VIttorio De Sicait is Miracle in Milan (Miracola in Milan) puzzled some viewers in 1951 for reasons we’ll reveal. It’s safe to say that more viewers were simply thrilled by her whimsy. I remember being both surprised and elated when I first saw it on VHS in ancient times, and revisiting Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration of the film confirms the film’s special and prescient qualities.
The film announces its magical side with the opening title “It will be a volta(Once Upon a Time). The fantasy begins immediately, as a frumpy old lady comes out of her small house to tend to her enormous patch of cabbage. She is Lolotta, played by Emma Gramatica, well into her 70s Hearing the cry of a baby, she gestures broadly like in a silent film and rushes to discover the child, literally under a cabbage leaf.Without further ado, she raises the child, called Totò.
Returning home one day to find the boy, now older, looking at something spilled on the floor, she does not fly in a tizzy but makes a game of it by imagining the liquid as a river seen from above, surrounded of houses. She lifts her skirts and begins a lively dance on the stage. She instills the security of being loved with a gift for acceptance, optimism and fantasy.
We hope that effort isn’t what kills her, because then she’s on her deathbed, then it’s a lonely funeral procession behind the simple horse-drawn coffin along beautiful misty streets – congratulations to the photographer Aldo Graziati. In a tragicomic detail typical of Italian comedy, our little Totò (Gianni Branduani) is briefly joined by a fugitive fleeing the police. The man walks beside the boy, takes his hand and sheds fake tears. Unless I’m mistaken, it’s a parodic nod to the previous film by De Sica, the international sensation Bike thieves (Ladri di bicycle1948).
The man escapes and Totò is led into the orphanage to emerge a later, older but only slightly taller and certainly no wiser montage, now played by Francesco Golisano as smiling, open, naive and impervious. Mothering the old lady left Totò reasonably armed for a world of poverty, greed, selfishness, pretentiousness and cynicism. When he bids a stranger good morning, as the man hurries past all bundled up and carrying a briefcase, the stranger demands to know what he means by such impertinence. “Are you laughing at me?”
Totò witnesses a pack of homeless, shivering vagabonds vying for space in the single ray of sunlight that illuminates an empty field dotted with a few shacks. Perceiving a problem – the homeless and the miserable – Totò sets out to solve it by establishing ordered alleys of huts, a sort of Milanese Hooverville in which the poor can live with dignity and enterprising, mimicking bourgeois gestures. Instead of going to the cinema, they are instructed to watch the sunset.
A lot of Miracle in Milan is dedicated to the eccentric behavior of these inhabitants, gentle drawn figures of human misfortune accompanied by a bouncy, sometimes jazzy score by Alessandro Cicognini. This music and parade of great humanity amid the ash heaps of post-war Milan may confuse unwary viewers into thinking we’ve stumbled upon a Federico Fellini debut.
Fellini’s beginnings, Variety lights (Luci del varietà), opened in Italy just a month before De Sica’s film; both must have been done at the same time. If Fellini was part vaudeville, part nostalgia and part Italian neorealism, Miracle in Milan already seems a model in its own right for his career. Additionally, De Sica’s film points to Roberto Rossellini’s inspiring blend of neorealism and moral fantasy, The Villain Killing Machine (La Macchina ammazzacattivi1952).
Returning to our story, the owner of the empty field temporarily leaves the squatters alone until the discovery of oil brings a new owner, Mobbi (Guglielmo Barnabò), to mobilize the police for the eviction. A committee of squatters visit Mobbi’s monumental headquarters, where certain poses and profiles seem to identify him with the late Mussolini. As post-war capitalism replaces militarized fascism, the new boss clearly resembles the old boss.
At this point, the film simply indulges in fantasy. The ghost of Lolotta escapes from Heaven to offer Totò a magical dove (of peace?) that grants all wishes. This creates its own problems, of course, because the mob wants everything from physical miracles to consumer goods, so the dove perversely symbolizes the economic miracle of capitalism as well as prayers to God or workers’ paradise. promised. The story continues its sardonic mix of sweetness, slapstick, cynical social commentary, the unjust riot of the poor, their own problematic human behavior and escapist fantasies.
Miracle in MilanThe particular delusional tension of stems from its implicit recognition that this escape from wish-fulfillment is impossible, that not everyone can simply flee their poverty on broomsticks. (Hmm, the broomstick: both a sign of the little sweeping classes, an emblem of witchcraft and of the childish imagination. A charged symbol indeed.)
Therefore, I posit that the ending becomes a solution, an anti-solution, and a challenge to the viewer: you going to make this world? Beneath the sugar coating there is a bitter taste, no lofty feel-good talk, and no solace to let you leave the theater and forget about it. As for the double ending of FW Murnau the last laugh (Der letzte Mann, 1924), the “happy ending” of the film serves as a slap in the face, a jolt on the shoulders. If the film’s escape seems simple-minded, the remedy for society’s ills is even simpler: be good like Totò, treat yourself with love and respect. What makes it more impossible than flying on a broomstick?
Miracle in MilanThe most important author is not De Sica but his frequent writer-collaborator Cesare Zavattini.
Typical of Italian films, the screenplay is attributed to a group of writers, with Zavattini and De Sica leading the way accompanied by Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Mario Chiari and Adolfo Franci, all working from Zavattini’s novel. Toto il Buono (1943). Although Zavattini is known as an architect of Italian neorealism, his early works included fantasies like this and science fiction comics.
Therefore, he and De Sica felt at home applying the qualities of neorealism – non-professional actors, real locations, examination of social issues among the poor and working classes – to a film that uses these ingredients as the basis for pure fantasy or maybe using fantasy. as a basis for other things. Anyway, it’s all just a mix, and many doctrinaire critics were baffled, like you couldn’t do that. Others found the combination invigorating and original, and they were right.
One of Blu-ray’s most valuable bonuses is a TV profile on Zavattini. Equally valuable is the reprint of the original story booklet from Zavattini’s magazine which he turned into a children’s novel. Toto il Buono. History shows that, from its conception, its author thought of the idea in cinematographic terms. Incredibly, the artwork is by Lotte Reiniger, the pioneering silhouette animator.