Through the Eyes of a Child

Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, Citta Aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) is generally acknowledged as the film that ushered in the neorealism movement and set the tone and style for the postwar Italian films that followed. But the roots of neorealism can be traced back to Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) and Vittorio De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us (1944, I bambini ci guardano), both of which were filmed in 1942 but encountered distribution problems upon their release in the fall of 1942 when the war finally came to Italy and the bombings began. Ossessione was also the victim of Fascist censorship which reduced the film to less than half of its original running time and for years it was denied distribution in the U.S. due to an infringement of copyright (it was an uncredited adaptation of the James M. Cain novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice). The Children Are Watching Us didn’t fare any better during its limited release and for years it was a difficult film to see in its original form, even in its own country. 

The De Sica film is especially significant because it marked the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between the director and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini. A popular stage and film actor, De Sica began directing movies in 1940 but his early efforts were lightweight affairs, typical of the commercial Italian films of its day. With The Children Are Watching Us, De Sica and Zavattini began to create a new kind of cinema, one which explored the human condition using real locations and lesser known actors and non-professionals.

A simple melodrama on the surface, The Children Are Watching Us tells the story of a failed marriage through the eyes of the couple’s only child, Prico (Luciano De Ambrosis). When the story opens, Nina (Isa Pola) takes her young son to the park where she has a rendezvous with her lover Roberto (Adriano Rimoldi). Shortly thereafter she runs away with him, abandoning Prico and husband Andrea (Emilio Cigoli). Prico’s humiliated father, who is unable to care for his son while working, is forced to shuttle him from an uncaring aunt to a nagging grandmother and finally a boarding school. Then Nina returns to her family, guilt-stricken and full of remorse, and Andrea agrees to take her back for the sake of the boy. At first, they attempt to be the family they once were and even take a holiday trip to the beach.

Happy family? Not for long. Vittorio De Sica’s 1944 film, THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US is a portrait of a family torn apart by infidelity, poverty and other social pressures.

[Spoiler Alert] Then Roberto re-enters the scene and Nina is unable to contain her desire for him. The story comes to a tragic end with Andrea committing suicide over his failure as a father and husband and Prico rejecting his weak mother and returning to boarding school after a harsh final reunion.

Prico (Luciano De Ambrosis) must learn to accept he is basically an orphan Vittorio De Sica’s THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US (1944).

For Italian audiences at the time, The Children Are Watching Us was a clear departure from other melodramas due to its frank treatment of adult subject matter (infidelity) and its emotional realism. Some scenes were, in fact, quite jarring to moviegoers such as the moment when Nina’s lover enters the family’s apartment and berates her in front of her son or Andrea’s desperate final act (the suicide happens off-camera).

Andrea (Emilio Cigoli) feels like a failure as a husband and a father in the early neorealism classic, THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US (1944), directed by Vittorio De Sica.

Not surprisingly, The Children Are Watching Us ran into censorship problems with the Fascist regime controlling the state cinema since its depiction of unfaithful mothers, suicidal fathers and unhappy children reflected badly on Italian society and went against the tenets of Fascist philosophy. De Sica’s name was removed from the original credits by the fascist film board as punishment for failure to uphold the dictates of the Mussolini government (they were later re-instated).

Director Vittorio De Sica on the set of the 1944 film, THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US.

The film’s focus on lost innocence and the suffering of children was a theme that De Sica and Zavattini would return to again and again in such films as Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thief (1948). “Children are the first to suffer in life,” De Sica once said, “Innocents always pay.”

NIna (Isa Pola) faces her lover Roberto (Adriano Rimoldi) amid other beach vacationers in THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US, an early example of neorealism from 1944.

Despite the use of some interior studio sets, the beginnings of neorealism style can be observed throughout The Children Are Watching Us in De Sica’s choice of outdoor settings and real locations with nonprofessionals. The scene where an overcrowded tram stops on a street in Rome to deposit and take on additional passengers is a telling snapshot of its era, vivid with documentary detail, and the seaside sequence with middle-class Italians on holiday works as both a social critique of class structure and an evocative carefree moment in time before the nation felt the full impact of World War II.

Luciano De Ambrosis was a non-professional actor when he was cast in the major role of Prico in THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US (1944) by director Vittorio De Sica.

De Sica’s casting of unknown actors and novices in key roles also marked the beginning of a movement away from star-driven vehicles and glamorized characters. Luciano De Ambrosis, who plays Prico in the film, was discovered by De Sica in Turin when the director was acting in a local stage production and Luciano was one of the children appearing in a scene. The child was orphaned shortly before he began work on The Children Are Watching Us but he would go on to work with De Sica again on Cuore (1948).

Luciano De Ambrosis (left) and Emilio Cigoli are in the 1944 melodrama THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US, directed by Vittorio De Sica.

Emilio Cigoli, in the role of Andrea, was a film dubber prior to his appearance in The Children Are Watching Us and the woman playing Agnese, his housekeeper in the film, was actually his real mother.

A scene from Vittorio De Sica’s THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US (1944) featuring non-professional actors Luciano De Ambrosis (center) and his real life mother Giovanna Cigoli (left) as a housekeeper with professional actress Dina Perbellini.

Although De Sica would later call The Children Are Watching Us “a compromise between the old formula and the new,” he recognized its importance in his growth as a director and, for his screenwriter Zavattini, it was a revelation. In a later interview, the director said the film was “the most important stage in the evolution of my career as a filmmaker, and even of my career as a human being. Through the character of the child, we felt for the first time a human being, whereas all my previous characters had felt like puppets.”

Nina (Isa Pola) and her son Prico (Luciano De Ambrosis) enjoy a brief moment of happiness at the beach in Vittorio De Sica’s THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US (1944).

When The Children Are Watching Us was given a belated release in the U.S. in 1986, New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote, “The most interesting thing about ”The Children Are Watching Us’‘ is that it seems to be a sincerely serious film that was purposely disguised to look as rootless and classless as a soap opera…. This makes the bleak heart of ”The Children Are Watching Us” all the more astonishing. Here’s a very dark movie that initially looks no more disturbing than a tear-jerker like ”The Champ,” but that was to lead directly to De Sica’s greatest, angriest films – ”Shoeshine” and ”The Bicycle Thief.”

A scene from the film set of the neorealism classic THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US (1944).

In her film essay collection 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote, “This is one of those rare movies that are so finely felt that they’re too painful and too intransigent ever to reach a large audience…Except for Forbidden Games there has probably never been such a clear view of the antagonism and desolation that separate adult and child life.”

Nina (Isa Pola) is a married woman with a child but can’t resist an affair with Roberto (Adriano Rimoldi) in the 1944 melodrama, THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US.

Rarely seen in the U.S. or even in Italy in its original form, The Children Are Watching Us was finally released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in March 2006. It is a remarkably clear and vivid transfer considering its spotty distribution history with only some slight wear and tear apparent during the opening. The extras include an interview with Luciano De Ambrosis who recalls his experience with De Sica on the film and an overview of the movie and its place in Italian cinema by De Sica film scholar Callisto Cosulich. The Children Are Watching Us has yet to make its debut on Blu-Ray

*This is a revised and updated version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

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