Cinema has an unhealthy slant towards obsession. Alone in dark rooms, it’s all too easy to start wondering what’s the point of more images and sounds? Especially in a time of such political hopelessness – shouldn’t I be doing something about that instead? Sometimes it feels like I’ve seen it all, and that like teenage infatuation, you can never recapture the thrill of discovery in quite the same way. Maybe it was never all that great in the first place, memory has a bad habit of creating impossible paragons of the past. And we can’t claim that cinema is innocent in all this, with it’s proclivity for myths and happy endings.
Then out of the blue came Miracle in Milan. It may have won the Palme d’Or in 1951 but like many Cannes winners its reputation hasn’t been treated well by intervening time. These days it’s an overshadowed work in the canon of a great director better remembered for making the archetypal ‘foreign classic’ Bicycle Thieves. So I knew little and expected less, with only a vague memory of the dirty realism and misery of De Sica’s more famous films to guide me, but this first viewing was one of the most intense film experiences I’ve had.
With a cherished film always comes the terror that the next time it won’t be as good. As long as I’ve only watched it once, it will remain untarnished. This left me with with a dilemma: I want to write about it, but that means I’m going to have to watch it again. I’m too aware of the subjectivity of experience, not only between different people but between different versions of myself, and to watch it again risks bringing the whole illusion tumbling down. For one thing, I wasn’t entirely sober the first time (a common trait of first-times) – what if my inebriated state opened me up to the film in non-reproducible ways? It’s difficult to dive straight in with something like this, so I decided to warm up first with Bicycle Thieves, well overdue a rewatch but without the same kind of emotional attachment. It also gives me time to have a few drinks.
Bicycle Thieves is a film obscured for me in the fog of youth, of stuffy classroom tedium, 16 years old having only recently decided to take cinema seriously and still getting the hang of it. I was grabbed more in those early days by the angst of the Taxi Drivers and Donnie Darkos and the sex and mystery of Noir. I still am of course, but appreciation of subtler styles took time to grow so there was much that passed me by in my first exposure to Vittorio De Sica, and more that has faded from memory. Surely this is the biggest frustration of the cinephile? I know that, psychologically, a mind that can let things go is probably a blessing, but when it comes to films I can’t help but envy those who seem to have stronger powers of retention. One advantage, I suppose, is being able to come to a film like this again ten years later as if it’s the first time.
The first thing that strikes me is how tonally different it is to how I remember, and to what we consider to be ‘realism’ today. For a start, it has a deeply romantic string score that’s an absurd contrast to the hardship faced by the characters. This isn’t a criticism, it’s a truly brilliant film that’s far more cinematic than it’s reputation suggests, it just happens to be about deeply un-Hollywood things like poverty and failure. Its ecstatic peak is when the father takes his son to a fancy restaurant, despite their hopeless financial situation, an attempt to atone for hitting him in a moment of anger and frustration. “We’ll eat and be happy, for now. There’s a cure for everything. Except death.” It’s a line that seems to sum up De Sica’s intoxicating blend of hope and hopelessness. He’s a realist, but then, it’s not over ’til it’s over. There’s always life, until there isn’t.
If I had a better memory, I wouldn’t have been so surprised by the absurd and stylistic touches in Miracle in Milan, with these elements already on display in Bicycle Thieves: the ridiculousness of the pawn-shop clerk climbing gigantic shelves of linen; infantile pushing and shoving in impossible queues for a bus; the church bribing the poor to attend (“I sat through the service, I’m entitled to the soup”). Even the adult seriousness of the Antonio’s son comes across as comically absurd, but after watching the somewhat more harrowing Shoeshine, perhaps that was simply a reality of the time. Perhaps childhood was a luxury that Italy’s poor could not afford.
Nevertheless, the stylistic and comedic touches enrich the reality rather than undermine it, playing a huge part in generating empathy towards the characters. It feels as though De Sica isolated these elements and made an entire film out of them with Miracle in Milan. Which most-of-a-bottle-of-wine later, I’m ready to face…
What strikes me immediately-all-over-again is the sheer inventiveness of it all. De Sica knocks out imaginative visual gags on par with Buster Keaton, one after another. This isn’t Neorealism as we know it. The imagery is bizarre, the plot fanciful. Neo-surrealism? It’s also extremely sweet, and the whole thing does at times risk collapsing under the sheer good-heartedness of protagonist Toto. It’s not a particularly sad film but several times I was close to tears. It’s just that it feels so heartbreakingly human.
Does it live up to my impossible memory of it? The first half is still as near perfect as I’ve ever seen, a series a brilliantly executed gags laced with poignancy and profundity. The second half may be more polarising in its outright rejection of reality, and I admit I was searching for the half-remembered intensity of the first time without ever quite reaching it, if it ever existed. The ludicrous denouement may rest upon some rather clunky visual effects, but in an age where virtually every cinema trip is a trudge into the uncanny valley I know I’d much prefer a completely hokey effect to an almost-convincing one. The double exposure techniques feel simple enough to be able to do yourself, injecting an element of the handmade, of imagination and play. That’s what I love most about the film: it’s playful. It doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s full of wonderful imagery that’s both humanist and darkly comic: Homeless people bobbing up and down together to warm up under the one ray of sunshine in a field; Gathering to watch the raffle winner eat his prize – a whole chicken; Stopping an old man from being whisked away with his helium balloons by putting things in his pockets and feeding him bread. It hardly sounds like I’m describing a work by the same filmmaker that led his child protagonists to a brutal fate in Shoeshine, but there is continuity. The common thread is empathy.
