I have not been cagey or guarded, although I may be a tad evasive from time to time, about my feelings on the neo-realist movement. Its importance to cinematic history needs no defense from me, but whatever role they served in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the limits of their technique should not be avoided. Realism in cinema can be bracing, and it was devoutly essential in the late 1940s, but a completely tethered commitment to the style is a limit to say the least. Of all the things cinema is capable of, realism is not the only worthwhile tempo for a film to play by. The freedom of realism can and often becomes its own prison.
It is thus that many of the most bracing and enticing realist works evolve from realism without losing the essential benefits of the cold water wake-up realism provided to the cinematic landscape; this evolution beyond realism is even sometimes true of the original masters of the form, like Rosselini and De Sica (not to mention the fact that we all know Fellini’s magical post-realist works, and who remembers his realist material before La Strada?).Case in point, Vittorio de Sica’s Miracle in Milan, a work that understands the spirit of his earlier realist parable The Bicycle Thieves, but gracefully pushes the limits of realism and breaks through the mold, taking the best elements of realism with it for a ride into the more poetic regions of cinematic fiction-land.
It is thus that Miracle is infused with melancholic majesty of a different variation, never losing the woebegone, crestfallen milieu of De Sica’s earlier productions but allowing him freer range both to let his hair down as a visualist and play with laughter and the fables of the world. To craft his own fable, in fact, and he proves quite up to the task. With a screenplay (credited to an abnormal number of others for the neo-realist movement and indicating a certain anti-auteurist, collaborative spirit among the neo-realists) that balances fastidious dejection and sparks of whimsy, De Sica takes a slice-of-life approach that makes the infusion of magic into that life all the more discordant and rousingly beautiful. The story of Totò (Francesco Golisano), who is found in a cabbage patch, raised by an elderly woman, sent to an orphanage when she dies, and escapes to live in a shantytown, might as well be any grounded tale of human woe. Which is why its break from reality and escapade into a more star-bright region of film is all the more exotically enticing.
It is a tale that is perfect for De Sica and perfect for challenging De Sica; it has both the everyday qualities of a realist tale of life as it is lived and a sufficiently broad, parable-like demeanor so as to function more as a fable than anything else. It practically sounds like a children’s book waiting in the womb, and De Sica understands the natural innocence of the tale. His perspective is less dry than the neo-realists sometimes asked for, and he moves his camera with dexterity and a scrappy, ragged freshness that sells the collectivity and possibility of the squatter town more than simply pointing the camera and waiting might have.Miracle is the evolution of De Sica as a director with an aesthetic all his own; it feels like a predecessor to Fellini’s La Strada, not simply because it deals with overlapping themes, but because it sees the neo-realist movement exploring and evoking new emotions without sacrificing their fundamental core of simple human adversity and hope.
De Sica’s greatest evolution is a pungent, bitter, but ultimately sweet and flavorful strain of thickly layered humor that takes as much from the Marx Brothers as the lighter silent master Charlie Chaplin and his disciples (Rene Clair primarily, whose career would largely be forgotten post-French New Wave, but who desperately needs a revitalization for his whimsy and unmatched sincerity in delivering a parched brand of sentiment). Less a neo-realist drama than a cloud of barbed satire against capitalism (big business discovers oil underneath the enclave of the poor and tries to evict them), Milan is arguably De Sica’s most purely joyous film, primarily because he seems to be having the most fun. He takes a certain delight in playing with his actors and giving them a spirit and energy lacking in many realist films (Francesco Golisano, in particular, breathes a scruffy life into Totò with his non-professional style and work ethic brought over from his day job at the post office).
Nothing in Miracle quite aims for the vertiginous comic highs of Chaplin at his best, nor is it as barbed as Graucho Marx, but that is only because De Sica is too high-spirited a humanist, too in love with humanity’s little ticks, to ever truly indict anyone. A closer companion to the film, even though it isn’t quite accurate, might be the coming works of Jacques Tati, whose warmth and Looney Tunes temper poked through in every frame of non-narrative storytelling. No director ever epitomized “film as toybox” quite like Tati, and Milan gestures in that direction. It has a thoroughly innocent sense of comedy, but the innocence belies a curiosity about the agency of the masses and how they can band together to best capitalism at its own game by breeding their own brand of pandemonium.
De Sica’s framing, meanwhile, emerges as a continual pleasure. He perfects his habit of depicting people en masse, even exposing individuals in close-ups and slathering them with the hint of community by putting a person or two in the background over their shoulders, reminding of the angel of community guarding them and watching over their decisions with no intentions other than to help. He evokes a palpable sense of exaggeration; shots of a gaudy museum turned into a playhouse for the bourgeois, in particular, are sublime for how needlessly grandiose and ostentatious then render the gilded cage of the wealthy. The absolutely ethereal sequence where Totò climbs a pole to emerge out of the smoke of capitalist oppression only to find the ghostly image of the old lady who once watched over him is unlike anything you would imagine in neo-realism. The same is true of the symmetry and geometry of the shantytown and the masses of people, memorably captured in one sequence collectively wielding pitch-black umbrellas in defiance of the water dumped on them by the police, as elegant and beautiful a summation of mythical defiance and rebellion as you could imagine. Or the stark whimsy and invention of a cadre of top-hats, symbols of bourgeois wealth, sicked on the bourgeois man who wears them, chasing him down like rabid dogs. Miracle in Milan marries grounded realism with expressively playful filmmaking, finding a way to favor both, and sacrifice neither.
The end, however, poses a challenge to the masses: once they have bested bourgeois society, do they adopt the ways of the bourgeois, or is there another path? De Sica shows us both. He envisions the appropriation of bourgeois life in starkly animalistic tones of bedlam and commotion, only to give his masses another path to innocence and honesty. De Sica is far too interested in the simpler pleasures of humans being humans to criticize these people; he posits a critique, and uses it to elevate his people rather than indict them. He never devolves into the brutish commonplace argument that the proletariat are identical to the bourgeois, and that they too would be just as villainous if they had the power. He simply gives them bourgeois life and then asks them if they really want to have the life of the people who once oppressed them? He wants to save these people, and he gives them an out. He wants to bask in his characters, to feel their glow and to remind post-WWII Italy (for most neo-realist films are implicitly or explicitly the tale of post-WWII Italy) that humanity still exists in the world. By giving the downtrodden their own comedy of manners in ode, and thankfully not in requiem, he does just that. It feels like the neo-realist movement being born again, remembering its origins and transforming them into something at once similar and different. It is one of the ultimate cinematic variations on a theme.