Known as one of the most influential directors of postwar European cinema, Vittorio De Sica has been widely celebrated for his contributions to Italian neorealism. Neorealism changed the film landscape throughout Europe, and De Sica’s films evoke the quintessence of the cinematic movement with their employment of non-professional actors, shooting on location, reliance on natural light, and deep examination the human condition.
Surprisingly, De Sica began his career as an actor. His first screen appearance was a small role in a 1918 silent film, but throughout the 1920s, he became well-known for his role in theater productions, which paved the way for his breakout role as Bruno in Mario Camerini’s 1932 film, Gi uomini, che mascalzoni! De Sica’s subsequent roles in lighthearted, sentimental romantic musicals and comedies throughout the 1930s established him as one of the most popular leading men in Italy.
Due to the calamitous outcomes of WWII and his collaboration with influential screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, De Sica evolved from an onscreen heartthrob to one of Europe’s greatest filmmakers. As the 1940s began and Nazi occupation was in its early stages in Italy, De Sica developed an urge to direct. This desire coincided with meeting his longtime artistic partner, Cesare Zavattini around 1941. The hypocrisy and lies pervading Mussolini’s fascist leadership provoked the two men’s desire to resist through film, where they could “tell the truth.”
For their first collaboration, De Sica and Zavattini respectively directed and wrote The Children Are Watching Us in 1942, which follows a 4-year-old boy and his father after a young mother deserts them. De Sica used a flashy and impressionist style, but he and Zavattini authentically depicted the boy’s emotional journey and incorporated politically provocative themes. While this film was crucial to the development of neorealism, the fascists’ intensified control over artistic production presented an increasing challenge to De Sica and Zavattini’s cinematic attempts to “tell the truth.”
After the end of WWII and the demise of fascism, De Sica and Zavattini’s neorealist partnership thrived. The duo produced Shoeshine (1946), a tragic story of 2 boys whose friendship ruptures when they begin committing petty crime. De Sica, finally in a position of complete artistic control, said he “felt such...happiness!” during the production of Shoeshine, and the film proceeded to earn an honorary Academy Award. De Sica and Zavattini’s other major films, such as Miracle in Milan (1951), Umberto D. (1952), and Bicycle Thieves (1948), also center on the mundane details and processes of ordinary lives to illuminate relevant social and economic issues facing postwar Italy—poverty, generational estrangement, and apathetic, bureaucratic institutions.
While De Sica’s films received critical acclaim, they did not attract mainstream audience acceptance. De Sica decided to make more commercially oriented films, beginning with Terminal Station (1953), a David O. Selznick production about the love affair between an American woman (Jennifer Jones) and an Italian man (Montgomery Clift). During this period of his career, De Sica began casting his favorite actresses, Sophia Loren, in films like L’oro di Napoli (1954), La ciociara (1961), Ieri, oggi, domani (1963), and Matrimonio all’italiana (1964).
By this point, De Sica had proved his skill both as a beloved, famous director and an actor. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in A Farewell to Arms (1957) and was celebrated for his iconic role as a thief-turned-spy in Roberto’s Rosselini’s Il Generale Della Rovere (1959), which portrayed De Sica’s own gambling habits. De Sica’s last film, Il viaggio (1974) was adapted from a short story from Luigi Pirandello and paired Richard Burton with Sophia Loren. In 1974, Vittorio De Sica died at 73 after a surgery at the Neuilly-sur-Seine hospital in Paris.