The Children Are Watching Us:
A Movement Is Born

Mar 28, 2006

The Children Are Watching Us marks the first full blossoming of one of the most fruitful collaborations in world cinema history. The brilliant pairing of legendary Italian actor and hitherto commercial director Vittorio De Sica with Cesare Zavattini, the talented screenwriter who was to become the chief theorist of the neorealist movement that flourished in Italy right after World War II, created a synergy of magnificent proportions, which allowed each man to transcend his own individual limitations. Begun here, with The Children Are Watching Us, in 1944, at the height of the war, it was a collaboration that would produce the incomparable Bicycle Thieves in 1948, as well as such cinema classics as Shoeshine (1946), Miracle in Milan (1951), and Umberto D. (1952).

Though his real interest lay in serious theater, De Sica, who had tired of movie stardom, began directing films in the early forties that were little different from the reigning commercial films of the era. Zavattini had worked uncredited on the second of these films, Teresa Venerdì (1941), but something strange and miraculous happened with The Children Are Watching Us, De Sica’s fifth film as a director, which the screenwriter would later call “the most important stage in the evolution of my career as a filmmaker, and even of my career as a human being. Through the character of the child, we felt for the first time a human being, whereas all my previous characters had felt like puppets.”

Like its more famous counterpart, Luchino Visconti’s Obsession (1943), made at virtually the same moment, The Children Are Watching Us has usually been categorized as “protoneo­realist,” owing to remaining traces of the sentimentality that especially marked films of the Fascist era (but that, truth be told, has always threatened the integrity of Italian cinema, including De Sica’s own later masterpieces). In addition, neither film completely corresponds with what later solidified into neorealist dogma, following the appearance of Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945), including the dominant use of real locations and nonprofessional actors, and an overarching concern with social and political themes such as poverty and working-class solidarity. While The Children Are Watching Us and Obsession show signs of these awakening impulses and methods, their mostly artificial sets, professional actors, and focus on crimes of passion at the same time mark them clearly as part of an earlier era. Nevertheless, even in 1944, critics realized that both films went well beyond the other, blander, usually lighthearted product of the period, openly treating shocking themes like adultery, a serious transgression in family-obsessed Fascist Italy. It was these first glimmerings of a new way of looking at reality and at life, with a marvelous new intensity, that led straight to the neorealism that would reach its zenith with the later films of De Sica and Zavattini—and of Rossellini and Visconti—just after the war.

And The Children Are Watching Us certainly has its neorealist moments, when its desire to document the real comes strongly to the fore. We see this when a real tram unloads its motley human cargo on a real Roman street, and when vacationers, obviously not actors, throng the train station at the resort. Other utterly genuine moments stick out, like the boccie braggart at the resort who constantly falls back into dialect (a no-no under Fascism) and is mocked for it. The lovingly detailed portrayal of the Italian seaside pensione is drawn out precisely because it has been consciously constructed to ­document the life of the times. In other scenes, however—for example, when we realize that the vista we see through the family’s window is obviously a painted backdrop—we’re made aware that all of this is being filmed in a studio. In any case, whatever its historical location vis-à-vis neorealism, The Children Are Watching Us is an emotionally powerful, politically provocative, and formally complex film in its own right.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that nearly all we see is filtered through the consciousness of Pricò, the child protagonist around whom it is centered. De Sica was, of course, to become famous for his use of children—who can ever forget the supremely vulnerable Bruno in Bicycle Thieves or the impoverished ragamuffins in Shoeshine—and we can see that lifelong interest in the troubled relation between children and adults take powerful root here.

