What are we to make of Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, 1951), Vittorio De Sica’s comic fantasy about postwar poverty produced within the artistic parameters of neorealismo?
We all know the requirements for films to be assigned to the genre of Italian neorealism, the post–World War II cinematic movement that startled the world and changed filmmaking forever. First, they had to feature location shooting, especially in sites among gritty postwar ruins. Second, the actors should ideally be non-professional, with the main casting to be done in the streets rather than in audition studios. Finally, their themes had to reflect the poverty, joblessness and other social problems that marked the immediate aftermath of the war.
The imperatives in this description of the genre are no accident. Rebellion was in the air: prescriptions for cinematic change had begun even during the fascist era, a dozen years before the end of the war: “We should make films that are extremely simple and spare in staging without using artificial sets – films that are shot as much as possible from reality,” wrote Leo Longanesi, a journalist who supported Mussolini, in 1933. “In fact, realism is precisely what is lacking in our films,” he continued. “It is necessary to go right out into the street, to take the movie camera into the streets, the courtyards, the barracks, and the train stations.”1
But it was too early for such advice: this was the era of the glossy “white telephone” comedies whose state-approved message were the same as the one in Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes: “All’s right with the world.” In the year Longanesi made his complaint, for example, handsome matinee idol De Sica appeared in several light movies that did little to suggest the social conscience he would adopt when he began making his own films in the 1940s.
In these, he would be aided by Cesare Zavattini, the great screenwriter whose theories of neorealism are now considered the official voice of the movement. These theoretical positions were not available in written form until they were adapted from a 1952 interview and published in Sight & Sound in 1953, but they were put to concrete use in Zavattini’s screenplays. The approach may be summed up in the following quote from the Sight & Sound article: “The artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect […] on the real things, exactly as they are.” Zavattini goes on to say (as if acknowledging that, morally speaking, these perceptions should have had their origin in Fascist times): “For me this has been a great victory. I would like to have achieved it many years earlier.”2
Even before the war was over, a steady parade of films made in the spirit of Zavattini’s theory of responsible filmmaking had begun to appear, led by Roberto Rossellini’s Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1944). They included four classic films made by the partnership of Zavattini and De Sica (now firmly in place as a film director, following a long – beginning in the 1920s – career as a theatre matinee idol and dashing leading man in the movies): Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946), Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), Miracle in Milan and Umberto D. (1952).
Among these, Miracle in Milan is unique. The serious – not to say tragic – tone of the remainder of the De Sica–Zavattini quartet is nowhere to be found here, although the luckless poverty and social injustice of the others still abound. Compared to those three, Miracle in Milan is a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
The story begins at the beginning, with a new baby miraculously born in a cabbage patch – the European explanation to young children of where babies come from, analogous to the stork theory.3 This baby, who will be named Totò, is found by a kind and relentlessly cheerful old woman (played by the veteran stage and screen character actress Emma Gramatica). She is not the only highly regarded professional player in the cast; though, true to neorealist standards, many are non-professional, including the amateur actor who plays Totò as an adult so winningly, Francesco Golisano. De Sica repeats the extraordinary casting success of Bicycle Thieves here – as noted in the Variety review of the film, “Performances by pros and tyros alike are flawless.”4
Totò’s life is the stuff of sadness and social dysfunction, but both he and the audience are spared all of that. Having lost his parents in childhood, he grows up in an orphanage, but no psychic damage is done; indeed, he enters the forbidding building in one shot and emerges in the next looking spirited and happy (and, it must be noted, remarkably like both of the child actors who played him as a youngster). His only possession, a small bag with his few belongings, is stolen, but he befriends the thief, who then shares his tiny ramshackle living quarters for the night. This leads to Totò’s residence in a shantytown near the railroad tracks, whose poor denizens form the major part of a large cast. When oil springs up from the ground, a rich land baron tries to evict them all. In their struggle, Totò and his neighbours are aided by the ghost of Lolotta, the kindly old woman who had raised Totò. With this supernatural help, they engage in class war. No spoilers here; suffice to say the film ends as credibly as it began.
How do we “explain” the film to modern audiences? One might equally ask: How do we explain the taste of honey? De Sica himself was hard put to say what exactly was in his mind when he made Miracle in Milan, but acknowledged that “the humanity of the central figure” connected the film in his thinking to the earlier – presumably easier to understand – Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves.5 Actor and director Liv Ullmann has said of the film, “Somehow it almost changed my life. I wanted to be part of the world, part of doing something in the world – it made me want to be a good person. It really told me it’s important to live, it’s important what you do.” But perhaps it is the sentence that preceded these that provides a key to the best way to approach this odd, bewitching film: “I saw it [as] a child.”6
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Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, 1951 Italy 91 mins)
Prod. Co: Produzioni De Sica, Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche Dir: Vittorio De Sica Scr: Cesare Zavattini, Vittorio De Sica, Suso D’Amico, Mario Chiari, Adolfo Franci Prod: Vittorio De Sica Ed: Eraldo Da Roma Phot: Aldo Graziati Mus: Alessandro Cicogni Prod. Des: Guido Fiorini Snd: Bruno Brunacci Spec. Effects: Ned Mann
Cast: Emma Gramatica, Francesco Golisano, Paolo Stoppa, Guglielmo Barnabò, Brunella Bovo
- Leo Longanesi, “The Glass Eye,” in The Fabulous Thirties: Italian Cinema 1929–1944, Adriano Aprà & Patrizia Pistagnesi, eds. (Milan: Electa International, 1979), p. 50, cited in Peter Bondanella, “Three Neorealist Classics by Vittorio De Sica,” Cineaste, vol. 23, no. 1, July 1997, p. 52. ↩
- Cesare Zavattini, “Some Ideas on the Cinema,” Sight & Sound (October 1953): pp. 64–9, reprinted in Film: A Montage of Theories, Richard Dyer MacCann, ed. (New York: Dutton, 1966), pp. 216–28. ↩
- The cabbage explanation is especially popular in France; interestingly – though it could hardly be expected that De Sica would have been aware of it – the very first image ever shot by a woman, the pioneer French director Alice Guy-Blaché, was of a cabbage patch containing a baby. ↩
- “Miracolo a Milano,” Variety, 31 December 1950, available at https://variety.com/1950/film/reviews/miracolo-a-milano-1200416933/ ↩
- Vittorio De Sica, “Miracle in Milan”, The Criterion Collection website, 7 January 1991, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/867-miracle-in-milan ↩
- Liv Ullmann, quoted in Shelly Pannill, “The Lasting Picture Show”, Forbes, 2 October 2000, https://www.forbes.com/asap/2000/1002/162.html ↩