Miracle in Milan: It Is Goodness

<em>Miracle in Milan</em><em>:</em> It Is Goodness

To give life to this film of mine, I tried to find the meaning of a little word that likes to hide everywhere; it is goodness. I beg you to tell me if you find it here in these images, if you recognize it at least here and there.

Vittorio De Sica

Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1951) is an unusual hybrid of a film. Tucked chronologically between two of De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini’s neorealist classics, Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D. (1952), but lighter in mood, it is a neorealist fable with the conviction that social commentary needn’t be soberly delivered to be effective, a fantastical tale thoroughly out of step with the prevailing mood in Italian cinema of the early fifties. With an eye for both the desolate postwar cityscape of industrial Milan and the film’s own dreamworld of ghosts and magic, it straddles approaches in a way that offers a more elastic definition of neorealism than is usually ascribed to the movement.

The project originated at least eleven years before the film came out, as a film treatment by Zavattini, one of the earliest proponents of neorealism. Titled “Totò il buono,” it was published in the magazine Cinema in 1940. Featuring a series of light-touch gags, the piece also does not disguise Zavattini’s concern that many in his society have lost sight of their responsibility to one another after years of Fascist rule. Over the following decade, the writer turned the treatment into a serial novel and then a full-fledged screenplay. Zavattini and De Sica had met in 1935, when Zavattini was starting out as a screenwriter and De Sica was a popular comedic actor, and remained close until De Sica’s death in 1974. As critic André Bazin put it at the time of Miracle in Milan’s release, the pair’s collaborations (there would eventually be more than twenty of them) make it nearly impossible to distinguish between their respective contributions: “We must . . . refuse to separate, as something against nature, what talent has so closely joined.”

The collaboration produced several foundational works of neorealism. (Zavattini would also formulate the thirteen tenets of the movement, providing it something like a manifesto.) Today, the pertinent question about Miracle in Milan may be not about whether it qualifies as a neorealist film despite its fantastic trappings but about its efficacy, emotionally and aesthetically. In that respect, it’s hard to fault. De Sica films with restraint, using gentle dissolves to mark the passage of time and often working with static shots of the city, with its bleak industrial beauty. And throughout, De Sica and Zavattini’s barbed humor is intertwined with their compassion, and the film’s inventiveness and sense of play offer steady delights.

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