Some critics have felt that this obvious virtue of the film is also one of its weaknesses, that the limitations of Pricò’s understanding of the adult world inevitably blunt any potential critique of Fascist society that the film might muster. A close examination, however, indicates that a great deal is heard and seen that adult viewers will comprehend even though the child Pricò does not. Sometimes this gap in understanding can be heartbreaking, as when Pricò is going on gaily to his father about his seaside vacation, while we watch the father nearing collapse, as he intuits what the child is not telling him. At other times, it has more of a political edge, which is there for all to see. Pricò’s family has a maid, and at the beginning of the film, his bourgeois mother sticks out like an alien object among the working-class mothers watching the Punch-and-Judy show in the park. Their neighbors are spiteful, bored busybodies eager to pounce on any failing. The extent of Pricò’s father’s conversations with co-workers is how to look smart in the latest fashion. Alassio, where the family goes for its seaside vacation, is filled with self-­satisfied, petty people (replete with lapdogs) who make it clear why the European intelligentsia has always so thoroughly despised its middle class.

Adultery is openly encouraged by these decadent playboys and playgirls, though of course those who get caught are also sneered at. Pricò’s mother, Nina, seems world-weary, the slave of passion, without any real reason for such weakness or lassitude. Even Pricò seems preternaturally sad and prematurely washed-up, like the boys in Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1947) and Europa ’51 (1952), both of whom, however, have the horrible aftermath of the war to be depressed about. When Pricò’s mother abandons him, everyone refuses to help the father take care of him, including his aunt and his grotesquely selfish grandmother. All human values seem utterly lost in this society, and the pursuit of hollow pleasure reigns.

Several scenes were clearly calculated to shock contemporary Italian audiences—perhaps more committed than others to the sanctity of the family and the innocence of childhood—and to wring from them the maximum in emotion. One such scene occurs when Roberto, Nina’s lover, sullies the purity of the familial domicile by entering the apartment to accost her in front of Pricò. Even more upsetting would have been Nina’s complete abandonment of her child in order to seek her own sexual fulfillment, a heedless decision that almost ends in Pricò’s being hit by a train. Another calculatedly wrenching scene comes when his father is forced to leave him at the boarding school, but even this pales before the tragic turn in the film’s final moments, when De Sica introduces a virtually unheard-of plot possibility in an Italian film script of this or any other period. Interestingly, at other times the film’s melodrama is undercut when scenes in which we would expect huge emotional blowups fail to produce them. For instance, when the father first learns of his wife’s adultery and when the boy is brought back to his mother after running away, the film wisely registers no emotion whatsoever.

The film continues to amaze on a formal level as well, demonstrating a powerful new aesthetic commitment by the filmmakers, who seem to understand that they are on the cusp of something never before seen, or only rarely, in Italian cinema. De Sica delicately structures the film with a bevy of visual and dramatic rhymes, as when the camera occupies the same position the morning after the mother’s last nighttime good-bye, or when Pricò asks Paolina, the girl who is taking care of him at his grandmother’s, for a goodnight kiss in the same way that he asked his mother. Lengthy tracking shots that follow the mother and child in the park, and that quickly become linked with Pricò’s insistent looking, visually capture one of the major themes of the film, embodied even in its title. Pricò looks at the dysfunctional society around him and watches so that we can see and understand.

Contrasts of tone are often employed in a magisterial fashion: the idyllic joys of the countryside are juxtaposed with the grandmother’s harsh treatment of Pricò; the similar innocent joyfulness of the seaside resort, with the hanky-panky and small-mindedness that is encouraged there. And an entire essay could be written on the way the film uses space emotionally, especially in the final scenes, in the cavernous boarding school. The director creates a tiny but complexly self-reflexive and playful moment when a teenager mischievously inserts himself, unbeknownst to Pricò’s family, into their photograph of familial bliss at the beach. Only later, presumably, will they find that this moment of happiness, like their lives, has been turned into a joke for the amusement of others.

The Children Are Watching Us was shot during the halcyon summer of 1942, before the war turned violently sour for the Italians. Originally scheduled to come out in 1943, the film’s actual release was only partial (like that of Visconti’s Obsession), and the film was lost in the confusing shuffle that accompanied the division and collapse of the country, in September of that year. Even in Italy, this early masterpiece has only been seen sporadically since. With this new DVD, a crucial part of Italian film history has been restored.

Peter Brunette is Reynolds Professor of Film Studies at Wake Forest University and has written books on Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, among others. He is currently working on a book on Luchino Visconti.