In 1951, Mr Vittoria de Sica rolled out one of the most wonderfully weird movies I have ever seen (and after having seen it, I am sure you too will agree completely). The critics of the day however, were slightly less impressed. For one thing it seemed a world away from the gritty neorealism that had originally catapulted this filmmaker to fame. Sure there were a few sad little scenes of shantytowns and orphanages, but the longer one watched, the more outrageous the movie supposedly became. And it was also, well, weird.
Allow me to elaborate. A kindly old woman finds a baby in her cabbage patch and decides to raise him as her own son. When she dies though, the little boy, whom she has named Totò, is sent to an orphanage. Upon leaving the orphanage at the age of 18, Totò fatefully arrives at a shantytown on the outskirts of Milan.
Here, the young man quickly sets to work with a rather miraculous spring in his step. We watch intently, entranced at once by his innate compassion and instinctive generosity. And soon enough there is indeed a fine little town for the poorest of society. This idyllic new life is soon shattered however by the discovery of oil, with the spectacularly wealthy Mr Mobbi wanting his land back, and the pitiful squatters out of his sight at once. It would, in fact, have taken a miracle for him to change his mind.
It is around this point that the fine line between realism and fantasy begins to blur (although frankly, if one was paying attention, there was always something a little odd about a kid found, and perhaps born, of a cabbage.. a cabbage patch kid if you will).
With miracles of every variety eventually fluttering out of nowhere, and a cartoonish, almost silent-movie persuasion hovering in the background as well, one cannot be quite certain anymore that Miracle in Milan is a true piece of neorealist cinema. This, in turn, raises the broader question: what does the term of realism encompass?
The general consensus seems to be that realism demands an authenticity and a greater importance placed on the object of the filmmaker, rather than the filmmaker himself (as, one may argue, is the case in expressionism). Through the ultimate eyes of the camera, we seek true and complete honesty. Is that what we see in Miracle in Milan?
To answer this question, we may examine the scene of Totò’s first ingenious miracle: he decides to literally blow away the smoke instigated by Mobbi to scare off the citizens. Of course this would never happen in real life. Yet, it is the cinematic representation of what can and certainly does happen in real life: the ordinary man marching courageously into the face of adversity.
Conversely, Miracle in Milan can also show us the darker side of humanity, (although usually in a light-hearted way). In fact, during one scene, an employee of Mobbi is seen being hang out the window (apparently acting as a human weather-vane!). Throughout this film, many humanistic qualities are explored; crazy cruelty and foolish naiveté are also among the goodness.
So, to get back to my two original questions: What is realism, and is it realism that is being portrayed in de Sica’s Miracle in Milan?
Yes, I believe it is; although not perhaps in a way that is most obvious. With Miracle in Milan, it is true that we do not see a material reality. Instead, de Sica gives us something altogether more precious: a reality that speaks not only to one’s eyes, but to our hearts and our minds. One understands deeply the story’s warmth, but also the inkling of wickedness that lurks within all of us. Most importantly though, it is the humanity, and the triumph of goodness in this little story, that moves us profoundly. This, I believe, is the essence of realism.