A STUNNING VICTORY FOR VITTORIO
of the handful of great Italian directors to emerge in the forties,
Vittorio De Sica, disturbed by signs of swelling neo-fascism in
the seventies, tackled the subject of his countrymen's persecution
and murder of Jews during World War II. His movie, "The Garden
of the Finzi-Continis," won an
Oscar as Best Foreign-Language Film. My interiew with De Sica was
published in The New York Times on January 16, 1972.--Guy Flatley
were all guilty," says Vittorio De Sica, somberly recalling
the days of Mussolini and the systematic murder of Italian Jews.
"That period was the blackest page in the history of mankind.
Yet, today in Italy there are many fascists young people
who do not believe what it was like then. And, unfortunately, there
are many old people who have forgotten. That is why I felt I must
make The Garden of the Finzi-Continis as an act
of atonement and as a warning."
Garden of the Finzi-Continis," based on a haunting novel by
Giorgio Bassani about gentle, childlike Jews who were brutally crushed
by the fascists, represents still another sort of atonement for
De Sica. After many a sluggish season spent churning out commercial
cream puffs like "Woman Times Seven," "A Place for
Lovers" and "Sunflower," the director of such searing,
neo-realistic masterpieces as "Shoeshine," "The Bicycle
Thief" and "Umberto D" has redeemed himself esthetically
with this shattering new film.
On a recent wintry morning in New York,
De Sica accompanied by his wife Maria and their 20-year old
son Christian sat in a suite at the Pierre and pondered both
acts of atonement. "The Italians are not anti-Semitic,"
he says, pointing a well-manicured finger for emphasis. He is white-haired
and 70 now, but his skin is healthily bronzed and his manner youthfully
"The Italians have never been anti-Semitic; what happened during
the war was a matter of political alliance. I personally did not
take Mussolini seriously in the beginning. He was too much like
a clown. It was only after he declared war that I took him seriously,
and then it was too late."
During the thirties, De Sica, a handsome man with a love for luxury
and an eye for elegant women, had been one of Italys most
dashing matinee idols, specializing in frothy comedies and romantic
musicals. As the decade drew to an end, however, he developed an
urge to direct, and during the early stages of the Nazi occupation,
he did manage to direct a few films, most notably "The Children
Are Watching," based on a screenplay by Cesare Zavattini. But
before long, the fascists had so intensified their stranglehold
on the arts that survival both professional and private
became a serious proposition.
"At one point, I was requested by Goebbels to go to Prague
and head the fascist cinema there. I was panicked; after all, I
was not a fascist. The Vatican came to my rescue by asking me to
direct 'The Gates of Heaven,'
a religious movie, in Rome. I worked on that film for almost two
years, and on the very day the first Americans arrived in Rome,
I finished it. Poof just like that! However, the Vatican
never permitted it to be released; it seems my view of miracles
was too unorthodox. But I did see the film once, years later, in
a cinemathèque in France, and I can assure you that it is
one of the finest films I ever made."
De Sica, a non-practicing Catholic, does not seem bitter about the
Vaticans decision to bury his miracle movie. Nor does he denounce
the church for its position on divorce, a bit of dogma that forced
him to become a French citizen in 1968 in order to marry his present
wife in Paris many years after the birth of their two sons.
He does not even appear to blame the church for its failure to take
a strong stand against Mussolini. "The Vatican had no choice
but to go along with the fascists," he says simply. "It
was the law."
De Sica never enjoyed the privilege of an audience with Pius XII,
the wartime Pope, but he does cherish the memory of a long-ago meeting
with Pope Paul, then a lesser church official. "He visited
the set of the film I was making for the Vatican, and I can still
remember him looking through my camera. In Italy, there is a custom
that whenever anyone looks through a camera for the first time,
he must buy drinks for everyone. So Paul bought us all drinks down
at the Rome railroad terminal."
But those days were marked more by fear than frivolity. "For
the last eight months of the war, I
hid two Jewish families in my bachelor quarters in Rome. Four adults
and five children. And one dog. I was taking a terrible chance;
if the Nazis had discovered what I was doing, I would certainly
have been sent to prison. But I was not unique; many Italian families
hid Jews in their homes."
