Several weeks ago at the wonderful Italian language school, Romanica, in Modena, Italy one of the after class treats was a viewing of Vittori Di Sica’s fantastical 1951 Miracolo a Milano, complete with Italian subtitles to help us along. Though I’d seen his most famous films, Bicycle Thief 1948 and Shoe Shine 1945. I’d never seen Miracolo. As soon as the titles began to roll, I knew that it would be quite different than the two preceding, very serious, post-war films: bouncy carnival music began, not to stop until the end.
For anyone who loves, and looks for, movies about the underdogs pushing back against the upperdogs, and if not winning at least putting up a good fight, this is a film you have to see. 1951 or not, it will bring a smile to your lips and a lift to your heart.
For a more extensive summary
As the opening titles of Miracolo a Milano end and the hurdy-gurdy music churbles on, “Once Upon a Time” (in Italian) appears over a happy rural scene. Fairy tale like, a bubbly, aproned, older woman hears an infant crying and finds a baby under a cabbage leaf. For several scenes we see her bringing him up, full of love and cheer, turning childish accidents into happy games. Then in a faintly comic scene, two men appear, take her pulse simultaneously, counting rapidly and endlessly, and she dies. Toto, now about 8, is the sole mourner walking behind her horse-drawn hearse. Though the dull black and white of the movie emphasizes the foggy, wet streets of his mourning, comic elements bubble up here as well. He is distracted by a small parade, with its own marching band, advertising a new shoe brand; a man being pursued by the police falls in with him behind the hearse as though mourning also, sobbing mightily.
Two brief shots of a Dickensian orphanage facade show Toto entering and then leaving, some years later, still happy, greeting passers by with cheerful hellos and good afternoons, to the bemusement of some and irritation of others. He stops to lend a quick hand to men lifting a rail.
In a crowd that first night, gawking with others at the local society crowd, his valise is stolen. He follows a man — with some nice quick-bowed violins to hasten our pulse in the pursuit– and finally finds him. Instead of a confrontation, he gives the man the valise and takes his own clothes under his arm. In return, the man, down and out, in threadbare clothes, takes Toto to a squatters camp at the edge of the city to share his little tent against the winter wind and snow.
Though grounded in the neorealism of the period, blacks and whites and grays, of impoverished post-war groups of people, with few belongings, barely making do, Miracolo soon takes off into unexpected flights of fancy.
The first wonderful ”magical” scene occurs as the sun comes through the overcast skies in heavenly rays. The poor rush from all over the campground shouting “The sun! The sun!” to stand in its warmth. They crowd together, joyous, half singing, delighted as the birds in the fields might be with the alleviation of their cold and misery, rushing off to another when the first dims, Toto now carrying a small child.
The theme is set: the holy fool, his innocence and goodness to which people are drawn, and through whom kindness and rightness can re-enter the world, in ruins after war and destruction.
After several more scenes of his childish good nature, and terrific shots of a mighty wind storm tossing the make-shift camp into a swirl of carboard and tin, Toto leads everyone in a rebuilding of their ‘town’ with stronger materials, nails, rope and some organization. He sets out street signs, overpainting them to read “5+5=10 Street,” to help the kids learn their numbers. All along a wurlitzer plays, or happy chords on an accordion. He mediates quarrels, sympathizes with everyone’s complaints and saves a man from attempted suicide by railway train, finishing up with a little ditty, “Life is wonderful! La la la la!”
It all seems a little silly, and it is, but in a compelling, fairy-tale way. We believe it for the hour and a half of watching because there is a reason for fairy tales, a need to believe, even if only occassionally, to catch our own breath in a swirling world
Among the many characters, who seem to have been cast from actual Milanese street people, is an American (we suppose) Negro, who shyly exchanges glances with a young woman. When encouraged to talk to her by one of the old men, he demurs, brushing his cheek and saying, “I’m black.”
