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A STUNNING VICTORY FOR VITTORIO DE SICA

One 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


"We 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."

"The 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 alert.

"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 Italy’s 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 Vatican’s 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 Sica’s mind, perhaps none more painful than that final grotesque image of Il Duce. "Naturally, I did not agree with Mussolini’s 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 head down…that was truly an ugly thing.

A 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. That’s what the neo-realist movement was all about – telling the truth. I can’t tell you what it was like when I began making ‘Shoeshine.’ I felt such…happiness."

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 man’s cruelty to man and an eloquent affirmation of the enduring strength of the human spirit.

"Shoeshine – and Rossellini’s "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.

Despite the glowing notices for "Shoeshine," De Sica’s 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 couldn’t 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 director."

"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 ago."

"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 Women’s Lib, De Sica insists that he has never directed his wife off-screen. "Maria makes the decisions in our marriage. That’s 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 Sica’s 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."

"It 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 Antonioni’s ‘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 exteriors, surfaces…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 friend’s 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."