Miracle in Milan (Miracolo a Milano)

Director: Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay: Cesare Zavattini & Vittorio De Sica and Suso Cecchi D'Amico & Mario Chiari & Adolfo Franci (based on the novel by Cesare Zavattini)
Stars: Francesco Golisano (Totó), Emma Gramatica (Lolotta), Paolo Stoppa (Rappi), Guglielmo Barnabò (Mobbi), Brunella Bovo (Edvige), Anna Carena (Marta), Alba Arnova (Statue)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1951
Country: Italy
Miracle in Milan Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Miracle in Milan

Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (Miracolo a Milano) is a seemingly unlikely follow-up to his neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948). Like that film, Miracle in Milan is set among the desperate and the poverty-stricken of postwar Italy, but as the title suggests, it veers into the realm of the fantastical, mixing neorealist drama with blissful flights of magical fancy. It is an uneasy mix that doesn’t entirely work, but you can’t fault De Sica for trying something different and unexpected while still maintaining his essential imperative of respecting the dignity of the everyday world through cinematic representation.

The film was adapted from the 1942 novel Totò il Buono by Cesare Zavattini, the theoretical father of neorealism who had previously cowritten Bicycle Thieves with De Sica and would go on to write Umberto D. (1952), which is generally considered the last of the classical neorealist films. The protagonist, Totó (Francesco Golisano, who looks a bit like a more baby-faced James Cagney), is discovered as a newborn baby in a cabbage page by a kindly old woman named Lolotta (Emma Gramatica) who raises him into adolescence before dying. At that point he moves to an orphanage, from which he emerges a few years later as a bright-eyed young man with a perpetual smile and good attitude and nowhere to go. He winds up living in a ramshackle homeless community on an empty plot of land on the outskirts of Milan, where he becomes a vital part of the group, offering no end of encouragement and cheer while he works alongside others to make their meager living arrangements as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.

De Sica does not skirt the difficulties of life for the down-and-out, regularly reminding us of the tolls that a constant lack of food and shelter can take. Yet, Totó remains blithely positive in all situations, always ready with a smile and a word of encouragement, and the film provides plenty of good humor drawn from the various characters’ desperation. Totó is clearly meant to represent the best that humanity has to offer, which makes him more of a symbol than a person. Golisano, who began his short acting career when he was hired off the street by director Renato Castellani to play one of the lead roles in the neorealist drama Under the Sun of Rome (Sotto il sole di Roma, 1948), does all he can to ground Totó with some kind of human dimension, but he ultimately functions better as an ideal than an actual person.

Things take a sharp turn in the film’s second half when it is discovered that the land on which the homeless community has been constructed sits on an enormous well of petrol that starts shooting out of the ground like mini-geysers that the homeless initially mistake for water. This draws the attention of Sr. Mobbi (Guglielmo Barnabò), a wealthy businessman who had earlier respected the homeless community, but now will do anything (including commanding a massive, militaristic police force) to run them off the property so he can exploit it for profit. The underlying Marxist critique of the inhumanity of the capitalist profit motive is clear to the point of being overbearing, but this is balanced to some extent by the amusing visual humor of Sr. Mobbi’s massive, marble-laden office, which none-too-subtly reflects the fascist aesthetic of the previous era.

Although the title is singular, there are actually many, many miracles in Milan courtesy of Lolotta’s spirit and a magic white dove she imparts to Totó, which gives him the ability to make anyone’s wish come true. Ever the selfless, kind-hearted hero, Totó offers up his newfound magical abilities to those around him, which results in miracles both significant and petty. In keeping with the film’s neorealist impulse to reflect the realities of human nature, not everyone’s wishes are noble, and many of the homeless jump on the opportunity to enrich themselves or indulge in superficial pleasures. The film’s overarching conflict between the rich and the poor remains largely unaffected, though, as Sr. Mobbi and his minions (which include the police) remain unflappably awful and the poor, although riddled with human flaws, nonetheless maintain our sympathies. It all draws to a fantastical conclusion that is both emotionally stirring and utterly silly, which is pretty much in keeping with the rest of the film.

Miracle in Milan Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
Audio
  • Italian Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Video interview with neorealism expert and film scholar David Forgacs
  • Audio interview from the late 1960s with director Vittorio De Sica
  • Interviews with actor Brunella Bovo and Manuel De Sica, the director’s son
  • Feature-length documentary from 2019 on screenwriter Cesare Zavattini
  • Trailers
  • Essay by film critic Christina Newland and, on the Blu-ray, “Totò il buono,” a 1940 treatment by Zavattini that is the earliest version of the story on which Miracle in Milan is based
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 19, 2022

    COMMENTS
    Criterion’s presentation of Miracle in Milan was sourced from the film’s new 4K restoration. From the liner notes: “The 4K restoration … was carried out by the Cineteca di Bologna and Compass Film Foundation starting from the original image and sound negatives and from a period interpositive preserved in the Studio Cine laboratory. Some parts of the negative were in an advanced state of chemical decay and were seriously compromised. For these parts the interpositive was used. A first generation period copy, deposited by Manuel De Sica in the Cineteca di Bologna, was used as a reference. Thanks to director of photography Luca Bigazzi for supervising the grading. The processes were carried out at the L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna in 2019.” Th results, as you might imagine, are quite impressive, with a beautifully rendered, faithfully film-like image with fine detail, texture, and contrast. It is noticeably darker than previous Blu-ray editions, but it doesn’t look overly dark or muddy. The original Italian soundtrack is presented in a clean Linear PCM one-channel mix that sounds fine for its age. The supplements comprise a fantastic assortment of insight into the film, starting with a 27-minute video interview with film and cultural scholar David Forgacs (author of Italy’s Margins: Social Exclusion and Nation Formation Since 1861, the BFI Classics entry on Rome, Open City, and editor of The Antonio Gramsci Reader), who discusses the film in detail, from its production history, to the conflicts over credit between De Sica and Zavattini, to its critical reception. For those interested in Zavattini, also included is a 54-minute Italian television documentary on his life and career that is part of Italiani' con Paolo Mieli series, which is host by Mieli, the editor of Italy’s leading newspaper. There are archival video interviews with actor Brunella Bovo (6 min.) and Vittorio De Sica’s son, Manuel De Sica (7 min.), as well as an audio interview with the director conduced by film critic Gideon Bachmann in the late 1960s (9 min.) that focuses on his career and the Italian cinema’s ongoing shift away from neorealism. Also on the disc is an original theatrical trailer a 2021 re-release trailer. The insert booklet includes liner notes with an essay by film critic Christina Newland and the complete text of “Totò il buono,” the original 1940 treatment Zavattini published in the Italian magazine Cinema.

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)




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