Posts in: IT320

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.


In the second half of the week, we shifted our focus to the post-World War II reaction to fascism, exemplified in a cinematic and literary movement known as neorealism. Neorealist directors like Rossellini sought to strip away the artificiality of propagandist films of the previous decades and explore not only the effects of reality – that is to say the subjective range of the actual human experience – but also as a form of activism, exploring the effects of average people upon reality itself. In Rome Open City, Rossellini employed natural lighting, non-professional actors, and on-site filming to let the audience into an intimate day in the life of his characters, many of whom are appropriately based upon real historical figures.

Through articles and class discussion, we were able to characterize Rome Open City as anti-rhetorical, quotidian, and a chronicle, to use the language of Marcus (the author of one of our assigned readings).

Italian Political Cinema

As a Romance Languages major who chose Italian as one of my specialties, I’m lucky that the few upper-level Italian courses we’re offered are so interesting! Many, like this one, are cross-listed courses, so I get to take class with not only Italian students (it’s a pretty small department – the few of us overlap a lot!) but also a lot of new faces. The course is taught in English but incorporates a substantial amount of Italian vocabulary related to film studies and Italian culture and history.

We began our first week with an introduction to cinematic terminology and then practiced applying that terminology to closely analyze the various visual, sound, and editing elements of a shot to draw conclusions about the scene or film as a whole. We needed to learn to read a film, or even each individual shot, like we would a text for many other classes.

We then moved to political theory, with a discussion of what makes and nation and then a lesson on the historical context for our first film, 1860 directed by Alessandro Blasetti. Although I knew much of this from previous classes on Italian fascism, the history of the unification of Italy and the rise and fall of fascism always fascinates me. Italy was made up of many political kingdoms until the middle of the 19th century, when Giuseppe Garibaldi invaded Sicily with only 1000 soldiers and the help of local unification fighters, known as picciotti and successfully unified Italy under the parliamentary monarchy of Piedmont, although there remained a clear division between the industrial north and the rural south of Italy, resulting in mass migration northwards in search of work. Italy was united, but weakly, and it is to this “weakness” that the successful rise of fascism is often attributed. World War 1 brought staggering casualties and economic hardship to Italy, and the following decades saw increasing unrest from the working class.

Mussolini’s vision offered a popular and attractive escape from the troubles of contemporary society – an Italy returned to its imperial grandeur and united by a fervent national pride. This necessitated defining the essence of “Italian-ness,” a task which started with the family outward. Fascism was successful in Italy in large part because it worked simultaneously from the top – down and from the bottom – up. Mussolini was a master propagandist and invested extensively in local cinema beginning in the 1920s. Although the message of these fascist newsreels and films came from the top on down, the effects was very grassroots in style, infiltrating the daily routine and entertainment of the average people with fascist ideals, most essentially the value of the hetero-normative, working family unit as the most essential building block of the fascist state.


1860 is considered one of the most quintessential fascist films in Italian cinema. It glorifies the unification of Italy as a proud and patriotic success and celebrates men as idealistic nationalists fighting to defend their home and women as pure, doting mothers – or future mothers – of the next generation of proud Italian fascists. Blasetti incorporates natural imagery throughout the film to emphasize the authenticity and purity of his vision of Italy and contrast it with the death and destruction that he shows as the result of foreign rule. As a class, we analyzed how details such as the establishing shots of nature, the recurrence of dark, cloudy long shots, low angle shots and staging of actors contributed to the overall effectiveness and tone of various crucial scenes.