Painful memories of the war linger in De Sicas mind, perhaps
none more painful than that final grotesque image of Il Duce. "Naturally,
I did not agree with Mussolinis policies, but I was saddened
when I saw what the people had done to him. I was deeply disturbed
that the Italian people had been brought to the point where they
were capable of such a deed. There should be dignity in death, and
to see that man hanging there in the square, his feet up and his
that was truly an ugly thing.
truly beautiful thing was the explosion of creative energy that
took place in Italy after the downfall of the fascists. "During
the war, we had been fed nothing but hypocrisy and lies, and suddenly
it became very important for us to tell the truth. Thats what
the neo-realist movement was all about telling the truth.
I cant tell you what it was like when I began making Shoeshine.
I felt such
But the story De Sica chose to tell in
"Shoeshine" was far from happy. The screenplay, written
by his leftist friend, Cesare Zavattini, told the tragic tale of
innocent boys victimized by war and later led callously into lives
of crime. Partly because there was no longer such a thing as an
Italian film industry, and partly because of his thirst for truth,
De Sica took his small crew and battered cameras out into the ravaged
streets of Rome and filled his cast with the hungry, nonprofessional
actors he found there. The resulting document was at once a harrowing
demonstration of mans cruelty to man and an eloquent affirmation
of the enduring strength of the human spirit.
"Shoeshine and Rossellinis "Open City,"
which also dealt with the doomed and dispossessed of a shattered
Italy changed the face and the soul of Italian cinema. But
neither film did much to change the sad financial state of its director,
since the Italian public was more in the mood to laugh at Hollywood
comedies than weep over the grubbiness of their own lives.
the glowing notices for "Shoeshine," De Sicas struggle
to obtain backing for "The Bicycle Thief" was an uphill
affair. For once again, Zavattini had focused on the desperation
of the impoverished: A worker, dependent on his bicycle for his
livelihood, attempts to steal another bicycle when his own is stolen.
But he is apprehended and painfully humiliated before his young
son. In the end, the father and son stand forlornly watching a parade
of carefree cyclists out for pleasure.
"David O. Selznick was interested at one point. The only problem
was that he wanted Cary Grant to star as the father. Now I think
Cary Grant is a marvelous actor, but I just couldnt see him
as an Italian working man. So I had to reject the offer."
Finally, after two years of brooding and begging, De Sica got the
money he needed. "Then we had a terrible time finding the right
boy for the movie. At one audition, a man brought in his little
boy, but when I saw the two of them, I said, There he is.
There is the father! And, of course, Lamberto Maggiorani was
superb as the man whose bicycle is stolen. After the movie came
out, there was much excitement about him, and Billy Wilder wanted
to star him in an American movie. But after Wilder interviewed Maggiorani,
he realized that this man was no actor at all. I had made him seem
an actor, because I myself am an actor and I know immediately how
to get the things I want.
"Even after we had begun filming Bicycle Thief,
we still had no boy. Hundreds of parents had brought in their children
to audition. You should have seen them one boy was prettier
than the next. They came in with their hair in curls, wearing soldier
and sailor suits and singing songs for me. Then one day when I was
standing by my camera in the street, waiting for a scene to be set
up, I looked down and there at my elbow was this wonderful
boy staring up at me. Here is the boy, I shouted. Put
him in front of the camera right away! His name was Enzio
Staiola, and he never became an actor either. I have seen him in
recent years, and he is married now and has a routine job. And he
has grown up to be quite homely."
De Sica has three children, none of whom has grown in the least
homely. Christian, for example, is handsome enough to be a movie
star, which, as a matter of fact, is exactly what he wants to be.
"Christian is studying to be an actor," says De Sica,
looking proudly over at his dapper, dark-haired son. "And a
"An actor," says Christian.
"An actor first," says his father, "and then a director."
De Sica, always an actor of charm, is still best known as a director.
"If I had continued acting on stage, I would have become a
great actor," he says with a sigh. "It is not true that
I have acted only to get money so that I might direct. I still like
to act; but because of my age, the parts I can play are limited.
