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From the Vaults -- 'I Bambini Ci Guardano' ('The Children Are Watching Us') 1944

May 16, 2011 |  2:55 am


  'The Children Are Watching Us'  

Nina (Isa Pola), Prico (Luciano De Ambrosis) and Andrea (Emilio Cigoli) in “The Children Are Watching Us.”

If we met Nina and Andrea with their young son, Prico,  at the beach, we might assume that they were just another family on vacation with no more and no fewer problems than anyone else. But in Vittorio De Sica’s “I Bambini Ci Guardano” (“The Children Are Watching Us”), we don’t see them trying to be a family until halfway through the film, after a painful breakup and strained reconciliation in which their son, Prico, is the fragile glue that briefly holds them together.

“Children” is another movie in my random stroll through old foreign films on Netflix, and it was a marvelous discovery. The movie, which was restored in 2000, is beautifully photographed by Giuseppe Caracciolo and Romolo Garroni, with music by Renzo Rossellini.

Given the other De Sica films I have seen (“Bicycle Thieves” “Shoeshine”) I expected something fairly gritty, but “Children” turned out to be an opulent production showing middle-class life. Although it was made in the early 1940s, a soldier and sailor in one crowd scene are the only acknowledgment of World War II, and because of its enduring theme, the movie is essentially timeless.

Based on a 1924 novel by screenwriter Cesare Giulio Viola, who also worked on the script for “Shoeshine,” “Children” is told from the viewpoint of 4-year-old Prico (Luciano De Ambrosis), an absolutely wonderful young child whom nobody seems to want; not his mother, who sees him as an impediment to her love life; not his father, because he was a shameful “mistake” to be made right; and not even his relatives, to whom he is an annoying burden. The turning point comes in the final scene of the film, when he turns the tables and walks out on his mother – a powerful performance from a 4-year-old actor. 


  'The Children Are Watching Us'

'The Children Are Watching Us'


Nina meets her lover Roberto (Adriano Rimoldi) in a park, where she has brought Prico to ride his scooter.

“Children” opens with Nina (Isa Pola) and Prico going to a park so he can ride his scooter. They stop to watch a puppet show in which two boy puppets are in love with the same girl and duel to the death over her – a  childlike foreshadowing of the romantic triangle that will frame the rest of the story.

We soon learn that taking Prico to the park is merely a pretense for Nina to meet her lover Roberto (Adriano Rimoldi), who says that he has gotten tickets for them to leave for Genoa that night. Prico discovers them talking and Nina breaks off her conversation, so one might assume that when she tucks her son into bed that night it will be with a heavy heart grieving for her departed lover.

Instead, she disappears.

  'The Children Are Watching Us'  

Prico (Luciano De Ambrosis) asks where his mother has gone.

Initially, it’s not difficult to understand Nina’s romantic distractions. In the early scenes, her husband, Andrea (Emilio Cigoli), is officious and overbearing. But when Nina abandons the family for her Roberto,  Andrea becomes a far more sympathetic character who is heartbroken at his wife’s faithlessness and ashamed of the neighbors’ vicious gossip.

In a more modern setting, what might unfold is something like “Kramer vs. Kramer,” in which the abandoned father and son forge a relationship and learn to survive on their own. But not in “Children,” where Prico is glaring evidence of his mother’s absence.

To squelch the neighbors’ gossip, Andrea tries to find another home for Prico, first with Nina’s sister, who runs a lingerie shop, and then with his mother, a strict, hateful woman who cannot tolerate young children and berates her son for marrying Nina. On the train trip back home, Prico becomes seriously ill and awakens to find that Nina has returned to care for him. 

  'The Children Are Watching Us'  

Andrea wants no part of Nina, but Prico pleads for her to stay. The couple make a strained truce for the boy’s sake and there is a peaceful interlude when they take a vacation in Alassio in hopes of reconstructing the family.  But when Andrea leaves the family a few days early to return to work, Nina quickly reconnects with Roberto, who has trailed her to the resort.

This time, when Prico finds them, he tries to run away to rejoin his father but is found by the police.  They return to Rome, but Nina sends Prico home by himself and disappears once more with her lover. This time, a devastated Andrea takes Prico to a boarding school and after urging the headmaster to be like a caring parent to his son, makes his exit from the picture.

  'The Children Are Watching Us'  

In paired closeups, Andrea questions Prico about whether his mother has been seeing anyone.

  'The Children Are Watching Us'  

De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” and “Shoeshine” are so much a part of the postwar era that I assumed “Children” would be about World War II, but it’s actually timeless.  Which is not to say it is an escapist film. “Children” is a complicated story in which nearly every character is three-dimensional. Even minor characters, like the guests who play bocce ball at the resort and the doctor who examines Prico, are drawn with care.

What’s curious about the film is its portrayal of women, and it would be interesting to see how the question is fleshed out in Viola’s novel, but it has never been translated into English. Except for the family’s maid, Agnesse (Giovanna Cigoli), all the women in the film are utterly unsympathetic, especially Nina.

De Sica never establishes why she is unfaithful or even addresses whether she is unhappily married. Nor does the film explain what she sees in her relationship with her lover. In fact, between the time her husband leaves and her lover arrives at the vacation resort, she strikes up a friendship with a fop and we’re left to wonder whether she’ll hook up with any man in arm’s reach. Does she feel trapped? Suffocated? Abused? Unfulfilled? Insecure? What is she lacking that makes her willing to abandon her child? We never find out.

Andrea is equally enigmatic. He clearly loves Prico, but he spends most of the film trying to get rid of the boy. Why? The best answer we get is that Prico is a shameful reminder of his wife’s habit of running off. If Nina is one of the lousiest mothers in the history of film, Andrea is not one of the screen’s great fathers.

The hero of the tale is Prico and as the title indicates, the film is told from his point of view. Not that an American studio would ever attempt this sort of story,  but it’s easy to imagine that a U.S. production would impose a child’s narration over the action to explain his thoughts and feelings. But in “Children,” everything is external and many aspects of the plot are left unexplained.

  Children Watching finale  

Prico walks out on his mother in the final scene of “Children.” Notice that the camera has been placed at a child’s level.

One of the most powerful moments in the film comes when Roberto barges into the family’s apartment and insists on seeing Nina. Prico retreats to his room and De Sica shows the boy’s reactions to the lovers’ argument. Eventually, the boy breaks in and stops the fight by attacking Roberto. Once Roberto leaves, we see Prico’s reaction as Nina coaches him to keep everything a secret from his father. 

In the end, Prico shows the maturity lacking in both his parents, and in the final scene walks out on his mother. It’s a powerful conclusion – one that would be unthinkable in an American film.