Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Children Are Watching Us

Criterion Collection// 1944 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening shot…
Brace yourselves for this vivid, deeply humane portrait of a family’s disintegration.

A master of Italian neorealism, director Vittorio De Sica explores the heartbreaking consequences of a woman’s adultery on the life of her only child. In a mesmerizing performance, five-year-old actor Luciano De Ambrosis captures the wonder and pain of innocence with the most achingly expressive eyes in perhaps all cinema.

A bit of plot…
Young Prico (Luciano De Ambrosis) loves his mother and father, two deeply flawed people who nonetheless represent the center of his universe. When his mother runs off with a callow womanizer, Prico’s life—along with his father’s—unravels in confusion and sorrow. While the couple attempt to reconcile during a beach holiday, little Prico slowly, painfully comes to realize that the folly of adults will affect his life forever. And there is nothing he can do about it.

Historical context and significance
Please humor me for a bit of background: At the end of World War II, De Sica became one of the founding directors of neorealism, a cinematic style marked by a quest for truthfulness, working-class scenarios, intense emotions, and an anti-authoritarian attitude finally given free reign after the fall of Mussolini. In this film and later classics such as Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thieves, and Umberto D., the director explored social problems in post-Fascist Italy, primarily poverty. One tenet of neorealism holds that class struggles are responsible for more of the world’s problems than differences among nations, and this was a theme De Sica would return to throughout his career, starting with this film.

De Sica understood that the psychology of human motivation is always complex and open to interpretation, just as our reaction to human behavior is deeply subjective and colored by our own experiences. Seen in this light, De Sica in this gut-wrenching film argues that a woman’s desire to transcend her social status could unconsciously lead to adultery. But there’s more. People living in Nazi-occupied Italy would understand that a dominant characteristic of the Fascist state is the absolute sanctity of the family. So a husband in this situation would strive to do everything in his power to hold his family together, in spite of his own desires or reaction to his wife’s betrayal. In a Fascist regime where social expectations are paramount, appearances mean everything—and failure is not an option. To fail means to be disgraced; the consequences are tragic.

In crafting his often-sorrowful mise-en-scene, De Sica would sometimes employ a documentary approach, letting his camera linger on mundane objects until the concentrated attention began to suggest deeper meanings, giving context to social life in a country devastated by war. The Children are Watching Us (I Bambini ci Guardano) also marks his first collaboration with screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, who shared De Sica’s politics and often bleak (though some would argue pragmatic) worldview. Significantly, this picture was filmed in 1942, but not released until two years later, just as the European conflict began to turn in favor of the Allied Forces.

As a work of art, The Children are Watching Us will impress film lovers with its formal, even painterly, visual compositions. On a deeper level, it’s hard to remain unmoved while watching young Prico survey the dysfunctional world around him. Here is a world over which the child has no control and struggles to comprehend as his innocence is ripped away by the actions of petty people obsessed with their own banal existence. There are also many daring critiques of Fascism — considering the time and place the film was made—both subtle and overt.

What’s on the disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The fullscreen video is razor sharp and virtually free of blemishes. One or two scratches and a lone splice mark are evident, but are strictly limitations of the source material. Criterion undertook a thorough digital restoration of the film, which was transferred from a 35mm master print. Similar care was taken to clean up the mono audio, according to the liner notes.

Extras are fewer than we’ve come to expect from Criterion, but still first-rate. The highlight is an eight-minute video interview with Luciano De Ambrosis, now in his seventies, who recalls in vivid detail his experiences playing Prico and what it was like to work with De Sica. Caution: His comments reveal significant plot points, so first-time viewers will want to watch this interview after the feature film.

Criterion also delivers a “new and improved” English subtitle translation, as well as a 24-page booklet of essays, photographs and contextual information that enhance our appreciation of the film. A brief interview with a De Sica scholar rounds out the extra content.

Caveat lector
Get out your handkerchiefs.


The Children are Watching Us is a quietly devastating film, exquisitely photographed in satin shades of black and white.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.


  1. Just watched this , beautiful film thaat moved me more then I can remember any other film in years. Heartbreaking and heartfelt !

  2. touchingly lacrymose...I never knew of this masterpiece in the lexicon on neo-realismus... If Ingrid Bergman had seen this film before any of Rossellini's, she would have embraced de Sica first....


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