TIFF Bell Lightbox, June 26 to September 6, 2015
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More than Life Itself: Rediscovering the Films of Vittorio De Sica is quite a title for a retrospective but so was the man that TIFF is honouring. Vittorio De Sica is a rarity—at his best, he was a great actor and director. Few fit into the category; Welles, certainly, and Chaplin. Keaton qualifies, during the silent era, and some might argue for others: Takeshi Kitano and perhaps, during his peak period, Jean Renoir. In recent times, Clint Eastwood has added his name to the list. But no one acted for such a long time and for so many directors as De Sica while also garnering accolades as a director. Yet apart from Italy, his name hardly has an iconic status.
Perhaps TIFF’s retrospective, mounted along with the Summer in Italy programme, will begin to change Canadian views toward De Sica. There’s no doubt that De Sica did produce some of the key art films of the post World War Two era. Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D. and Miracle in Milan, made between 1946 and 1952 are, along with Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Paisan, the acknowledged classics of neorealism.
During this period, De Sica used amateurs in all of the key roles though some went on to pursue thespian careers. The stories, crafted by the legendary writer Cesare Zavattini, combined with De Sica’s brilliant direction of actors, seemed as if they were taken directly from life. They were simple tales: a destitute old man contemplates suicide; a father and son try to recover a stolen bicycle; a couple of shoeshine boys become enmeshed in a black market scheme; an orphan gains magic powers to save a poor community. But they felt real to audiences in Italy and around the world. Their humanity and fearless looks at tragedy resonated with a population just recently liberated from the harshest of world wars.
De Sica’s best films still seem great today—though, clearly, they are from a special historical time. What is interesting in this retrospective is the care that is given to establishing De Sica as a terrific comic actor and a director who, at his best, continued to make important films for the rest of his career.
TIFF senior programmer James Quandt has selected some superb performances by De Sica—as the cynical aristocrat turned romantic in Max Ophuls acclaimed The Earrings of Madame de…; as the gambler in his own The Gold of Naples; as a romantic chauffeur in What Scoundrels Men Are! and, above all, as the con man turned insurgent leader in Rossellini’s General della Rovere. They certainly make the case that De Sica was both a fine matinee idol in his youth and a terrific character actor as he aged.
As for De Sica’s films after his string of post-WW2 masterpieces, they still seem to be a mixed bag to this critic. De Sica was undoubtedly Sophia Loren’s best director. She’s wonderful as the mother in war-torn Italy in Two Women (for which she won her Oscar); in three roles in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; as a pizza vendor in Gold of Naples and as the wily, sexy trickster in Marriage, Italian Style. But would these films be half as good without Loren?
One could counter by saying that De Sica wouldn’t have made the films without Loren or, if he had, somehow he would have gotten great performances from other actresses. After all, he had worked wonders with amateurs.
What’s incontestable is that De Sica did come back towards the end of his career with one final masterpiece, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. This sympathetic look at a stylish, doomed Jewish Italian family during World War Two still stands the test of time. And so does De Sica. He may not be the auteur that Fellini is—but who was the better actor?
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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