difference.

I’ve come to realize that Italian Neorealism has come to signify a kind of emotional truth paired with authentic visuals. It’s not documentary, but it takes the layers and contours of the real world to tell what feels like mini tragedies wrapped up in these individual segments.

Paisan keeps on offering up these nuggets that intrigue me. I think of the next story, which feels like a more peaceful, mundane tale about three American chaplains who rest at the local monastery. There’s so much benevolence even as we are reminded the vocation they follow is unified the world over.

One of the visitors tells his peer, “I think one can really be at peace with the Lord without removing themselves from the world. After all, it was created for us. The world is our parish.” These words feel like they come straight from Martin Luther, a man who looked to democratize the Christian faith and break any vocational dichotomies.

Sure enough, he’s a Protestant and another man is a Jew. This revelation causes a wave of worry to come over the local Holy Men. Surely these guests are lost. They have not found the path because their beliefs are marred by inaccuracies and flaws (possibly even heresy). Rather than digging into this spiritual discourse, it settles for a kind of moral stability, not quite an inclusive gospel but certainly a call for tolerance and appreciation across the religious ranks.

In the final chapter, Italian Partisans and American OSS fight a desperate guerilla war against the impending Germans. It’s not a chapter of history we consider in detail, but we are placed in the moment so we forcibly comprehend the exhausting futility of their tactical battles. They live day to day constantly striving to stay out of reach of a tireless enemy. The only thing keeping them alive is their fierce camaraderie. They fight for something larger than themselves.

The ending of Paisan is matter-of-fact even as the imagery is bleak, and it feels like a callback to the opening story. We are reminded of the utter inhumanity of war, but Paisan was obviously meant to be used as a tool of mutual healing between the U.S. and Italy. Because it’s the humanity bleeding out of the movie coming to the fore, more than any amount of tragedy.

4.5/5 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

Shoeshine (1946)

Shoeshine was penned by a whole host of people: Sergio Amidei, Adolfo Franci, Cesare Giulio Viola, and Cesare Zavattini. However, it’s quite easy to focus on Zavattini due to his longtime partnership with De Sica dating back to The Children Are Watching from a few years prior. Their lucrative collaboration would produce a string of well-remembered works, not least among them The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D, and even Sunflower in the 1970s.

Together they created stories out of deceptively simple scenarios that always find a way to be imbued with raw emotional truth. We are quickly reminded of how many of De Sica’s greatest films were pictures of youth. In this one, two shoeshine boys are infatuated with a beautiful horse they wish to buy for their own.

When they return to the city we get an immediate roving sense of the post-war world on the streets, not unlike The Bicycle Thief. Giuseppe and Pasquale feel fully integrated and familiar with their world, chatting up their acquaintances as they work away shining shoes.

We soon come to realize how they are a part of the postwar economy (“Shoeshine Joe!”) and they even manage to unwittingly get themselves into the thriving black marketeering racket. It’s usually people like them who end up paying their dues on the inside in place of others. They aren’t exactly innocent bystanders, but their crime certainly doesn’t fit the punishment.

They end up in a boy’s prison, clamming up to protect a no-good older brother who we never see again. He’s not of primary importance. Instead, we witness how two friends who weather thick and thin together are forced to separate — resigned to separate holding cells.

However, there has to be a moment of reversal where the narrative locks in on a dramatic question ripping the story to its core. This is the mother fleeing for her lover in The Children are Watching Us or the man choosing to steal in The Bicycle Thief. Sure enough, Shoeshine introduces such a moment of its own. Because the one element not in doubt throughout the movie is the camaraderie between these two boys. Until it is…

Giuseppe receives a tearful visit and learns his older brother was taken in; immediately, he knows Pasquale squealed, and regardless, of the circumstances, he feels totally betrayed. He doesn’t realize his buddy has been played for a fool as the policeman tricked him into a speedy confession. But the means make no difference. Now there is an irrevocable wedge between the friends because a sacred vow of silence has been broken. The very bedrock of the friendship has been spurned.

Whether merited or not, one betrayal reaps another in the form of a planted file and the rival factions form around their cellmates only serving to escalate the animosity. There is no other way to settle matters than a bloody fistfight in the shower rooms. But this can never solve the hurt; it only pushes them farther apart.

Still, despite the wave of spite between them,  the veil of naivete and a vow to truthfulness is not totally lost on these boys. In the proceeding court case where they are both brought before a judge, the defense attorney looks for a scapegoat — the boy without a family — but his young defendant cannot understand how personal utility (for himself and his brother) trumps telling the truth. It’s a foreign concept to him. Kids are not made for the mercenary games of bargaining in the courtroom. Their moral codes are of a different kind.

Later, during an in-house movie screening, there’s the inevitable escape attempt because it’s not natural for anyone (boys included) to be caged and so a few of them make a unified break for it. It feels reminiscent of some of the old Cagney movies or other prison noir, but of course, it was a contemporary if not a predecessor to some of the greats like Brute Force and White Heat.

However, if you look at the picture in terms of genre conventions, what sets it apart is the youthful perspective because we see something so precious — that of friendship — get crushed as hearts grow cold with bitterness. Again, we find our two boys in compromising positions, their rocky friendship put under one last round of duress.

The ending is nothing short of devastation where all the dreams and innocence of youth are summarily crushed in one tragic act of inhumanity that can never be undone. One can barely imagine the film after “Fin” comes up on the screen because it feels like De Sica’s story is so thoroughly engaged with the present moment and when it dissipates there’s nothing left. All we have to go on are our feelings of anguish for these boys and the broken system that has no capacity to get better any time soon.

I think this part of what Orson Welles meant when he says of Shoeshine, “the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared; it was just life.” In a deeply profound way, you very rarely consider the tenets of filmmaking at work while watching the film. Perhaps like Chaplin or some of the classical masters, De Sica speaks to us through resounding images we can understand intuitively, suffusing them with the most honest of emotions, and allowing the scenes to wash over us.

Suddenly, time has passed and the full breadth of an emotional arc is realized. You get totally lost in the moment — overtaken by the pure, overwhelming force of cinema. I’m no expert when it comes to describing the main facets of neorealism as embodied by the works of De Sica, Roberto Rosselini, and others. However, beyond any kind of post-war malaise and on-location shooting with untrained actors, it seems like it comes down to this intimate frequency of resonance. We realize that we too share in their story and their experiences by just being human.

4.5/5 Stars

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