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« In Which Here Is A Director We Would Like To Work With »


One of Italy's finest directors and an accomplished actor in his own right, Vittorio De Sica did come to America to work in Hollywood in the 1950s, when he took money from Howard Hughes. (He fumed in a hotel while Hughes gave him no work.) De Sica was much happier in his homeland of Italy, where he fiercely prized his independence, making films of classical beauty on infinitesimal budgets. Even his worst projects possess an incontrovertible liveliness that makes them worthwhile. A few years before his death, the American biographer Charles Thomas Samuels completed De Sica's best interview.

CHARLES THOMAS SAMUELS: Signor De Sica, how did you meet Zavattini and what made you decide to collaborate with him?

VITTORIO DE SICA: I met him when I had decided to film a novel by Cesare Giulio Viola, called Prico. A short time before that, I had met Zavattini in Milan and thought, "Here is a writer I would like to work with." I admired his style, which had just then been revealed in his novel They're Talking So Much About Me. The film we made together, The Children Are Watching Us, had a great success because of the poetry and melancholy of a marriage failing before the witness of a child, who learns that adults make mistakes, who is forced to suffer his mother's adultery and his father's suicide. But when it came out, we were in the middle of our Fascist period, that absurd little Italian republic of ours, and I was asked to go to Venice to lead the Fascist film school. I refused, so my unfortunate little film came out without the name of its author.

CTS: Your collaboration with Zavattini seems to me the most fruitful partnership between director and writer in film history. Has it been completely untroubled?

VDS: Sometimes producers, after discussing a project with Zavattini and me, have turned to other writers, thus disturbing our rapport. But in these so-called betrayals, I was never at fault. Unfortunately, our producers often make films with American backing, so sometimes they say they want an Anglo-Saxon flavor and hire an English-speaking writer. But I stoutly maintain that a good film must reflect the country of its origin. A French film must be truly French, a Yugoslav film truly Slavic, etc. When one starts making these Italo-English, Italo-American films, he bound to fail.

CTS: Would you go so far as to disown those films you made outside of Italy, such as A Young World?

VDS: Not A Young World, because that film deals with an international problem which is still being talked about. When we decided to make it, a million women a year were dying in France because of abortions. The film was a defense of the birth control pill, and it argued that abortion should be a recognized fact, dealt with efficiently and not hidden. At this very moment, there is a scandal in France because of all those prominent women who declared they had abortions in order to oppose the law against it. Look at all the trouble their sincerity has brought them!

CTS: Signor De Sica, you are one of the most famous of neorealists. What does neorealism mean to you?

VDS: I recently discussed this question with a British journalist. You know, people think about neorealism means exterior shooting, but they are wrong. 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. Because neorealism is not about shooting films in authentic locales; it is not reality. It is reality filtered through poetry, reality transfigured. It is not Zola, not naturalism, verism, things which are ugly.

CTS: By poetry, don't you mean scenes like the one in The Bicycle Thief, where the father takes his son to the trattoria in order to cheer the boy up only to be overcome with the weight of his problems?

VDS: Ah, that is one of the few light scenes in the film.

CTS: But sad at the same time.

VDS: Yes, that is what I mean by poetry.

CTS: Was that scene improvised?

VDS: It was written in advance, but of course, during the moment of filming, gestures are produced by the actors that reflect their dreams and taste. I knew there must be some shift in the scene to show the change in the father's heart, and I directed toward that end.

CTS: You say that neorealism is realism filtered through poetry; nonetheless, it is harsh because you forced your compatriots right after the war to confront experiences they had just suffered through. Didn't they resist?

VDS: Neorealism was born after a total loss of liberty, not only personal, but artistic and politics. It was a means of rebelling against the stifling dictatorship that had humiliated Italy. When we lost the war, we discovered our ruined morality. The first film that placed a very tiny stone in the reconstruction of our former dignity was Shoeshine.

CTS: Usually, audiences resist such reconstruction.

VDS: In fact, Shoeshine failed. It is easy to see why. After the war, Italians were hungry for foreign films. They flocked first to American, then Russian movies, but both proved a great disillusionment. Slowly, bit by bit, the public came back to their own. Rossellini, Zavattini, and I came out too early. Many films that were shown then would have had a greater success if they were new today.

CTS: Do you know the films of Olmi?

VDS: Of course.

CTS: What do you think of them?

VDS: I like them very much. He is a very delicate director. He doesn't try to epater le bourgeois, he says what he thinks in his own way: simple, modest, humble.

CTS: I'd like to know what you think of his contemporaries. Bellocchio?

VDS: I don't like him. He is too propagandistic and presumptuous.

CTS: Pasolini?

VDS: He is good, particularly in his Roman films, like Accattone, but I also admire his Oedipus Rex.

CTS: Don't you find his theme banal?

VDS: Perhaps Pasolini is a bit too literary, too educated. It's been said that Shakespeare is better played by ignorant than by overly cultivated actors. Pasolini imposes his immense cultivation on his work, he could probably use more freedom, greater simplicity.

