Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. have been held aloft as the great examples of Italian neorealism, which we were taught began with Open City and Paisan at the end of World War Two. Now comes an almost perfect De Sica movie released in 1944 but filmed even earlier in the war. Had it been widely screened, The Children are Watching Us would almost surely have been considered a top classic with the others.
Observant five year-old Pricò (Luciano De Ambrosis) doesn't understand why his mother Nina (Isa Pola) keeps talking to a man in the park, Roberto (Adriano Rimoldi). Then one morning she is gone, and Pricò's father Andrea (Emilio Cigoli) is crestfallen. Neither Pricò's Aunt (Dina Perbelli) nor his Grandmother (Jone Frigerio) can take care of the boy. Nina returns when Pricò falls ill, and the family begins to heal. Finally accepting his wife back again, Andrea takes her and Pricò on a vacation at the seashore.
This intense domestic drama doesn't look like a neorealist film and is not set among the impoverished or dispossessed. The only clue that it was filmed in wartime are a few glimpes of uniformed men on the street. But De Sica's The Children Are Watching Us is a true neorealist movie despite the fact that it's given a fine polish by a professional crew. The story of a family crisis brings in issues about the way the middle class lives. Larger issues become apparent even though most situations are seen through the eyes of the young boy.
Pricò is too young to understand everything that is happening in his family and we can tell that it is all having a profound effect on him. The boy is well behaved, attentive and loved by his parents. But she has little control over her emotions and appears vaguely dissatisfied with her home life. She dresses better than the neighbors and would rather not associate with them. Nina is caught up in an affair with another man, a situation that's never argued or negotiated. Pricò sees his father retreat into spiteful silence. He's a witness when his mother's lover comes right to the house, urging Nina to run away with him.
The Children Are Watching Us is a performance-driven drama. Human relationships are observed and demonstrated, and not explained in dialogue. The actors playing Pricò's mother and father are excellent and Luciano De Ambrosis' performance is spectacular, one of De Sica's triumphs directing children. We can't keep our eyes off Pricò, who is so natural and compelling that we hang on his every facial expression.
The domestic situation in The Children Are Watching Us gets plenty of outside comment, mostly from suspicious neighbors looking for gossip. De Sica and his writer Cesare Zavattini show Nina to be weak, but they don't condemn her all-too human behavior. Everybody has priorities. Andrea's work colleague is interested in dressing for success. Pricò's aunt runs a busy girdle shop and has no time for the boy because she wants to entertain gentleman callers. The young girl in grandma's house will risk everything to sneak out to neck with the pharmacist. Nina's behavior is deplorable but unintentional; nobody suffers more than she does.
Although it isn't about working class people cracking under the strain of poverty, De Sica's film is as deeply involved in the Human Condition as later neorealist classics. Many traditional Italian movies stress family values by endorsing male authority and female sacrifice, saying that men who wander are troublesome but women who wander can destroy the fabric of society. The Children Are Watching Us sees it differently. Andrea is more like a real husband, the kind that can't solve his family problems through screaming or beatings. In this case he can't hold his family together. The film has a lot in common with Robert Benton's much later Kramer vs. Kramer.
The maturity seen here shows the emptiness of modern 'family values' preaching. Pricò's parents already have 'family values' and they aren't in need of faith or an outside force to hold them together. The Children Are Watching Us recognizes that internal family relationships are what counts. In reality, people don't ignore their feelings and pretend they're happy for the benefit of others. The only possible solution is if the parents can step back to see what effect they're having on those they love the most. If they're lucky, they'll find that their basic relationship is worth preserving.
The message is as straighforward as the title. Parents are a small child's entire world, and when that world is threatened they're left with nothing at all to hang their lives on. As in Sondheim's Into the Woods, "Children will listen." They see and hear everything. Everything we do or say is an example for them, a formative truth.
De Sica's drama becomes frightening the moment we begin to worry about what will happen to Pricò and his family. The Children Are Watching Us doesn't have the rough look of the later neorealist films, yet we can tell that things are not going to be resolved with ice cream and a kiss. The script is unnecessarily cruel at one point, when it puts Pricò into a jeopardy situation. Italian audiences must have been lifted out of their seats trying to protect the by-now beloved Pricò. But De Sica and his writers save their strongest punch for the devastating finale. It communicates more intense emotion than most of the grim neo-realist endings of the later classics. 1
The Children Are Watching Us' position as a proto-neorealist film is based on its general structure and orientation. De Sica's relaxed style doesn't use non-actors (except for Pricò) in key roles. Some sequences are visually opposed to the 'rules' of neorealism, as when Pricò experiences a dream that is expressed in frightening multiple exposures.
Criterion's DVD of The Children Are Watching Us is such a polished presentation that we are shocked to read of its history in Peter Brunette's insert booklet essay. It was filmed in 1942 before the Allied invasion of Italy. Because of the chaos in 1943 it was never given a full release. Criterion's transfer is excellent, with a smooth image and crisp audio. Film fans are much more accustomed to seeing Italian wartime pictures in poor shape, like almost all copies of Visconti's Ossessione, which we are told was made at the same time.
Disc producers Jason Altman and Heather Shaw give us two intriguing video interviews. Child actor Luciano de Ambrosis talks about his memories of working for Vittorio De Sica, and scholar Callisto Cosulich looks at the movie in the context of the neorealist movement. In the insert booklet, Stuart Klawans investigates the teaming of De Sica with his longtime writing associate Cesare Zavattini.
Peter Brunette explains that many of the incidents in the movie were considered shocking for a wartime Italian movie, especially the mother's repeated neglect of her child. The movie doesn't condemn the Nina character outright, but it's a sure bet that Italian audiences did.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Children are Watching Us rates:
Supplements: Interviews with star Luciano de Ambrosis and De Sica scholar Callisto Cosulich; insert essays by film scholar Robert Cardullo and Stuart Klawans on screenwriter Cesare Zavattini
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 17, 2006
1. The next-to-last scene of The Children Are Watching Us seems truncated and rushed, and I wonder if part of it was censored.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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