People are finally coming around to The Children Are Watching Us, the first collaboration between Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini. Culture vultures dismissed the film at the time of its release because of its protoneorealist sentimentality, but this is precisely what makes De Sica’s work so special, if still quite imperfect. The problem with the film, released the same year as Luchino Visconti’s seminal, neorealist kick-starter Ossessione, is not that it’s told through a child’s consciousness but that its mélange of little melodramas is amorphously shaped, though this probably has less to do with De Sica and Zavattini, who were still finding their sea legs at the time, than their shared screenwriting credit with four other hands—busy ones at that, because their effusive work shows in many scenes, not least of which the ones that too often play to the film’s title.
In two of the film’s lesser scenes, De Sica comes down especially hard on Nina (Isa Pola), who leaves her husband Andrea (Emilio Cigoli) for another man: During the first part of the film, she pauses over the word “decent” in the middle of a prickly outburst, and during the film’s superior second half, a captive beachside crowd appears to hold vigil over her failed motherhood. De Sica is above such trite, face-rubbing orchestrations, which are meant to show she’s conscious and guilty of her sin. Too often the film displays the seams of too much or not enough screenwriting, but it’s almost fitting that the story slobbers over itself in spots and doesn’t explode when you expect it to in others, because the film is often akin to a newborn child with a still developing fontanel—soft, sensitive, and incomplete, but always endearing. You forgive the film its flaws because it’s always trying to figure out the right thing to do, not unlike the man who alternately screams at and asks Andrea and Nina’s son Pico (Luciano De Ambrosis) if he’s okay after catching the boy stopped in horror near Rome-bound train tracks.
The Children Are Watching Us is a marvel of complex visual and emotional scope, and its surface is no less simple than the fabulous shells of Shoeshine and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. There’s always a sense of harsh movement in the film, lines of action isolating objects and characters into different stratums of the frame. A geometric, spider-like pattern emerges throughout, with little Pico caught in the center, gasping for breath like an ensnared animal, threatened from either side by all sorts of twin pressures. Whisked off to his grandmother’s countryside abode, he comes between her aunt and the medicine man she courts by moonlight; during a dinner sequence with his parents, the combination of heads, plates, and buildings and windows in the background cast the boy in the center of an awfully pained, synthetic pieta of family discord; and abandoned by his father at a boarding school, the boy’s face is caught between two columns.
There is an elevator in the film that only goes up, a symbol of Andrea’s lack of foresight. Similarly, De Sica’s camera often travels forcefully in one direction away from his characters. During a wonderfully hypnotic beach scene, an effete gentleman with a little dog tries to seduce Nina with his eyes and the movement of the camera suggests the woman is being torn apart like a piece of taffy—on one side by her pleasure-seekingness, on the other by her dedication to her son, whom she holds in her hands trying to teach how to swim. But the camera always holds on or moves with Pico, as in his vigilant attempt to walk back to Rome from his vacation retreat or, more arresting but equally hopeful, the way he runs along the beach as if holding hands with the stream of dawn’s last light. Nature, in essence, is on the boy’s side.
In 1944, Italy was a country in transition. Fittingly, The Children Are Watching Us is a film torn apart by fact and fiction, past and present. Beneath every scene there is unease about how characters should and should not act. No one feels this pressure more than Pico. In the film’s single greatest scene, father and son lock eyes like hunter and prey, one asking the other for the information he already knows, the other resisting because he knows submission will completely devastate the family. The spiderweb finally breaks in the last scene, in which Pico walks away from his mother and out the door of his boarding school—for once he acts for no one but himself. Osssessione may be recognized as the first neorealist film, but this is the first neorealist gesture, a sign that the Italian film was about to grow up.
According to The Criterion Collection, this new high-definition digital transfer was "created on a C-Reality Datacine with Oliver Digital Restoration System" and that "thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches were removed using the MTV Digital Restoration System." In English, that means a lot of work went into this transfer. It certainly shows throughout the film-except, that is, in the miserable-looking cuts between scenes, which are jumpy and devastated with scratches. Remembering how a film I made at NYU was butchered by a negative cutter, I'm tempted to blame these flaws not on the people at Criterion but the condition of the negative used for this transfer. The mono track is nothing special but certainly not awful-at worst, the clapping that follows the puppet show early in the film sounds more like people smacking their hands against little Pico's jammies.
Two short video interviews, one with Luciano De Ambrosis, who wonders if he got the part of Pico because De Sica was drawn to his eyes (nah, that couldn't be it) and who has the good sense of knowing which are the film's strongest scenes, another with scholar Callisto Cosulich, who talks about the pressures De Sica encountered during his early career and discusses the film's contribution to and place in Italian neorealist film history. Also included with the DVD is a 24-page booklet featuring essays by Peter Brunette and Stuart Klawans.
Vittorio De Sica looked at the ruin of post-war Italy more lucidly, and with more tears in his eyes, than any of his contemporaries.