Vittorio De Sica‘s Miracle in Milan (Miracolo a Milano) puzzled some viewers in 1951 for reasons we’ll reveal. It’s safe to say more viewers were simply delighted by its whimsy. I remember being both surprised and exhilarated when first seeing it on VHS in ancient days, and revisiting the film’s new 4K digital restoration from Criterion confirms the film’s special and prescient qualities.
The film announces its fairy-tale-ness with the opening title “C’era una volta” (Once upon a time). The whimsy begins immediately, as a frumpy elderly lady emerges from her little house to tend her enormous cabbage patch. She’s Lolotta, played by Emma Gramatica, well into her 70s. Hearing a baby’s cry, she gestures broadly as in a silent film and rushes to discover the infant, literally under a cabbage leaf. Without further ado, she raises the child, called Totò.
When coming home one day to find the boy, now older, staring at something spilled across the floor, she doesn’t fly into a tizzy but turns it into a game by imagining the liquid as a river seen from high above, surrounded by houses. She lifts her skirts and begins a lively dance over the scene. She instills the security of being loved with a gift for acceptance, optimism, and fancy.
We hope this exertion isn’t what kills her, for next, she’s on her deathbed, and then it’s a lonely funeral procession behind the simple horse-drawn casket along gorgeous misty streets – kudos to 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, taking his hand and shedding fake tears. Unless I miss my guess, this is a parodic wink at De Sica’s previous film, the international sensation Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948).
The man makes his escape and Totò is marched into the orphanage to emerge one edit later, older but hardly taller and certainly no wiser, now played by Francesco Golisano as smiling, open-faced, naïve, and impervious. The old lady’s mothering has left Totò reasonably armed for a world of poverty, greed, selfishness, pretension, and cynicism. When he wishes a stranger good morning, as the man hurries past all bundled and with a briefcase in hand, the stranger demands to know what he means by such impertinence. “Are you making fun of me?”
Totò witnesses a pack of homeless, shivery wanderers contending for space in the lone sunbeam that illuminates an empty field dotted with a few shacks. Perceiving a problem – the homeless and wretched – Totò sets about fixing it by establishing orderly lanes of shacks, a kind of Milanese Hooverville in which the poor can live with some dignity and enterprise, aping middle-class gestures. Instead of going to the cinema, they’re charged to watch the sunset.
Much of Miracle in Milan is devoted to the eccentric behavior of these residents, who are gentle cartoon figures of human haplessness accompanied by a bouncy, sometimes jazzy score by Alessandro Cicognini. This music and this parade of broad humanity amid the ash-heaps of postwar Milan may confuse unwary viewers into thinking we’ve stumbled into an early film by Federico Fellini.
Fellini’s debut, Variety Lights (Luci del varietà), had opened in Italy only one month earlier than De Sica’s film; the two must have been made at the same time. If Fellini was one part vaudeville, one part nostalgia, and one part Italian Neorealism, Miracle in Milan seems already a full-blown template for his career. Further, De Sica’s film signals Roberto Rossellini’s inspiring mixture of Neorealism and moral fantasy, The Machine to Kill Bad People (La Macchina ammazzacattivi, 1952).
Returning to our story, the owner of the empty field temporarily leaves the squatters alone until the discovery of oil causes a new owner, Mobbi (Guglielmo Barnabò), to mobilize the police for eviction. A committee of squatters visits Mobbi’s monumental headquarters, where certain poses and profiles seem to identify him with the late, unlamented Mussolini. As postwar capitalism replaces militarized fascism, the new boss clearly resembles the old boss.
At this point, the film simply gives itself up to fantasy. Lolotta’s ghost escapes from Heaven to present Totò with a magic dove (of peace?) that fulfills all wishes. This creates its own problems, of course, as the crowd wants a whole bunch of things, from physical miracles to consumer goods, so the dove perversely symbolizes the economic miracle of capitalism as well as prayers to God or the promised workers paradise. The story continues its sardonic mixture of sweetness, slapstick, cynical social comment, the unfair rousting of the poor, their own problematic human behavior, and escapist fantasy.
Miracle in Milan‘s special delirious tension derives from its implicit recognition that this wish-fulfillment escapism is impossible, that everyone can’t simply fly from their poverty on broomsticks. (Hmm, the broomstick: at once a sign of the lowly street-sweeping classes, the emblem of witchcraft, and the child’s imagination. A loaded symbol indeed.)
Therefore, I posit, the ending becomes a solution, an anti-solution, and a challenge to the viewer: Well, what are you going to do about this world? Under the sugar coating is a bitter taste, no noble feel-good speech, and no reassurance to let you leave the theatre and forget about it. As with the double ending of F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann, 1924), the film’s “happy ending” serves as a slap in the face, a shake on the shoulders. If the film’s escapism seems simple-minded, even simpler is the cure to society’s ills: being good like Totò, treating each other with love and respect. What makes that more impossible than flying on a broom?
Miracle in Milan‘s most crucial auteur isn’t De Sica but his frequent writer-collaborator Cesare Zavattini.
Typical for Italian films, the screenplay is credited to a gaggle of writers, with Zavattini and De Sica up top accompanied by Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Mario Chiari and Adolfo Franci, all working from Zavattini’s novel Totò il Buono (1943). Although Zavattini is known as an architect of Italian Neorealism, his early works included fantasies such as this and science fiction comics.
Therefore, he and De Sica felt at home applying qualities of Neorealism – non-professional actors, real locations, examination of social problems amid the poor and working classes – to a film that uses these ingredients as a basis for outright fantasy or perhaps uses fantasy as a basis for the other stuff. Anyway, it’s all one melange, and many doctrinaire critics were bewildered, as though you can’t do that. Others found the combination bracing and original, and they were right.
One of the Blu-ray’s most valuable bonuses is a TV profile on Zavattini. Equally valuable is the booklet’s reprint of Zavattini’s original magazine story that he turned into the children’s novel Totò il Buono. The story shows that, from its conception, its author thought of the idea in cinematic terms. Incredibly, the illustration is by Lotte Reiniger, the pioneering silhouette animator.