Where to begin with Vittorio De Sica

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: Vittorio De Sica’s films, neorealist and beyond.

Pasquale Iannone
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Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Why this might not seem so easy

Novelist Cesare Pavese (The Moon and the Bonfires, The Devil in the Hills) once said that the greatest Italian storyteller of his time was not a writer but a filmmaker: Vittorio De Sica. To this day, the mention of De Sica transports us back to the streets of Italy after the Second World War, to characters struggling to make sense of the bleak postwar reality.

De Sica is considered to be one of the major figures in Italian neorealism, a trend of the immediate postwar era which sought to scrub off the sheen and sparkle synonymous with the Hollywood style of filmmaking, and make contact with people on the ground. For De Sica that meant the street kids of Shoeshine (1946), the father with a young family in Bicycle Thieves (1948) or the retired civil servant in Umberto D (1952).

Il boom (1963) poster

Il boom (1963) poster

While acknowledging the importance of these films – after all, the director himself would often refer to them as his finest works – there’s no doubt that De Sica’s career encompassed much more than neorealism.

He started out as an actor, establishing a strong reputation in the theatre before embarking on a screen career. His first major film, What Scoundrels Men Are (1932), saw him begin a successful collaboration with director Mario Camerini and the films they made together – mostly elegant comedy-dramas – made him into a star. As a result, when De Sica came to direct his own films, he did so with extensive experience as a performer in both theatre and cinema. He could relate to actors, he knew how to get the best of them. De Sica continued to act in other people’s films while directing his own and he would amass more than 150 appearances before his death in 1974.

Unfortunately, apart from notable exceptions such as Max Ophuls’ Madame de… (1953) and Roberto Rossellini’s Il generale Della Rovere (1959), very few of these can be found on DVD/Blu-Ray in the UK.

De Sica’s most successful post-neorealist films behind the camera included several featuring Sophia Loren. By Loren’s own admission, De Sica was instrumental in transforming her into an international star. In 1961, she beat competition from the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood to win the best actress Oscar for her role in De Sica’s Two Women (1960), the story of a mother and daughter and their harrowing experiences during WWII.

Fans of classic British TV might remember De Sica as one of the stars of globetrotting crime drama The Four Just Men (1959-60). In ‘Treviso Dam’, the series’ final episode, he shares scenes with future stars of British stage and screen Judi Dench, Alan Bates and Fenella Fielding.

The best place to start – Bicycle Thieves

As a director, the film that De Sica is best remembered for is Bicycle Thieves, the wrenching tale of a father and his young son searching the streets of Rome for their stolen bicycle. The father needs the bike so he can carry out his job as a billposter but has it stolen on his first day at work. The picture was one of several De Sica made with screenwriter and theorist Cesare Zavattini, and it’s a perfect example of their belief in the effective power of small human stories over Hollywood spectacle.

As a supplement, I’d recommend What is neorealism?, :: kogonada’s 2013 video essay for Sight & Sound, which looks at two different versions of Termini Station (aka Indiscretion of an American Wife), a 1953 picture De Sica made with US producer David O. Selznick. In comparing the original director’s cut with Selznick’s alternative version for the American market, : kogonada provides a fascinating glimpse into just how different De Sica’s methods were from those of Hollywood.

Watch Sight & Sound’s video essay What is neorealism?

What to watch next

After Bicycle Thieves, you may well want to explore the rest of De Sica’s neorealist films, most of which are available on DVD/Blu. There’s Shoeshine, Miracle in Milan (1950) and Umberto D, as well as lesser-known late neorealist drama The Roof (1956).

But if you’d like a change of pace, and a taster of the breadth of his work, try Il boom (1963), one of the director’s finest comedies. There are some links between this film and Bicycle Thieves: both are written by Zavattini, both are set in Rome and both find the central character in some way trying to stay afloat. But the later film is very different in tone. In Il boom, the protagonist has made his way up the social ladder and will do all he can to stay there. Alberto Sordi plays a building contractor whose business is on the rocks. Desperate to keep up appearances, and to maintain a certain standard of living for his wife, he finds himself tempted by an incredible offer from the wife of a super-rich industrialist.

After the Fox (1966) poster

After the Fox (1966) poster

Where not to start

In a career as long and prolific as De Sica’s, there are obviously going to be dips – something that he himself had no illusions about. That being said, it’s hard to find an unmitigated disaster in the director’s canon. Even lesser pictures have a certain charm. After the Fox, for instance, the colourful 1966 romp starring Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland and Victor Mature, is not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it still has more than its fair share of enjoyable moments.

There’s a quintessentially 60s title sequence (James Bond title designer Maurice Binder and animator Dick Horn provide the visuals, while The Hollies and Sellers perform the catchy Bacharach-David theme song), a screenplay by Neil Simon which clearly enjoys its swipes at both Hollywood and Italian cinema, and a tongue-in-cheek cameo from De Sica himself as the director of a biblical epic who’s literally swept off his feet by his production’s fake sandstorm. Sellers, of course, is in his element and De Sica would cast him in his next feature Woman Times Seven (1967), an anthology film starring Shirley MacLaine in multiple roles.

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