Friday, April 29, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Miracle in Milan (1951)

Miracle in Milan (1951) *** ½
Directed by: Vittorio De Sica.
Written by: Cesare Zavattini & Vittorio De Sica & Suso Cecchi d'Amico & Mario Chiari & Adolfo Franci based on the novel by Zavattini.
Starring: Francesco Golisano (Totò), Emma Gramatica (La vecchia Lolotta), aolo Stoppa (Rappi), Guglielmo Barnabò (Mobbi), Brunella Bovo (Edvige), Anna Carena (Marta, la signora altezzosa), Arturo Bragaglia (Alfredo), Erminio Spalla (Gaetano).

Vittorio De Sica was one of the pioneers of the neo-realist movement in Italy following WWII. He had actually started with the style a little earlier than that, with films like The Children Are Watching Us (1943). But his most well known films followed the war – in particular The Bicycle Thief (1948), about a father trying to support his family after the war, and my personal favorite Umberto D. (1952) about an old civil servant, who can no longer support himself, or his lovable dog, on the measly pension he receives. These films used non-professional actors, were shot on the actual locations, and represented life in Italy how it really was – hard and stricken with poverty. In many ways, Miracle in Milan (1951), which he made between his two neo-realist masterpieces, is very similar to the other two films. It certainly has the same basic concern – about poverty amongst Italians, and how no one around them seems to care. The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. But while Miracle in Milan is part neo-realist film, it is also part fantasy film. The two styles, which logically should be polar opposites and not mesh together at all, works surprisingly well for most of the films running time.

The film is about Toto (Francesco Golisano), who we first meet as a baby, abandoned in an old woman’s garden. She takes him in, and raises her as her own – until she dies, and he is shipped off to the orphanage. But none of this seems to affect Toto that much – he spends the entire movie smiling, and helping people. When he is released for the orphanage, he even has his bag full of his possessions stolen. He walks after the thief, and tells him there must be some sort of misunderstanding, because that is his bag. The thief turns out to be a fairly nice guy – just down on his luck. He gives Toto his bag back, and then invites him to stay at his place – which is just a shanty in the middle of field, where many others have built shanty homes as well. Toto decides to take the lead on this, and soon they are building an entire shanty village in that field – and the downtrodden from all over show up, and Toto finds a place for them. Things seem to be going well, until the owner of the property shows up. He wants to sell it to another rich man. The two comically negotiate, with the potential buyer eventually backing out. But when oil is discovered on the property not longer after, he does buy it – and determines to kick the inhabits out. And that is when the fantasy starts.

While The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. are clearly dramatic films – tragedies really – Miracle in Milan tells a similar story almost as a comedy. We didn’t really see the rich in either of those other two films – the existed as people far removed from the poor – but here they are in the film, and De Sica portrays them as buffoons. The comic negotiation between the two rich people reaches absurdly hilarious heights, and they continue to shout numbers at each other, that seem to have little relation to reality. Later, when the rich man has sent his goon squad to throw the inhabits of the shanty town out, Toto and other leaders in the community go and see him. He allows them in, but doesn’t really listen to him – he keeps picking up the phone and screaming “Buy” into it. He humors them by listening to their song, and tells them everything will be fine – only to call the police in for an inept raid (that he will also run). The rich here are completely divorced from the reality of the situation being faced by these poor men, women and children – and they don’t much care either.

I really liked the first hour of Miracle in Milan. It is here where the satire is at its best, and it’s hard not to like the ever cheerful Toto as a hero. De Sica is essentially making the same point he made in The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. about the poor and displaced, and how the government and the rich simply do not seem to care. The last half hour of the film was slightly more troubling to me though. When things are at their bleakest, and it looks like they will be run out of their homes, Toto’s long departed mother shows up as a ghost and gives him a magical dove – that will allow him to wish for whatever he wants. It starts off amusing – and Toto wishes for all sorts of wild things, nothing for himself mind you, but for everyone else. But I think De Sica allows this segment to go on far too long. It gets repetitious, and to be honest rather dull at points, until he redeems the movie with the finale.

Overall, I quite enjoyed Miracle in Milan. I knew little of the film before watching it, and I assumed that it was going to be another of De Sica’s neo-realist movies. I was mistaken, but gladly in the first hour. De Sica would go onto to make other comedies in his career, so it shouldn’t have surprised me too much. I even think the switch to fantasy film in the final third works to a point. Had De Sica cut a little for this part, I think Miracle in Milan would probably be a masterwork. As it stands, it’s an excellent little comic film. One that deserves more of an audience.

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