Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Children are Watching Us - Betrayal at its cruelest

A child's security blanket is his family. Yank it and watch his world crumble irrevocably. Vittorio De Sica's 1944 Italian feature tells a bone chilling dark tale of the crumbling of one such little boy's world. Prico (Luciano De Ambrosis) is a five year old, secure in his world of mama, papa and caring housekeeper. One fine day playing at the park, he witnesses his mother (Isa Pola) having a conversation with a stranger (Adriano Rimoldi). He senses something amiss and, as a child's instincts usually are, is correct. That night mama puts him lovingly to bed and runs away with the stranger.

Between sunset and the next morning, his life is changed. A devastated father (Emilio Cigoli) who doesn't know how to face his nosy neighbors, first deposits little Prico to his aunty's home and then with his grandmother.   The little boy pines for his lost world. A while later, the remorseful mother is back in Prico's life and his world feels whole again. Mama, Papa and Prico. The family tries to rebuild itself. But a short vacation taken at a seaside resort forever destroys Prico's world.

Vittorio De Sica was one of the premier makers of Italian neorealism, the genre made famous during the end of World War II, featuring mostly non professional actors and having a realist aesthetic, focussing on the lives and problems of the ordinary man. He went on to make textbook examples of the genre in 'The Bicycle Thieves', a movie that remains popular to this day (wait for my review on it) and later Umberto D. But many consider 'The children are watching us' as one of the first seeds to be planted, sprouting the movement. The world De Sica shows us here is oblivious to the war Italy was in at the time of the movie. It might have something to do with fact that in a child's innocent world, only his family is at peril.

De Sica carefully shows us the film through Prico's understanding and it remains that way till its tragic end. Adults, too caught up in their own romantic notions, hurt, betrayals, sometime forget that the children who are being tended, are also watching us. Caught between his mother's romantic notions and his father's hurt, and the only selfish act his father, wrapped in his own betrayal, commits in the movie's emotionally charged climax, is a boy who loses his innocence forever, too early. De Sica in his rendering of the final sequence shows that even children that young wisen up. Fool me badly once, shame on you. Fool me badly twice, the shame is on me.

The actors perform well, with the father doing a fine job as the jilted man who must remain strong for his son and later forgive his wife for the sake of family and instill romance in the relationship. A simple, staid man who tries, till he can't. But the scene stealer is that little boy whose eyes we view the entire movie through. Heartbreakingly innocent with a wide eyed wonder at the vagaries of adults, later turning into despair and hopelessness, he lets his eyes do the talking. The last betrayal and his reaction in the climax where he makes his choice, shows a maturity in performance far beyond his years.

There is a lesson here for all parents. We bring children into the world, nurture them and hopefully they grow into secure, intelligent, happy adults. What happens when we forget them, in pursuit of our own whims and pleasures? Every human has a right to happiness, but can it be at the cost of these innocent beings we choose to birth. Wounds formed so early can turn deadly, forever marking a person. I recently read Michael Cunningham's 'The Hours' which had a similar segment on the abandonment of a child by his mother and the irreparable damage it had done to the psyche of the boy and the emotions he carried through life as a result. I wondered at the end how little Prico would turn out, due to one callous act of a parent.

'The children are watching us' is timeless and important. The emotions remain relevant through the decades. This tale of condemnation of selfish parental behavior robbing a child's innocence needs to be seen, then thought about and maybe used as an example. They are small, do not understand much, do not need much. However, they are so perceptive to their family boat rocking, that the ripples can continue throughout their lives. Prico's disappearance into his solitary world at the end shows us the importance of reevaluating our relationship with these little beings.

In Italian with English subtitles
Originally released in 1944
Available on DVD

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