At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Vittorio De Sica - film director

Oscar-winning maestro behind 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves


Vittorio De Sica was one of the major figures of Italian neorealism
Vittorio De Sica was one of the major figures
of Italian neorealism
Vittorio De Sica, the director whose 1948 film Bicycle Thieves is regarded still as one of the greatest movies of all time, was born on this day in 1901 in Sora in Lazio.

Bicycle Thieves, a story set in the poverty of post-War Rome, was a masterpiece of Italian neorealism, the genre of which the major figures, in addition to De Sica, were Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini and Giuseppe De Santis and, to a smaller degree, Federico Fellini.

The movie was one of four that landed Academy Awards for De Sica. Another of his great neo-realist movies, Shoeshine (1948), won an honorary Oscar, while Bicycle Thieves won a special award as an outstanding foreign language film in the days before the Best Foreign Language Film category was introduced.

De Sica would later win Oscars in that section for Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) – a comedy starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni – and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970). 

His Marriage Italian Style (1964), also starring Loren and Mastroianni, also earned a nomination as Best Foreign Language Film and for Loren as Best Actress. Loren did win Best Actress for her role in his 1961 movie La Ciociara, which was released outside Italy as Two Women.

Lamberto Maggiorani (left) and Enzo Staiola played
father and son in De Sica's acclaimed Bicycle Thieves
Born in Sora, which lies between Rome and Naples in the area known as Ciociaria, De Sica essentially grew up in Naples, to which his father, Umberto, who worked as a bank clerk with Banca d’Italia, was transferred in 1905.

During the First World War, De Sica had his first taste of the entertainment business when he joined a musical group that performed in military hospitals in Naples. He is said to have had an excellent singing voice.

He began acting in the 1920s and became something of a matinee idol on the stage. This was to lead to movie roles, mainly in light comedies. De Sica was box office for a while, chosen to star opposite female headliners such as Loren and Gina Lollobrigida.

When he turned to directing, he began with movies in a similarly frothy vein. So he took audiences and the critics by surprise with his fourth film, The Children Are Watching Us, released in 1944. An extraordinarily sensitive story about a child whose mother elopes with another man, leaving his father distraught, the film was the first product of De Sica’s collaboration with the screenwriter Cesare Zavattini.

Zavattini, a former law student, began to write screenplays when his employer, Angelo Rizzoli, moved from publishing books and magazines into producing films.  He and De Sica would work together on Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan (1951), which won a Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Umberto D (1952).

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow won the  third of De Sica's four Academy Awards
Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow won the
third of De Sica's four Academy Awards
Umberto D, a bleak study of the problems of old age, was a box-office flop, so much so that film historians saw it as the beginning of the end for neo-realism. Indeed, it prompted De Sica to return to lighter work.

Nonetheless, he continued to collect awards and after some commentators had written him off as past his peak he sprang another surprise with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, based on a novel by Giorgio Bassani about the plight of Jews in Italy under Fascism, which won him another Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

A compulsive gambler, De Sica often lost large sums of money and accepted work he might otherwise have turned down in order to settle debts.  He was married twice, first to the actress Giuditta Rissone, who bore him a daughter, and later to the Spanish actress Maria Mercader, with whom he had two sons.

His personal life was complicated, however. He made a pact with his first wife to maintain the pretence of marriage while their daughter was growing up and at Christmas would turn the clocks back two hours in his second wife’s house so he could celebrate with both families, one after the other.

De Sica was a member of the Italian Communist Party, and it was the cause of some discomfort to him that his relationship with Maria Mercader created an unwelcome link with Ramon Mercader, her brother, who was a Spanish communist but at the same time an agent for the Soviet secret police, on whose behalf he carried out the assassination of the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940.

Sora sits alongside the Liri river against the backdrop of the Apennine mountains
Sora sits alongside the Liri river against the backdrop
of the Apennine mountains
Travel tip:

Built on a plain alongside the Liri river, in the shadow of the Monti Ernici range in the Apennines, the town of Sora can be found about 25km east of Frosinone in Lazio, about 120m  south-east of Rome and 140km north of Naples, close to the border with Abruzzo. A settlement since the fourth century BC, when it was occupied by the Volsci tribe, it has been at various times under the rule of Rome and Naples.  It lies at the heart of the Ciociaria, an area renowned for its cuisine and colourful and elaborate peasant costumes. Today its economy is a mix of industry and agriculture. It is a pleasant town with some pretty squares, including Piazza Santa Restituta, which sits in front of the church of the same name, just off Lungoliri Mazzini. On rocks above the town there are the remains of a walled fortification that dates back to the Volsci period.

The Toledo Metro station in Naples
The Toledo Metro station in Naples
Travel tip:

The Banca d’Italia building in Naples is in a fairly nondescript street linking Via Medina with Via Toledo, not on the tourist trail. Yet within a few metres is one of the city’s more unlikely must-see places, the Metro station Toledo. It is one of a number of so-called ‘art stations’ on the line linking Piazza Garibaldi and Piscinola. Toledo is famous for its breathtaking escalator descent through a vast mosaic by the Spanish architect Oscar Tusquets Blanca known as the Crater de Luz – the crater of light – which creates the impression of daylight streaming into a volcanic crater.


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