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Sciuscià, 1946
[Shoeshine]

Smordoni/InterlenghiIn an early episode in Shoeshine, two boyhood friends, Giuseppe (Rinaldo Smordoni) and Pasquale (Franco Interlenghi), bargain with an opportunistic fortune teller named Anselmi (Maria Campi) over the sale of used American-made blankets before convincing the shrewd woman to give them a reading of their future. As the boys huddle curiously over a deck of tarot cards dealt on the table, the fortune teller gradually deciphers their mystical sequence, like tantalizing fragments of an unfinished existential puzzle that forms an image of one's destiny. Revealing Pasquale's second card - the one that represents the "outside" factor that would influence his fate - she envisions the presence of a "gentleman" who seems protective of the boy. The seemingly ambiguous divination proves to be accurately (and ominously) portentous as a knock on the woman's front door disrupts their casual meeting, followed by the appearance of a band of dubious, abrasive men claiming to be from the police department who coerce their way into the fortune teller's home in an apparent raid to confiscate goods and profits as part of an investigation into her black market trafficking. The convenient and timely arrival of the police is, of course, a staged event, as Giuseppe's older brother Atillio and his mob boss, Panza (Gino Saltamerenda) - who had earlier provided the boys with the blankets as well as the specific address to go to in order to conduct the sale - are discovered to be among the impersonating thieves. From this singular act of unwitting complicity, Giuseppe and Pasquale's destiny would be inextricably sealed as the fortune teller identifies them as conspirators in the robbery and, unwilling to implicate Atillio, the two are sent to a juvenile correction facility for questioning and detention.

Vittorio De Sica creates a lucid, sincere, and impassioned portrait of poverty, corruption, and desolation in Shoeshine. From the introductory images of ubiquitous American soldiers at an economically (and perhaps, militarily) ravaged town (note their presence at the sanctuary of the horse rental stable as well as the high-traffic streets where the shoeshine boys eke out a meager living from their almost exclusively foreign patrons), De Sica establishes a recurring metaphor for the pervasive external, environmental factors that invariably exert an influence (if not govern) Giuseppe and Pasquale's lives that exist beyond their control. In essence, it is this external force - the "outside gentleman" that the fortune teller foretells - that serves, not only as an oblique reference to the presence of Allied occupation forces in postwar Italy, but also as a representation of the country's sentiment over their ambivalence and inutility towards the direction and scope of the reconstruction in their own country. Moreover, Pasquale's orphaning during the war and the status of Giuseppe's family as refugees forced to share a single room at a multi-family boarding house further underscore the boys' (and, in turn, the country's) sense of transience, dislocation, and impotence over their own plight and the determination of their future. It is through this systematic disillusionment that the indelible bookend image of the two friends and their beloved white horse becomes, not a euphoric expression of unbridled freedom, but a desperate, resigned rejection of its severe, inscrutable, and dehumanizing course.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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Ladri di Biciclette, 1948
[Bicycle Thieves]

bicycle1A crowd forms in front of a government employment agency, as it does every day, waiting - often in vain - for job announcements. Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), one of the unemployed laborers who participates in this daily ritual, is selected to hang posters in the city, a job requiring a bicycle, which he has long sold in order to sustain his family's meager existence for a few more days. He and his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), return to the pawn shop with a few remaining possessions, their matrimonial linen, in order to redeem the bicycle. During his first day at his new work, his bicycle is stolen. He combs the city with his young son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), in search of the elusive bicycle.

bicycle2Within this unremarkable premise lies the pure eloquence and profoundly affecting story of Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. Filmed in the ravages of postwar Italy, Bicycle Thieves is a searing allegory of the human condition, a caustic narrative of despair and hope, loss and redemption, poignantly told in subtle actions and spare words. A singular camera shot follows an employee climbing several stories of pawned linen in order to store another acquisition. A panning film sequence in a restaurant juxtaposes the father and son "feasting" on bread and mozzarella with an affluent family dining nearby. A long, traveling shot of a street bazaar shows Antonio and Bruno searching through an endless sea of nondescript bicycles, all presumably stolen. Bicycle Thieves is an honest examination of a soul torn by responsibility and moral consequence, a simple man incapable of articulating his pain, a film devoid of the proselytizing tirades endemic to the rose-colored lenses of contemporary Hollywood. Bicycle Thieves is the story of humanity, in all its imperfect beauty and heartbreaking cruelty, the quintessential definition of an artistic masterpiece... truly a cinematic landmark.

