Wednesday, 8 July 2015

THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Haunting Vittorio De Sica Classic screened on rare 35mm print at TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinematheque series "MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF: REDISCOVERING THE FILMS OF VITTORIO DE SICA", programmed by the inimitable James Quandt (also available on a lovely Criterion Collection DVD).

The Children Are Watching Us - I bambini ci guardano (1942)
dir. Vittorio De Sica
Starring: Emilio Cigoli,
Luciano De Ambrosis, Isa Pola,
Adriano Rimoldi, Giovanna Cigoli

Review By Greg Klymkiw

On a narrative level, the cruelty and selfishness of a young mother is what lies at the heart of Vittorio De Sica's The Children Are Watching Us and as such, seems an especially appropriate element for the rich and consistent mise en scène to present the entire story from the perspective of a 5 year old child. There are many powerful aspects to this classic motion picture, but the fact that director De Sica wisely places his camera eye-level to the child in question is almost gruelling in terms of the pain he wrenches from the story and the emotion he extracts from the audience.

Though the film slightly pre-dates the period of Italian neorealism which began with Luchino Visconti's Ossessione in 1943 and Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City in 1946, De Sica is already playing with a stark element of realism in the storytelling. We might crave a happy ending, but it would be false, not unlike so many pictures generated in pre-War and wartime Italy.

The Children Are Watching Us was filmed during wartime in 1942, but its politically and socially restful qualities come from the fact that the bombing and shelling did not shock the country into fear and despair until the fall of that year. In addition to utilizing many real locations in tandem with realistically dressed/designed Cinecittà studio work, De Sica cast his central player, Luciano De Ambrosis as the sensitive child Pricò from a non-traditional background. De Sica used the child's already heightened sadness over his mother's recent death to astounding effect in this tragic tale of maternal betrayal.

The film is neatly and boldly divided into 2 parts quite literally as De Sica provides "Part One" and "Part Two" titles to signal the film's two key movements. In the first part, we learn that Pricò's mother Nina (Isa Pola) is engaged in a love affair. When she leaves her husband Andrea (Emilio Cigoli) and essentially abandons her child for the handsome smarmy lover Roberto (Adriano Rimoldi), both father and son are devastated.

Though the loyal housekeeper Agnese (Giovanna Cigoli) is a bedrock, Andrea feels Pricò might be better off with female relatives, but neither of these arrangements come to happy endings and the child is reunited with his father. After a few days of carnal abandon with Roberto, Nina sheepishly returns after ending the affair. Andrea grudgingly allows her to stay for the sake of son needing a Mother. Though he's curt towards her, Andrea allows his bitterness to subside and decides a family vacation at a seaside resort away from Rome is in order.

The second movement is marked by a gradually touching reconciliation between husband and wife. When Andrea confidently returns to work in Rome, he allows Nina and Pricò to remain for a few days in the idyllic hotel with its lush sun-dappled beaches. The happy Hubby feels like some quality time between Mother and Son will be a positive thing and he also secretly decides he'll replace the old curtains (which Nina always detested) with lush new drapes in their flat's boudoir.

Alas, a male dog will always come sniffing around and a bitch in heat will respond in kind. Roberto shows up at the resort and Pricò is left alone whilst Mom willingly receives her lover's prodigious root.

Hell breaks loose in two ways. One is expected, the other is not. Both are unbearably shattering.

De Sica more than superbly handles the performances and scene blocking with the skill of a fine craftsman, but as an artist, he excels with the kind of visual touches that only a filmmaker infused with celluloid in his DNA can do.

We never forget the title for a moment. Our eyes are ultimately drawn to Pricò in virtually every scene as the actions of the adults allow us to naturally shift our focus to the child's gaze. The child, it seems, is not only watching, but always watching, so much so that when Pricò stops training his gaze upon his mother, lulled into a kind of happy complacency during a magic act in the hotel ballroom, we're initially unaware that his eyes are not where they've been for the whole film. Once we realize this, our hearts do indeed sink, and the narrative does not "disappoint" us in this respect when Pricò's eyes shift back to his mother's activity.

It's a heartbreaker of monumental proportions.

De Sica also never lets us forget the eyes of the child with the intelligently placed camera, always at Pricò's eye level, whether we're with him in a specific shot/scene or not. This allows us to always view the dramatic action as if we are indeed the child and that what we see is both what he sees and how he sees it. Again, we are Pricò, and though it's an intermittently joyous perspective, it is, more often than not, a devastatingly sad point of view.

This mise en scène is never oppressive nor heavy-handed. De Sica's touch is pure gossamer in this respect. However, at one point, De Sica uses Pricò's point of view to deliver one of the most haunting nightmare sequences ever committed to film, brilliantly framed in the reflections of a train's window as it speeds along a pitch-black night. The images here are as utterly devastating to us as they would be to a child like Pricò.

As if that isn't powerful enough, De Sica maintains this position during a scene where Andrea begs and finally begins to order Pricò to reveal the truth about Nina's indiscretions - closeups of eyes at a child's eye-level have never been more emotionally calamitous.

Eventually, when De Sica presents the final moments of Nina begging for forgiveness, the camera's position remains fixed as it always has been, only this time we experience how physically tiny, yet infused with strength this child is.

And in spite of this strength, De Sica forces us to experience the child being swallowed up by a world he knows he must face alone. It's a knockout, just as the picture itself ultimately is. The children are indeed watching us and De Sica has crafted one of the most devastating reminders of that fact, one that none of us should ever forget.


The Children Are Watching Us plays this summer at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on 35MM. For dates, times and tickets, visit the TIFF website HERE. If you aren't in Toronto for this wonderful experience, the Criterion Collection DVD presents a fine transfer of the film along with two superb added value features, an interview with an Italian critic, but most astoundingly, a great interview with the actor who played Pricò.

Feel free to order the Criterion DVD directly from the following links. You'll be supporting the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner if you do so.

In Canada, order HERE
in the USA order HERE
and in the UK order HERE