Directed by Vittorio De Sica
In the rural Italian countryside, an old spinster makes a most unusual discovery in her cabbage patch, a most unusual discovery indeed. For among the dirt and bugs and leaves she finds a treasure unlike any other: a newborn baby. Whisking him away from his earthen cradle, she raises him, naming him Totò. Is life, much like his birth, are the subject of laughter and whimsy. One day she comes home to find Totò standing over a boiling cauldron of milk that has spilled to the floor. Instead of chastising him, she arranges a series of miniatures and models around the white river to create a town which she gleefully jumps over. Truly, this is a house of love, joy, and boundless imagination. But like all things, it cannot last forever. She dies one day and Totò is deposited into an orphanage in Milan. Several years later, Totò emerges as a bright faced ingénue who finds himself in the presence of a community of beggars. Instead of being beaten down by poverty, Totò helps the beggars form a shantytown community. What happens next is the stuff of myth and legend in Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan.
As something that can only accurately be labeled as a Neorealist fable, Miracle in Milan is a joyful departure from De Sica’s usual cinematic fare. De Sica, who along with directors Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, and Federico Fellini, helped establish the Italian Neorealist film movement. Characterized by stories about the poor and the working class surviving in the rubble of post-World War Two Italy, Italian Neorealism strove to make art out of everyday life. Filmed largely on location and with nonprofessional actors, Italian Neorealism helped revitalize European cinema with auteur-driven craftsmanship and overwhelmingly powerful stories. Of these films, few were as influential and devastating as those by De Sica. De Sica shocked the world with his Neorealist trifecta, Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), and Umberto D (1952). They told stories of the hopelessness of post-war poverty and the inescapable realities of life.
So imagine the world’s surprise when De Sica released Miracle in Milan, a film which not only abandons pretenses of reality, but embraces the impossible, mythical, and supernatural. Indeed, the world of Miracle in Milan is a fantastic one. Oil lamps burn all night long yet extinguish themselves at dawn, fountains of fresh water erupt wherever the ground is poked or prodded, and a geyser of gasoline explodes in the shantytown square. But despite all of these miraculous occurrences, Totò is by far the greatest miracle. He single-handedly helps the beggars construct their houses and communities. With an effortless charm and happiness he defuses arguments, brings solace to the suffering, and motivates the town to act and cooperate as one. It is a perfect, idealized society.
Unfortunately, it is discovered that the shantytown lies on top of a massive oil reserve. So a local wealthy baron buys up the land and hires the police to clear the beggars out. When they come storming into their town, Totò is helpless to stop them. But suddenly, the ghost of Totò’s foster mother appears and gives him a magical white dove that grants any wish that the holder asks. Totò is joyous at the prospect of helping his friends out. So he begins presenting them with lavish gifts: evening wear, food, cabinets, gowns, and money. He then uses it to trick and foil the police’s attempts at kicking them out. But while the police retreat and regroup, a mob forms, demanding more and more gifts from a beleaguered Totò. Unfortunately, two angels descend from Heaven and snatch the white dove back up. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice to say that it is magical, both figuratively and literally.
Of course, there is some root in reality. The shantytown was populated with real-life beggars. De Sica’s son once recalled how the beggars would get drunk every night and had to be awakened every morning with buckets of cold water. There is a desperate pride in their faces when they are presented with overcoats and top hats by Totò’s white dove. Their faces are worn and rugged with age and weather. And the baron’s sinister manipulations aimed at driving the beggars from the shantytown reflect post-war corruption in Italy. Some might claim that the film is a metaphor for capitalism (the baron and police) and communism (the shantytown). But I would hesitate to make that comparison. The film is a fable. You shouldn’t read too far into it. De Sica didn’t.
“It is essentially a fairy story…peopled by strange creatures who believe in miracles and who work them themselves; it is a fairy tale for young and old,” writes De Sica, “To give life to this film of mine, I tried to find the meaning of a little word that likes to hide everywhere; it is goodness. I beg you to tell me if you find it here in these images, if you recognize it at least here and there.” And, indeed, there is much goodness to be found in this triumph of a film. Much of it can be found in Totò, who sacrifices everything in an attempt to make everyone happy.
But there is one scene that perfectly captures the spirit of the film. About halfway through the film, the inhabitants of the shantytown dig for water in the town square. They hit pay dirt as a massive volcano of water leaps from the ground. All of the beggars jump up and down in joy. Someone goes to have a drink, but spits it out, realizing that it’s gasoline. Silence hits the town. Then, the cheering erupts a second time. “Gasoline,” the beggars shout! No matter what their boon, they find joy. And that really is the heart of the film: that no matter what one’s station in life, there is room for joy, happiness, and contentment.