© Acquarello 1999. All rights reserved.

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Umberto D., 1952

Casilio/BattistiUmberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is a proud, retired civil servant struggling to eke out a meager existence on his government pension. The film opens one morning to a group of pensioners, including the frail Umberto, taking their case for equitable compensation to the streets of Rome, only for their demonstration to be quashed by the local police for failing to file a permit. Umberto's rent is in arrears, and despite his twenty year residence at the house, his landlady (Lina Gennari) has threatened to evict him if he is unable to settle his debt by the end of the month. His only sources of comfort are his faithful and well-behaved dog, Flag, and the landlady's cheerful, attentive maid, Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio), who is equally in danger of losing her employment and lodging after discovering that she is pregnant. In order to raise a portion of the rent money as a sign of good faith until his pension arrives, he visits a cafeteria and passes his pocket watch around the table to other diners in an attempt to find a buyer. He ventures out in the evening in ill health to sell his cherished books to a street merchant. He visits old friends in an attempt to gain sympathy and request a loan. Yet, despite his exhaustive efforts, the landlady is unwilling to accept partial payment, and Umberto is faced with the agonizing decision to humble himself, or to accept the unthinkable prospect of losing his home.

Vittorio De Sica presents an honest, unsentimental, and profoundly moving portrait on aging, dignity, and resilience in Umberto D. Through the recurring imagery of motion and activity, De Sica contrasts Umberto's age and wavering sense of purpose with the vitality of hope and the process of living: the pensioner demonstration; the hurried pace of commuters; the passing of cable cars; the children playing. Note that Umberto's sense of despair is often juxtaposed against the passing of a moving vehicle. The final scene shows Umberto playing with Flag at a public park. It is a subtle affirmation of the daily ritual of life - a quiet celebration of the often insignificant moments of joy and distraction that redeem human existence.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini, 1970
[The Garden of the Finzi-Continis]

SandaThe Garden of the Finzi-Continis opens with a series of striking images of nature: colorful leaves, towering trees, sunshine peering through the foliage. But these are the most unnatural of times. A momentary preface reveals the looming tragedy of this picturesque Italian village: the implementation of Mussollini's racial laws between 1938 and 1943. Beyond the gated walls in the center of Ferrara lies the estate home of the Finzi-Continis, a highly regarded, aristocratic Jewish family. The Finzi-Continis are literally untouchable, rarely venturing in public, isolating themselves from the turmoil of war and religious persecution. The adult children, Micol (Dominique Sanda) and Alberto (Helmut Berger), entertain friends, take academic instruction from private tutors, and carry out romantic liaisons, all within the confines of the estate. Even the grandmother's field trips consist of a chauffeured drive around the estate grounds. But as the racial laws grow increasingly more stringent, the Finzi-Continis withdraw further into their insular, albeit illusory, paradise. Micol spurns her childhood admirer, an attentive young man named Giorgio (Lino Capolicchio), the son of a Chamber of Commerce official. Soon their circle of friends collapses, as interracial relationships are outlawed and draft notices are served. Despite Giorgio's father's (Romolo Valli) political connections, he is unable to spare his family from the dehumanization of the new laws, and begins to question his allegiance to the ruling Fascists.

Using visual contrast, Vittorio De Sica creates an understated, elegant, and hauntingly poignant film in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. The opening scene of the visitors wearing light colored clothing and the suffused warmth of the summer sun sharply contrast with Alberto's illness and the dark, winter clothing worn by the family as they are escorted to a detaining facility. Furthermore, the visual dichotomy is presented through Micol and Giorgio's ill-fated relationship, as the ethereal lightness of their childhood memories is replaced by the darkness surrounding Giorgio as he discovers Micol's betrayal. Inevitably, the walls of the Finzi-Contini estate cannot insulate the family from the ravaging whims of political tide, and is forced to accept a social equality, a hopeful affirmation of humanity and community.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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