Both an important work in the artistic development of actor-turned-director Vittorio De Sica (helming his fifth feature) and as a transitional film bridging pre-war Italian cinema with postwar Neorealism, The Children Are Watching Us (I Bambini ci guardano) was shot in the summer of 1942 but not released until the war was nearly over. Indeed, one of the more fascinating aspects of the picture, looking at it now, is how shockingly untouched, almost idyllic daily life was for most Italians when this was filmed (Allied bombing began in earnest that fall). The film, about the effect an irresponsible mother has on her four-year-old son, is still quite powerful today. In Catholic Italy of the mid-1940s, the cold water of reality that The Children Are Watching US presents must have really shocked audiences.
The film is best experienced with no knowledge of what's to come, so if you haven't seen it yet, read no further. The picture opens at a park where four-year-old Prico (Luciano De Ambrosis) is playing. His mother, Nina (Isa Pola), is acting strangely, particularly around a man named Roberto (Adriano Rimoldi). (At the park Prico enjoys a Punch & Judy puppet show, foreshadowing the unhappiness to come.) Later at home, after dinner with Prico's father, Andrea (Emilio Cigoli) and prepared by grandmotherly housekeeper Agnese (Giovanna Cigoli, Emilio's real-life mother perhaps?) Nina tucks her son into bed.
Overnight, however, the little boy's world has changed completely. Nina has run off with Roberto, and Andrea has to go to work. The nosy neighbors at his condo are already gossiping about the troubled family, forcing Andrea to leave the child temporarily with Zia (Dina Perbellini), Nina's sister, who runs a noisy lingerie shop. Later, he leaves the boy in the care of his own mother (Jone Frigerio), but the stern old woman considers Prico a nuisance and, largely neglected, Prico develops a serious fever and goes back home to Rome. But Nina herself comes back, and eventually the reunited family decides to vacation at a seaside resort to forget their troubles, but their happiness doesn't last....
The Children Are Watching Us might have been as cloying as composer Renzo Rossellini's score unfortunately is, but admirably steers clear of any unearned sentiment. It does this by telling its story from Prico's point-of-view and avoiding cliches with the major characters. Nina is no wicked stepmother type who doesn't love her son. She clearly adores him but is also hopelessly selfish and irresponsible, continually choosing to carry on with Roberto fully aware of the potential consequences, at least in her relationship with Andrea, and gradually aware the terrible toll her actions are taking on Prico.
Andrea's early efforts to pass Prico off to various relatives at first seems unloving, even cruel, but gradually it becomes clear he's much more the responsible, doting parent than Nina. The various relatives Prico is passed off to likewise at first seem selfish and insensitive until we realize that Nina's obsessive unfaithfulness is turning their lives upside-down, too.
The title of the film, of course, suggests that children are much more aware of trouble within the family than we realize. Much of the film, adapted from Cesare Giulio Viola's novel Prico, is told from the boy's perspective: He's sent off to another room and we hear fights between Nina and Andrea from behind closed doors. The audience, like Prico, isn't privy to the telegrams Nina sends or the other end of telephone conversations. De Sica shoots all this very expertly, and impressively holds back on tight close-ups until near the end, enabling them to make an enormous impact when they do come. There's also a visually spectacular if attention-grabbing montage similar to that found in Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945). It's overdone, but does capture the terror of a child's fever-driven nightmare. Late in the film there are several scenes at a Catholic boarding school and De Sica does something very clever: we never see any other students, making Prico's fate appear even more solitary.
The film doesn't shy away from the consequences of Nina's actions (don't expect a Hollywood remake with Julia Roberts), and the final scenes are both honest and shocking, making one wonder just what was cut out of the original, edited U.S. release, given the alarmingly inappropriate and inaccurate title The Martyr (what, not The Littlest Martyr?). The acting is excellent across the board, with Luciano De Ambrosis especially well-cast, looking both angelically sensitive and adult at the same time.
The film is so oblivious to the war that it's almost shocking to see so many Italians merrily frolicking on the beach during the day and dancing to Italian swing music at swanky nightclubs.
Video & Audio
The Children Are Watching is presented in its original full frame format in an excellent black and white transfer (from a 35mm fine-grain master), drawn from a major restoration in 2000. Dissolves and other optical work are scratchy and worn, but everything else looks just great, with good contrast and rich detail. A thick black bar appears on the left side of the image, with a much thinner one on the right (at least on this reviewer's 16:9 plasma monitor), allowing the view to see nearly every square millimeter of picture. As was common to even short Italian features of the time, an intermission is included, the film noting the end of Part One and the start of Part Two, a little more than halfway through. The Italian audio is fine, and the English subtitles are optional.
The surprisingly light supplements are limited to two brief interviews and a booklet. Luciano De Ambrosis is a 2004 interview with the former child actor, now in his late sixties and unlikely to be recognized today, though his observations about the film are dead-on. Callisto Cosulich, an Italian film critic, puts the film into perspective in another 8-minute piece. Both are full-frame.
The Booklet includes good stills and several valuable essays. "A Movement Is Born," by Peter Brunette, mainly discusses the screenplay's accomplishments while Stuart Klawans's essay focuses specifically on the fruitful collaboration between De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini.
The Children Are Watching Us is an important film in the development of Italian cinema, a work still enormously effective today.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.