Miracle in Milan

Jan 8, 1991

I have been asked how and why I made Miracle in Milan. I cannot give a precise answer, however much I ransack my memory in search of the state of mind that preceded the birth of this film and that accomplished its laborious realization.

I think, however, all the trimmings aside, what decided and won me over to the idea imagined by Zavattini was, as always, the humanity of the central figure who, beneath his present disguises, is again closely related to the characters of the worker and child in Bicycle Thieves and the boys in Shoeshine.

For the rest, it is possible that way back at the time of my earliest experiments as an actor-director in Teresa Venerdi, for example, I was already moving in this direction. It is, I believe, simply a way of looking at life: the way in which each of us takes up his position and reacts to the facts of his existence and to the circumstances of other men. On the one hand, above all, I select the happier, more optimistic aspects of life—its positive side I might say—and neglect the other aspects, perhaps not seeing or not understanding them. On the other hand, I draw from these “other” aspects the material, the inspiration, and the poetry of an ideal world, finding in them the motive of some subtle vexation of my own that leads me to an involuntary and instinctive search for their cause and effect. An artist, a man of letters, a playwright, or even a movie director, will find himself quite naturally tempted to express their meaning and significance in an artistic form.

This explains why I rebel when anyone tries to discover some preconceived message or propaganda in my films, instead of that Christian, or simply human sense of fellowship which I consider should be common to us all, regardless of the political convictions held singly or collectively by each one of us.

In spite of the fact that in reality things are quite different, often in fiction we read about the power and heartlessness of the rich, and the humble resignation of the poor. The struggle is unequal; but the poor man, by dint of prodigious courage and presence of mind, emerges victorious in the end, just when it seems that he is fated to succumb. Very often, love is his guiding force, inciting him to victory. Thus, once again, virtue triumphs and evil is punished.

Miracle in Milan, despite certain realistic overtones capable of varied, even antithetical, interpretations on the social level, is simply a fairy story and only intended as such. I must admit that I was enchanted by the idea that I, too, could make my contribution—using the most up-to-date means of expression, the cinema—to the eternal romance of the rich man and the poor man that has been handed down from the past, for the instruction of children and as a warning to adults.

If it is true that my people have already attained happiness after their fashion; precisely because they are destitute these people still feel—as the majority of ordinary men perhaps no longer do—the living warmth of a ray of winter sunshine, the simple poetry of the wind. They greet winter with the same pure joy as Saint Francis did. And what if the water turns out to be gasoline? They rejoice in it just as much, simply because it can become a fire, a light to brighten their darkness.

Once again, then, I have remained faithful to the world of my imagination. But, from the stylistic point of view, Miracle in Milan opened up new paths for me. Its content is humanist, but its inspiration, the climate in which the characters evolve their way of thinking and behaving, and their very fate itself, is more closely related to the legends of the North, to Andersen for example, than to the reality of our present-day Latin world. Here is no hymn in praise of poverty—as I read somewhere to my horror—nor any condemnation of riches. (I do not think either Zavattini or I can be accused of such bad taste in making use of an antithesis that would leave little room in the work for any art!) This is a fable, slightly wistful perhaps, but quietly optimistic within its poetic framework; if I may be allowed to give it such a name. Men and angels are to be found here, living on good terms together. Toto works miracles for all comers and works them, obviously, for the benefit of those who need them—that is to say, the poor. But these people, with their dreamy, ingenuous looks, do not ask only for things that will satisfy their material needs and alleviate their distress. They ask also for superfluous, even ridiculous things, to appease some secret longing for them. A wardrobe, yes, but a phonograph, too. In view of the unusual material of which it is composed, the chief problem presented by Miracle in Milan was one of form and style.

It is essentially a fairy story (the oil burns all night, but the following morning it stops) peopled by strange creatures who believe in miracles and who work them themselves; it is a fairy tale for young and old. And yet, the story is always posed midway between reality and fantasy. So I have tried to express it in the style best suited to that kind of story. In this style I had two masters, Clair and Chaplin, towering above me with all the force of their genius; their example drew me on and yet it was a dangerous attraction. I had to undertake the difficult enterprise of embarking, on my own account, on a road that was at least equidistant from both of them. It is not my place to say, and I am not qualified to do so in any case, whether this was a new or a well-chosen departure.

Finally—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.