CTS: I find that Godard has badly influence most of these directors.

VDS: Godard is a master, a totally personal artist, but the inventor of the New Wave. He creater followers, imitators, and imitation is always deplorable.

CTS: What about his most important Italian imitator, Bertolucci?

VDS: No. Bertolucci is our best young director. I liked him from the first, when showed La commare secca to me. He is a young man with a new vision of cinema.

CTS: How do you compare his Conformist with your Garden of the Finzi-Continis?

VDS: They are totally different.

CTS: They have similar subjects and the same leading lady.

VDS: Okay, but Sanda is not very good in his film. Still, the picture is very beautiful, except for a certain willful and eccentric aetheticism. For example, when the father's madhouse is made to look like the Roman Senate, I find the effect too recherche, too painterly. Bertolucci admits he followed Magritte. Another young director I like is Carmelo Bene, unlike all the others, he has a sense of humor. And he doesn't make propaganda, which to me isn't art.

CTS: How do you feel the younger critics treat you? For example, the Cahiers du cinema group.

VDS: They have never liked my films, and they are welcome to their opinion. I am never affected by critics I don't esteem. I go my own way, mistaken or not. I trust my conscience and my sensibility. On the other hand, I have listened to those critics who said that De Sica made no important films since Umberto D., and how, fortunately, feel there has been a revival with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. They are right, because I made too many films dependent on the will of American financiers. For example, I made a film with Sophia Loren, which earned her an Oscar. I made films that are too industrial, not as deeply felt as Umberto D. When I offered that film to Rizzoli, he said, "Why do you want to make Umberto D.? Why don't you make Don Camillo? I will give you a hundred million lire, half of the grosses." But I was full of noble intentions then; I didn't make Don Camillo, I made Umberto D, The Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine myself, and I became dependent on producers who wanted me to make films I won't say that I didn't believe in, but that I would rather not have made.

CTS: Are you nostalgic for the earlier days?

VDS: Very. Umberto D. was made absolutely without compromise, without concessions to spectacle, the public, the box office.

CTS: What about Brief Encounter? Your rule doesn't hold up.

VDS: Yes, Brief Encounter is beautiful.

CTS: Even allowing for the ill-suited subject, why did you smother it in such beautiful scenery and chic costuming? It seems to me a film about Faye Dunaway's wardrobe.

VDS: Faye Dunaway brought her personal dressmaker with her. That's the way with all actresses!

CTS: Such a film gives ammunition to those who use your later works to dismiss your entire career.

VDS: It was a mistake. Like all artists I make mistakes.

CTS: How do you direct nonprofessionals?

VDS: I explain and explain, and I am very convincing. I seem to have a special gift for making myself understood by actors. Either I play the part or I explain it, slowly, patiently, with a smile on my face and never any anger.

CTS: Do you have many takes?

VDS: No.

CTS: If it isn't right?

VDS: If it isn't right, I sometimes repeat, but usually I keep what I have shot. But I rehearse and rehearse and rehearse.

CTS: Is it difficult for you to act for others, as, for example, in General Della Rovere?

VDS: That was my best role because the film was made by a director I esteem.

CTS: You are also very good acting for yourself, especially in The Gold of Naples.

VDS: That was painful. I couldn't see myself and kept asking the cameramen and mechanics, 'Do you believe me? How am I doing?" A line of dialogue can be said a thousand ways; you need someone behind the camera to tell you which is the right one.

CTS: You have the rushes.

VDS: Yes, but in Italy there is never enough money. Producers always tell you that once a thing is shot it must remain that way.

CTS: You've worked in color and black and white. Which do you prefer?

VDS: Black and white, because reality is black and white.

CTS: That's not true.

VDS: Color is distracting. When you see a beautiful landscape in a color film, you forget the story. Americans use color for musicals. All my best films were made in black and white.

CTS: What do you think of the color experiments of Antonioni?

VDS: He is an aesthete. He takes red apples and paints them white.

CTS: Most critics today maintain that the true film artist writes what he directs.

VDS: That's not true. Directing is completely different from writing; it is the creation of life. If Bicycle Thief had been directed by someone else, it would have been good, but different from the film I made.

CTS: Does this mean that you think dialogue less important than images?

VDS: Images are the only important things. Let me give you another example of what I mean. Five films have been made of The Brothers Karamazov, all bad. Only one came close to Dostoyevsky: the version by Fedor Ozep. That's how the director is an author. In all these films the same story was used, but only one of them was any good.

CTS: You have often said that you greatly value Rene Clar and Charlie Chaplin. How have they influenced you?

VDS: In no way.

CTS: Not even in Miracle in Milan?

VDS: No, that is a wholly personal film. I detest imitations. In fact, I sometimes don't go to see a certain film for fear I'll want to imitate it.

CTS: How does your success affect you?

VDS: Success has never made me drunk. I have never told myself one of my films is wonderful; I have always thought I could have done better. I always want to improve. When I have done something badly, I recognize it. When I do something well, I want to do better.



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