The Children Are Watching Us (I bambini ci guardano) [DVD]
Director : Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay : Cesare Giulio Viola, Margherita Maglione, Cesare Zavattini, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi, Vittorio De Sica (based on the novel Pricò by Cesare Giulio Viola)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1944
Stars : Emilio Cigoli (Andrea), Luciano De Ambrosis (Pricò), Isa Pola (Nina), Adriano Rimoldi (Roberto), Giovanna Cigoli (Agnese), Jone Frigerio (Grandmother), Maria Gardena (Mr. Uberti), Dina Perbellini (Zia Berelli), Nicoletta Parodi (Giuliana), Tecla Scarano (Mrs. Resta), Ernesto Calindri (Claudio)
The child knows. Although just a diminutive four-year-old, utterly naïve about the world around him, he senses--he knows--that something is not right with the way his mother is talking to the man in the park. It is wrong, and when he takes his two-wheel scooter over to his mother, his unformed, yet undeniable, untuition is confirmed when she blithely finishes up the conversation with a banal exchange meant to hide the adulterous nature of the conversation her son couldn’t hear.
So begins Vittorio De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us (I bambini ci guardano), a precursor to Italian neorealism that relates the heart-breaking account of a family’s dissolution and the destructive effect it has on the child perpetually caught in the middle. Decades before Robert Benton cemented the crumbling end of the ideal American family in 1979’s teary Kramer vs. Kramer, De Sica explored the same territory in arguably more sensitive and refined terms. Telling the story almost entirely from the point of view of the child (note how low the camera always is), De Sica exposes how the failings, hypocrisies, and selfishness of parents can render them not only useless in protecting and guiding their children, but actively hurtful.
The child in question is Pricò, who is played with absolute conviction and tenderness by Luciano De Ambrosis. His mother, Nina (Isa Pola), leaves his father, Andrea (Emilio Cigoli), foolishly chasing a dream of romance with an uneven and unreliable man (Adriano Rimoldi). Andrea is understandably at a loss, clueless as so many men are that anything was wrong in his marriage. He questions his wife’s sister, imploring her for any clue as to what happened. He eventually leaves Pricò with his grandmother (Jone Frigerio), a harsh and critical woman who just wants to “live in peace,” which doesn’t include a four-year-old who has just lost his mother.
Nina eventually returns, her plans for romance dashed on the sharp rocks of reality, and the second half the film seems to be about the family’s reunion and mending. Although still bitter and hurt from his wife’s infidelity, Andrea slowly comes around, celebrating Mother’s Day with flowers, buying Nina a new watch, and taking the family to a seaside resort for vacation. And, although Nina’s intentions seem to be genuine, her lover resurfaces and she finds herself unable to resist temptation, thus threatening her family’s stability once again.
The recurrent theme in The Children Are Watching Us is abandonment, as Pricò is constantly left alone while the adults in his life pursue their own romantic fantasies. In one key scene at his grandmother’s house, the young woman who is supposed to watch after Pricò sneaks out at night to see a young man, resulting in a comic sequence in which Pricò knocks a flower pot off a balcony and onto her head while looking for her. An even more crucial sequence in which Nina deserts Pricò for days at the seaside resort in order to be with her lover does not have a comic punchline to soften the blow. Rather, Pricò’s life is literally in danger once he is left to his own devices. Rumbling trains and a drunk vagrant living on the beach become both literal and symbolic moments in which Pricò’s sense of safety and well-being are shattered in the absence of his mother.
While the film squarely lays the blame for the family’s disintegration at the feet of Nina, whose adulterous ways are fueled by an indefensible selfishness and shallow view of life, Andrea is not entirely without blame. De Sica doesn’t give details about why his marriage has gone sour, but it is not hard to imagine that he bears some of the guilt by focusing too much on work and not paying enough attention to his wife’s needs and desires. His most selfish act, however, the one that truly damns Pricò to a life on his own, is reserved for the film’s final moments.
It is in the final scene that The Children Are Watching Us builds to its powerfully emotional climax. Grief-stricken and utterly alone, Pricò has a chance to reconcile with his mother and perhaps forge the beginnings of a new relationship, but like a preternaturally wise man who has been stung too many times, he opts for self-reliance, leaving behind the damage that has been done and starting anew. It is a heart-rending moment in which you feel a human connection being literally ripped away, making the film one of a handful that treats the difficulties of childhood with such a deft, tender hand as to avoid all sense of cloying sentimentality.
|The Children Are Watching Us DVD|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||March 28, 2006|
|The new high-definition transfer of The Children Are Watching Us was made from a 35mm fine-grain master and digitally restored using the MTI Digital Restoration System. The image is clean and well-detailed (although not terribly sharp), with very little evidence of damage and age. Blacks are smooth and dark, as are the fine gradations of gray in the details. The image is, like other recent Criterion releases of films in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, picture-boxed to eliminate loss of image due to overscan on conventional tube TVs, a concession that I still feel is unnecessary given the rapidly increasing saturation of high-definition widescreen monitors. Otherwise, this is another first-rate Criterion transfer of a film long neglected on home video in the U.S.|
|The original Italian monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm optical negative and digitally restored, sounds excellent for its age.|
|Included on the disc are a pair of brief, but illuminating video interviews, one with Luciano De Ambrosis, who remembers working on the film as a child actor and his relationship on the set with De Sica, and one with critic/scholar Callisto Cosulich, who discusses De Sica’s life in relation to the film. The 24-page insert booklet contains a new essay by film scholar Peter Brunette and a fascinating article on screenwriter Caesar Zavattini, the godfather of Italian neorealism, by critic Stuart Klawans.|
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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