I cannot play the romantic lover at my age."
There was a time, however, when De Sica played the romantic lover
with consummate skill, both on and off screen. "Yes, I was
what you might call a ladies man, but that was 20 or 25 years
"Thirty years ago," suggests Mrs. De Sica. "We have
been together 30 years."
Maria De Sica, who has flawless skin and nearly perfect features,
was once an actress herself. "Both my wives were actresses,"
De Sica says, shaking his head at the coincidence, "and I directed
each of them."
A staunch advocate of Womens Lib, De Sica insists that he
has never directed his wife off-screen. "Maria makes the decisions
in our marriage. Thats the way it is in all marriages; the
wife decides. In life, though, it is the man who makes the decisions."
And De Sica, a man with a distinct taste for the sweet life, made
a major decision following the torturous time of soliciting funds
for the non-commercial "Bicycle Thief." With a jaundiced
eye on the box office, he has kept prosperously busy by acting in
over 40 films, few of which have possessed genuine merit
one brilliant exception being "General Della Rovere,"
a 1960 drama in which De Sica triumphed under the inspired direction
of Roberto Rossellini.
On the directorial side of the camera, there have also been exceptions
to the pictures-for-profit rule, such as the 1955 "Umberto
D," a relentlessly downbeat story of an old man who is denied
his dignity by an unfeeling society. But far more typical of De
Sicas output were such dubious bids for immortality as "Indiscretion
of an American Wife," "The Raffle" (the rowdiest
of the three episodes in "Boccaccio 70"), "Yesterday,
Today and Tomorrow," "Marriage, Italian Style" and
"After the Fox."
is true that I have made movies for money, that they have not always
dealt with important themes, and that The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
might be thought of as a return to serious movie-making for me.
But not all of my films in recent years have been escape films.
I think that Two Women was a good serious film and that
Sophia Loren was marvelous in it. She is a truly beautiful woman;
a good actress, with a great personality."
Although De Sica once contemplated directing a film in Chicago,
it seems unlikely that he would take such a bold step today. "Every
director probably works best in his own country," he says.
"Sometimes when an American tries to make a film about Italians,
it turns out to be ridiculous. And maybe that was the same thing
Americans felt about Antonionis Zabriskie Point.
I myself thought there were a number of striking things in it, cinematically.
But it is probably also true that Antonioni was only dealing with
that he did not really know enough about
the relationship between those two young Americans in the film."
For an upcoming film, "The Holiday," De Sica will be reunited
with his golden-age collaborator, Cesare Zavattini, with whom he
also teamed frequently during his potboiler period. "I have
the sentiment, the emotion," says De Sica. "Zavattini
is the cerebral one."
Zavattini is also the political one, and their long-time association
has prompted some observers to conclude that De Sica shares his
friends radical views. "There is a misunderstanding about
my politics," De Sica explains. "The theme of my serious
work is the Christian theme of human solidarity. I am very concerned
with poverty, and my movies deal with poor, oppressed people. I
defend them, but that does not make me a communist. I have never
been a communist. I am not a member of any political party."
Will "The Holiday" defend the poor, oppressed people in
the uncompromising De Sica-Zavattini manner of old, or will their
view take on the creamy luster of "A Place for Lovers"?
"It will be a romantic story of a factory worker who lives
with her husband, her children, her mother-in-law and her disabled
brother-in-law," says De Sica, his face eloquently reflecting
the emotional flavor of the story. "When her husband is hurt
in an accident, she is the only one left to support the family.
Then one day she becomes ill at work and when the doctor examines
her, he tells her she has tuberculosis and must go to a sanitarium
at once. She is in agony what is to become of her family?
"But the doctor insists that she obey his order, and so she
goes off to the sanitarium, which turns out to be the beginning
of her holiday. For she is a charming and intelligent woman
she even knows Mozart and in the sanitarium she meets a young
man, a poetic young man, and they fall in love. Their love is a
perfect love, and when she is well again and able to leave the sanitarium,
the holiday is over."
De Sica smiles warmly, if a little sadly, and so do his wife and
son. "I love this story," he says. "For me, this
is a beautiful love story."