Miracolo a Milano
The last couple days have introduced a bit of levity to our material. As we learned last week, neorealist films focus on real life, everyday experiences of average people – usually the underdog – and often addressed World War II and contemporary social justice issues. Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan) is another film by De Sica, the director of Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) which continues in this tradition of showcasing normal, disenfranchised characters and addressing social issues, but with a comedic aire and the addition of fantastical elements. Where as in Ladri di Biciclette, De Sica brings our attention to the isolation and hopelessness of (the protagonist) Antonio Ricci’s plight, in Miracolo a Milano, De Sica proposes community, ingenuity and hard work as the solution. The protagonist of the latter builds a community of the little he has: raw creativity and determination.
In this scene, we see the young protagonist of the film with his adoptive mother figure. From a very young age, he learns not to fear the world, but that it is a wondrous place full of magic and possibilities. The old woman teaches Toto to actively construct his own reality. To add to this constructed and even fantastical nature of this scene, and, it follows, of Toto’s world outlook, our point of view is almost that of one of their little toys; low in the corner of the kitchen floor. This peculiar camera angle adds to the playfulness of the scene while allowing us to look up at Toto; he is a figure of power simply by taking reality and life into his own hands.
De Sica layers each take of both films with similarly masterful use of the camera, lighting, sound, symbolism and extensive mise-en-scene to bring us into the story and into what André Bazin* calls De Sica’s “way of feeling.” Camera angles such as the above that remind us of the artificiality of film as a construction are part of what we categorize as the ontological side of film
Discussion of this scene sparked a short lesson on the original Pinocchio, to which this scene explicitly alludes. Toto and his “mother” are like Pinocchio: the poor of Italy rebelling against the apparent hopelessness of their circumstances. In Toto’s case, he rises above through reason, creativity, optimism and hard work.
(The following scene starts at 3:08)
The role of math and counting in this scene really interested us. We concluded that for Toto – and presumably for De Sica – education holds power. Toto recites his multiplication to the old woman, his mother and teacher. He even wears the apron of contemporary young school students. The old woman leaves him only her playful worldview and his education, but with that Toto enters the world confidently.
The doctors count off numbers as a rote display of authority. They establishing power over the dying woman with their words as well as their body language with no regard fir the fear or even just confusion they seem to incite in her. These numbers hold little meaning for the doctors. For Toto, in contrast, nothing is empty. Numbers, gestures, and greetings all hold real and personal meaning for him. Later scenes emphasize that when Toto says “Good morning!” he truly means a very good morning!
* As quoted by Bondanella, Peter in “The Masters of Neorealism.” Italian Cinema from Neorealism to the Present. New York: Continuum, 2007. 52-63.