Why celebrate Vittorio De Sica in 2015?

The Italian Cultural Institute’s Nicola Curzio asks BFI Southbank programmer Geoff Andrew why now is a good time to (re)discover the films of neorealist director Vittorio De Sica.

21 August 2015

By Nicola Curzio

The Gold of Naples (1954)

Why have you chosen to put on a Vittorio De Sica season and why do you think it is a good idea to show his films in 2015?

It’s been a long time since we did a De Sica retrospective. Obviously some of his films are quite familiar to the audience in this country, in particular Bicycle Thieves (1948), but also to a lesser extent Shoeshine (1946) and Umberto D (1952), maybe even Miracle in Milan (1951). However, a lot of people haven’t seen these films and certainly not on the big screen.

What really pushed me to do this retrospective (and convinced my colleagues as well) was visiting Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival, where we saw De Sica’s earlier works and some films he made after the classics, before he moved to the glossier films with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The power of those movies was a revelation. They were quite different from Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, and they were all very good!

In your short introduction to the retrospective, you write that De Sica is often underappreciated. What’s the reason for this, in your opinion?

I think it’s partly because people have seen so little of his work, but also because cinematic taste changes over time. Back in the 1950s, De Sica was held up as one of the great filmmakers of his time because of Bicycle Thieves, but his reputation gradually began to slip. I think some people, probably including myself, who came along later slightly misunderstood his work. His films were emotionally very direct and I think I mistook that for sentimentality.

It was only by revisiting his body of work that I realised he was holding himself back – the big emotional punch usually comes at the end of the films. That’s true not only of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, but also for films like The Children Are Watching Us (1944), an extraordinary film, The Gate of Heaven (1945) and even The Gold of Naples (1954), which is very funny and dark at the same time. There is a lot more to his work than people realise. Because he has gone out of fashion, we need to say “Hang on, let’s look at his films for what they are.”

How did you select the titles in the programme? What was your criterion?

First of all, we think about how much room we have in our programme and sometimes that has to do with what else we are doing. We already knew we were doing a retrospective of Orson Welles, so there was only so much space. But we also tend to think about how big a season should be for it to be successful. We could have done a much bigger retrospective, but there wouldn’t have been an audience for that. We could have done a smaller retrospective, but it wouldn’t have done justice to De Sica’s work.

As it happened, we also discovered that the TIFF Cinematheque was doing a similar retrospective in Toronto. So I got in in touch with the programmer, James Quandt, who knew some of the films I didn’t know. The TIFF Cinematheque has ended up showing more films than we have, but in North America, especially on the east coast, they have a big Italian population. Here in the UK, if you do a season of Antonioni, Fellini or Pasolini, it usually does very well. But if you do a season of a less well-known Italian filmmaker, you don’t get a huge audience.

We decided that we would do around 16 films and it was really a question of what we could get. We wanted to include some of his later films. Personally I don’t much like Marriage Italian Style (1964), but some people love it and it was recently restored. So we’re showing that and a few of the later ones. But generally I wanted to try and concentrate on those films that – as far as I know – are his best works.

Do you think De Sica’s films are an influence on contemporary filmmakers?

The neorealist movement was incredibly influential and still is. It was particularly influential on Italian filmmakers like Antonioni, the Taviani brothers, Pasolini and Nanni Moretti. They would do their own version of neorealism. But you can also see the neorealist influence on a certain strand of French filmmaking, and I’m sure that people like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh grew up seeing some of these films. Iranian films and people like Kiarostami were influenced as well.

If we turn to the Dardenne brothers, their films also look very realistic and very carefully put together: you even have a kid with a bike, and how important is the bike to the kid! (2011’s The Kid with a Bike).

Umberto D. (1952)

Beyond the fame of Bicycle Thieves, undoubtedly Vittorio De Sica’s most renowned film, are there any other reasons why you chose this film for an extended run?

At the beginning, I wanted to do Umberto D, which had just been restored. There were also some suggestions that we should perhaps do Shoeshine. I would have also loved to do The Children Are Watching Us, which isn’t really known here (in the UK), but the materials for it are not great.

Bicycle Thieves is a better-known film and is perhaps a film that gets young people in more easily than Umberto D, which is less familiar. With Umberto D the main character is not pleasant. The film refuses to make us like this old man. It is a difficult film, but at the end, which is still a very dark ending, it’s so moving, but not at all sentimental.

I would have liked to have done an extended run of this extraordinary film, but the final decision was to go with Bicycle Thieves. Since we’re trying to get people more interested in De Sica and maybe change their minds about him, Bicycle Thieves is the best film to choose as it would reach a larger audience.

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