A love encounter between Toto and Edwige begins with a bucket of water; all seems right in the village and then the bad guys enter. In black top hats or bowlers and lush fur collars they descend from fine, black, automobiles and dicker with each other over the price of the property. Again Di Sicca unrolls a funny scene with numbers, the buyer and seller, trading offers at top speed, while the on-lookers are mesmerized. A big crowd gathers, somewhat threatening, until Toto calms then, and invites the rich men to warm their hands on the fire. There, somewhat nervously, one makes an amusing assertion of equality between rich and poor — see, we all have one nose, five fingers!
As they drive off, relieved at escaping, the crowd bursts into a wonderful, Disney-like, song, as they parade through the streets.
“All we want is a little house where we can sleep and live in,
Just a bit of land to live and die on.
All we ask are shoes, a sip of milk and a piece of bread.
This is what we need to, to believe in tomorrow.”
Fire crackers and a Nickelodeon strike up. Balloons bob and and a drawing is held — for a real, cooked chicken…. A line of chairs is set up to watch the sunset. A fortune teller tells everyone the best will come.
Then, the second shoe drops. A long May-pole being driven into the ground releases a gusher of liquid. At first they think it’s water, and more happy celebrations ensue, but, of course, it’s gas. The business man, Mr. Mobbi, returns to make his claim.
Now the film really begins to stir it’s frothy mix of humans beings seeking justice against the greed of the high and mighty, with high fantasy. After Toto leads a delegation to the Great Man’s house and thinks agreement has been reached, the police are brought in. The people resist. Barricades are set up. Smoke grenades are thrown, panic sets in. Toto, climbing the maypole to wave his handkerchief in surrender is surprised to see his mother’s spirit appear to him, as sweet as ever, and to hand him a magic dove. She rushes off, pursued by two spirit guards of the heavenly spheres –in very good special effects of the time.
As Toto realizes that the dove, like a Genie, can grant any wish, the first wonderful action begins. Up on a hill, out of the smoke, he gets all the people to begin blowing. Marching down into the encampment the smoke retreats before them –like the sea opening up– and washes over the stunned policemen. In response to police fire hoses, umbrellas appear in every hand. We of course, are delighted, grinning at the fantasy. When Mr Mobbi, clearly in charge, orders a Captain to call a charge, an operatic aria comes from his mouth; the second Captain does even better, letting forth in a stirring soprano voice. The folks behind the barricades shout their approval: Bravo! Bravo! When the second platoon finally rushes forward, the ground turns to ice beneath their boots and they slip and slide and whirl as though on an ice-rink.
The police retreat and of course the people, understanding what the dove can do, begin begging Toto for a new coat, a sewing machine, a million lira, a million lira plus one! Even the police creep back in, disguised with shrubs and flower on their hats. The lead Captain wants to be a General; he is so made.
As the love grows between Toto and Edwige the heavenly shades come back, looking for the dove, and find it. Suddenly Toto has lost his powers. The people are rounded up, tossed into a caravan of paddy-wagons. As Toto looks out the back window Edwige races after with a dove she has found, and passing her, his spirit mother. She gives him back his magic touch before she is hurried off by the spirit guards. The sides of the wagons all fall away and the people run into the central piazza of Milan, in the shadow of the great Duomo. There, Toto seizes a street sweeper’s broom, mounts Edwige and himself on it and begins to fly through the air. All the people scramble for brooms and in the final miraculous scene are sailing in a broom formation into the heaven singing their song — “All we need is a little home… and a bit of land.”
I know it sounds corny, but it works! The core of truth we can believe: that people organized together can improve their lives, and stand up to bullies; that good cheer and song in the struggle are a great benefit. The rest, well who knows? We all need to believe that ordinary household things can turn magical, if only to keep our cheer up and invention of new ways to maintain our equality — five fingers, all!
If you look around, you may be able to find it. Here’s a YouTube version, in Italian with Spanish subtitles and not great quality. but at least it might get you started. There are eight “chunks,” all of which are available. And certainly, if the movie comes, in a better form than this, see it by all means. It’s a delightful, unusual, necessary film to see.
[If you see it, tell me what you think the significance of the train rolling repeatedly back and forth in the background symbolizes; perhaps the industrial world against which this fantasy is playing out. Interesting.]