I’ve since been hunting down some of De Sica’s lesser known titles and in every case what marks it out as a De Sica film is that he has as much interest in the tertiary characters as the main, particularly – but not limited to – those who don’t have a strong voice in society. In Stazione Termini and its infamously butchered Selznick cut Indiscretion of an American Wife, we have the perfect case study of this – not only did Selznick destroy the pace and passion, he removed the empathy. He cut those lingering shots on passersby going through their own troubles long after the protagonists have left the frame. In contrast, De Sica’s original creates a film as much about other people as it’s own protagonists. It’s an unconventional approach even today – you can see why Selznick hated it – but it works so much better than his limited, selfish cut. De Sica’s Stazione Termini is both the glamorous Hollywood Romance and an astonishing arthouse film about minutely observed details of life. Even late in his career, unconvincing Loren/Mastroianni melodrama Sunflower displays this same trait, its most memorable image comes when a train arrives returning soldiers from the war. The camera lingers on the people crowding in, shuffling alongside the carriages holding up photographs of their loved ones in numb desperation. De Sica always seemed more interested in the crowds, but somehow treated each person in it as an individual.
Miracle in Milan is the ultimate expression of De Sica’s empathic worldview, with the central character of Toto acting merely as a conduit for us to see the people around him through his eyes, with compassion and patience and understanding. The act of representing characters in deep poverty is important in itself, especially to show them as people with hopes and dreams like everyone else, but De Sica is just as likely to show you their vices. There may be saccharine elements but he isn’t trying to convince you that poor people are saints and that the rich are evil. All the characters in his films are deeply flawed, even the saint-like Toto, who often just makes things worse despite his best intentions. In being temporarily able to magically grant the every desire of his friends and neighbours, vanity and greed quickly unravels the peace of the camp in an astonishing and heartbreaking scene of social satire. But you don’t feel that De Sica is judging, only that he is all too aware of the weakness and folly that comes with being human.
In the UK, De Sica feels all too relevant today. I am witness to a surge of homelessness in my sleepy city, driven by ideological politics disguised as necessary pragmatism. It is of course a privileged position to be anxious about how to react when begged for money in the street but it’s something that I still haven’t figured out and I’m uncomfortable with the person I become in those situations. Somehow I always come away feeling awful, that I have let personal discomfort or awkwardness prevent me from treating the most vulnerable people in society with the humanity they deserve. De Sica leads the way with empathy, but It’s not enough to feel empathy, I have to show it. It’s a skill that requires practice and I hope I’ll get the hang of it eventually. Movies can be a sort of practice. You run through situations in your head, how you would react, how you should react, but the reality can be trickier. Regardless, the ideas must come first, and this is what movies do best. Movies can deliver ideas covertly. There’s no point in being emphatic without the charm to sell it, without truthful observations and the technique to make the viewer feel them keenly without suspecting they’re being tricked. For myself, movies are what saved me from the small-minded culture of rural England. The ‘local shop for local people’ attitude from League of Gentlemen is unfortunately not so far off the mark, and now a single referendum has unmasked this ugly truth for the world to see.
There’s no doubt Miracle in Milan helped me as a jaded cinephile, but my hope is that it can also help me as a jaded human being. While ultimately I don’t think a single film can change much, I do think cinema can. En masse, films help shape the culture and the very minds and morals of individual viewers. Influence happens over time, the very place we don’t notice it. Today our culture is clearly experiencing an empathy deficit and we desperately need new filmmakers like De Sica, but mainly we need the audiences for them. Viewers need to cultivate their own diets of emphatic cinema. It’s a shame we forget the lessons of art so quickly and slip back into unenlightened ways but the sad truth is that we need constant reminders.
There’s something troubling about the lack of respect Miracle in Milan receives compared to the austerity of the rest of De Sica’s early work. Perhaps films just aren’t taken as seriously with a happy ending. Bicycle Thieves’ Antonio may be let off from his crime but his situation is no less hopeless when the film ends. In contrast, Toto provides escape for his fellow unfortunates, to literally fly off into the sunset towards a better life, as if it was designed to be the most ludicrous parody imaginable of a Hollywood Happy Ending. Of course, we know it’s not possible, but we go along with it. The fact that the film is deliberately split into two halves seems like a marker that De Sica uses to say ‘things get bad from here on in, let me show you something more hopeful instead’. It certainly softens the blow, but it also resonates deeper, and for longer. It’s a film that manages to be both social comment and escapism. Not only does it help its characters transcend their squalid and hopeless situations, for an hour and a half it helps the audience do so too. But not without giving them something to think about. I can’t in all honestly say that De Sica makes me feel like everything’s going to be okay, because in his films it rarely is. The exception is Miracle in Milan, where he has to resort to magic to make it so. But he does make me feel like it’s okay that things aren’t okay. There’s poetry in it either way.