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General consensus usually names Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1946), a stark depiction of the Italian anti-fascist resistance, as the first true neorealist film. But Rossellini's work did not spring forth from a vacuum, and many acknowledge as forerunners of that cinematic movement both Ossessione (1943), Luchino Visconti's adaptation of James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (filmed previously in France in 1939 and in the U.S. in 1946 and 1981) and The Children Are Watching Us (Italian title I bambini ci guardano, 1942). The influence of The Children Are Watching Us is evident in its use of some lesser known actors rather than glamorous stars, on-location shooting rather than studio-controlled sets, and most of all the story - the break-up of a family from the adulterous wife leaving to the husband committing suicide, all seen through the eyes of their child. Unhappy children, failed marriages, and most especially suicide (considered a failing of corrupt society), were themes and plotlines that went totally against the grain of Fascist philosophy and propaganda, and therefore formed something of an early cinematic resistance. In fact, at the time of its release, its director, Vittorio De Sica, was asked to go to Venice to head up the official Fascist film school. When he refused, the movie came out without his name attached. On the other hand, the film is largely confined to the conventional production methods and style of the pre-war period, which goes against the grain of neorealist purism. But whether The Children Are Watching Us can be called a true example of neorealism is less important than its undoubted place as a notable film in the transition from early Italian cinema to the works that burst upon the world scene with such impact in the post-war years. And it is a significant step in the career of De Sica, one of Italy's most prominent film figures and director of what is perhaps the best-known neorealist movie of all time, The Bicycle Thief/Ladri di biciclette (1948).
De Sica began his career as an actor in a 1917 silent picture while still a teenager. By the late 1920s, he was a successful matinee idol on stage, a suave leading man in mostly light movie comedies, and a favorite of female filmgoers. He began directing pictures in 1939, but although his first four features were successful, his individual style and artistry really emerged with this film. It was the first of his directorial efforts in which he did not appear. It also marks his first collaboration with novelist-screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, with whom he would make 25 films over the next 30 years, including The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D. (1952), and Two Women (1961), which won an Oscar for Sophia Loren. Together, they crafted from the novel by Cesare Giulio Viola, Prico (the name of the central child in The Children Are Watching Us), a story that reflected for the first time a theme common to many of De Sica's films, the suffering and destruction of young children. "Children are the first to suffer in life. Innocents always pay," De Sica said in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels for the book Encountering Directors (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1972). He also told Samuels this film, like all his others, is about the search for human solidarity, however fleeting in a world where "human incommunicability is eternal."
The debate over who is most responsible for neorealism will likely never be settled because all the artists involved - directors (among them Rossellini and Visconti), writers (Sergio Amidei and Cesare Zavattini), actors (such as Anna Magnani), and technical crews - worked in a fertile atmosphere of great historical, political, and cultural change. Their ideas and approaches influenced each other and many of them, particularly Zavattini and other writers who did so much to shape the post-war Italian film aesthetic, worked together and on each other's movies (the music composer of this film was Rossellini's brother).
Even though The Children Are Watching Us is not usually considered neorealism "proper," it is often lumped in with that school not only because it bears De Sica's and Zavattini's names but because it wasn't released in the U.S. and other countries beyond Italy until after World War II, when truly neorealist works such as De Sica's Shoeshine (1946) and Rossellini's Paisan (1946) were startling international audiences with a first glimpse of this influential style. The impact of these films in America has been noted in movies as diverse as The Naked City (1948), which tells an urban crime story in semi-documentary style, and Marty (1955), with its attempt to depict the lives of "little people" in gritty detail using unglamorous non-stars. But those elements alone are not necessarily what De Sica and others of his ilk were after in their films of the 1940s.
"People think that neorealism means exterior shooting, but they are wrong," De Sica told Samuels. "Most films today are made in a realistic style, but they are actually opposed to neorealism, to that revolution in cinematic language which we started and which they think to follow. It is not reality. It is reality filtered through poetry, reality transfigured."
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Producer: Franco Magli
Screenplay: Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi, Margherita Maglione, from the novel by Cesare Giulio Viola
Cinematography: Giuseppe Caracciolo
Editing: Mario Bonotti
Set Decoration: Vittorio Valentini
Original Music: Renzo Rossellini
Cast: Luciano De Ambrosis (Prico), Emilio Cigoli (Andrea), Isa Pola (Nina), Adriano Rimoldi (Roberto), Jone Frigerio (Grandmother), Giovanna Cigoli (Agnese), Maria Gardena (Signora Uberti).
by Rob Nixon