VAULTS: Rediscovering De Sica the actor

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The great Italian actor-director Vittorio De Sica (1902-74) began performing in his teens and emerged as a popular leading man of Italian film comedies in the early 1930s, while simultaneously managing his own theatrical troupe. His film directing career, which began with cautiously commercial subject matter in 1940, is decisively outnumbered by acting vehicles, about 150-25, but a handful of directing credits elevated his reputation in the international critical arena.

De Sica and his most influential screenwriting collaborator, Cesare Zavattini, became esteemed heartbreakers after making “Shoeshine” and “Bicycle Thieves” (retitled “The Bicycle Thief” by its American importer) in the aftermath of World War II. The gravity of these movies, set in Rome among ordinary people struggling to make a living, was welcomed and honored abroad but resisted in the domestic market. Moviegoing Italians were nostalgic for escapism and resentful of filmmakers who reminded them of privation and misfortune.

The topical and compassionate impulses that distinguished the first two De Sica-Zavattini classics remained important to subsequent titles that shared a backdrop of urban poverty and struggle, notably “Miracle in Milan” and “Umberto D.” The men were also destined to remain a prestigious team over four decades. But by the early 1950s, Vittorio De Sica, whose most conspicuous private weakness was compulsive gambling, found it expedient to revitalize his career as a popular film actor, now in character roles that drew on his maturity, charm and humorous versatility.

These traits lent themselves to impressive export; for example, when he played the diplomat who enchants Danielle Darrieux in Max Ophuls’ “The Earrings of Madame de …,” circa 1953, or the flamboyant Dr. Rinaldi in David O. Selznick’s remake of “A Farewell to Arms.”

He seemed the best reason to tolerate that afterthought in 1957; his presence still flattered it the last time I checked.

A preponderance of his credits remained home-grown, and two recent DVD releases make it possible to rediscover aspects of the essentially commercial but durably engaging De Sica acting career in middle-age. “Bread, Love and Dreams,” a sleeper of 1953, cast De Sica as the dignified, lovelorn new police chief in a remote hilltop village; it also introduced Americans to a voluptuous starlet called Gina Lollobrigida, cast as a barefoot, hot-tempered rural handful nicknamed Frisky. “Too Bad She’s Bad,” a snappier proposition because of its urban setting (Rome, circa 1954) and abundance of eccentric, fast-talking characters, gave Americans their first taste of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni as a romantic comedy match, benignly abetted by De Sica as the leading lady’s larcenous dad, a professional thief with a philosophical streak and a genius for evasive tactics.

In retrospect, it’s “Too Bad” that re-emerges as a screwball gem, as adept as “Bringing Up Baby” at contriving a fable of blithe and irresistible romantic entrapment while showcasing the skills of virtuoso performers. The director, Alessandro Blasetti, had a long and successful career, and the concluding stages of this movie seem to find him in peak form. He juggles about a dozen cast members as they parade from a bus to a police station, where De Sica’s character demonstrates how to dissemble away a robbery charge. Seizing control of all topics, material or immaterial, he reduces everything to a conciliatory muddle and sets the stage for Mastroianni’s final surrender to Miss Loren, who always has him at a bewitching disadvantage. Few movies compare with this one for brilliant execution down the stretch.

As a civilized farceur, Vittorio De Sica rivaled such Hollywood contemporaries as John Barrymore, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Adolphe Menjou and Charles Ruggles. His prowess as a light comedian — and mentor for stunners such as the young Lollobrigida and Loren — might be enjoyably contrasted with a memorable dramatic performance — as the imposter in Roberto Rossellini’s 1959 character study, “Il Generale Della Rovere.” This film helped to restore the director’s reputation for gravity, which had paralleled Vittorio De Sica’s in the postwar years and then lapsed during his notorious alliance with Ingrid Bergman.

“Generale Della Rovere” also falters in the last hour. Perhaps letdowns after auspicious starts had become a Rossellini specialty. The movie remains compelling while De Sica is front and center, establishing his hustling, chiseling character, Giovanni Bertone, an opportunist in Genoa who trades on the anxieties of people seeking to assist relatives jailed by the Nazis. Unfortunately, Bertone is diminished once he’s behind bars, largely confined to a cell and deployed as a traitor. Bertone botches the assignment, to his redemptive credit, but we no longer seem in adequate touch with his mixed motives. The movie loses vitality when it ceases to rely on De Sica as a devious fraud on the go. Reinforcing the Vittorio De Sica inventory from the 1950s is certainly welcome, but for American admirers there’s a huge missing batch of titles: the popular comedies of the 1930s that made him a favorite to begin with. It’s difficult to believe some of them don’t remain as attractive as the star himself.

TITLE: “Bread, Love and Dreams” (1953)
CREDITS: Directed by Luigi Comencini, from a screenplay by Mr. Comencini and Ettore M. Margadonna. Italian and English-language versions; no subtitles with the Italian print
RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes
DVD EDITION: Mya Communication
TITLE: “Too Bad She’s Bad” (“Peccato Che Sia Una Canaglia,” 1954)
CREDITS: Directed by Alessandro Blasetti. Screenplay by Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Sandro Continenza and Ennio Flaiano, based on the story “The Fanatic” by Alberto Moravia In Italian with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
DVD EDITION: Ivy Video
WEB SITE: www.ivyvideo.com

TITLE: “Il Generale Della Rovere” (1959)
CREDITS: Directed by Roberto Rossellini. Screenplay by Sergio Amidei, Diego Fabbri and Indro Montanelli. In Italian with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes, plus supplementary material
DVD EDITION: The Criterion Collection
WEB SITE: www.criterionco.com

These films were made and released before the advent of the film rating system

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