By Ed Garea
To say that there was nothing worthy of this list last week is an understatement. After all, it is the holiday season. And for the final week of the yeark we could find only one worthy for the list. So, here goes nothing.
2:30 am The Children Are Watching Us - I bambini ci guardano (Invicta, 1944): Director: Vittorio deSica. Starring Emilio Cignoli, Luciano De Ambrosis, & Isa Pola. 84 minutes.
I have three different dates for this movie: 1942, 1944, and 1947. That’s because it was filmed in 1942, released in Italy in 1944, and later worldwide in 1947. Made before his masterpieces Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, it tends to be forgotten in the body of DeSica’s work. But many that have seen this picture rate it right up there with the previous two, and some rate it higher.
Like the others, it has the Neo-Realist cast: no big-name actors and a story that follows ordinary people trapped by an ordinary situation. The film is concerned with Prico (Lucano De Ambrosis), a precocious little boy whose selfish mother has been cheating on her husband. Eventually she leaves and the husband is left to raise the boy. Unfortunately, he receives no support from either his family or his wife’s family. The neighbors offer only gossip.
Eventually his wife returns and they try to patch things up. He takes her and Prico on a vacation, but when he has to return to Rome on business, the boyfriend shows up and Mom doesn’t try very hard to put a damper on his ardor. She completely ignores Prico, who, though only about four or five years old, realizes that three is a crowd and tries to run off for Rome, nearly killed by a train in the process. The cops return him to the hotel, but Mom isn’t interested. She sends him back to his father and runs off again with the boyfriend, sending Dad a telegram explaining the situation. But Dad is out of options and sends Prico off to a Catholic boarding school. A short time later Dad commits suicide and Mom visits the school to see her son, who wants no part of her, walking away as the film fades out.
To say this is a gut-wrenching film is to put it mildly. A box of Kleenex is not only suggested, but a requirement. Look for the scenes where Dad greets his son after Mom sends him back, and the final scene between mother and son. It stands as a testament to the skill of DeSica that these scenes, though emotionally powerful, never degenerate into schmaltz. Credit must also be given to DeSica’s frequent collaborator, writer Cesare Zavattini, for not pulling say punches and giving the film a happy ending, which would have been unreal and destroyed the theme of the film for a few moments of tears.
I first saw this film years ago at a DeSica festival in New York with my friend Paul. It greatly moved me back them and still moves me now. I find it has lost none of its power when I saw it recently again and I’ll be watching it on TCM.