All About My Father

His films are classics, and he is remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time. But there is much more about Vittorio De Sica that hardly anyone knows. In an interview following publication of his recent memoir, De Sica's son Christian looks back on life with one of the giants of Italian cinema.

Ariela Bankier
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Ariela Bankier

FLORENCE - In early April 1963, Vittorio De Sica and his good friend Roberto Rossellini were watching the news in the living room of De Sica's home. When the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film were announced, the two learned that one of the films was "The Four Days of Naples," made by a young Italian director named Nanni Loy. Rossellini and De Sica pricked up their ears. "Who is Nanni Loy?" De Sica asked, incredulous. "A young journalist," Rossellini replied.

"Ah, if he is a journalist I am pleased," De Sica said. "A person of culture. Young. Wonderful."

"Yes, he is very talented," Rossellini added. "He is said to have a sense of humor."

"Very good, very good," De Sica said.

The two went back to watching the news. The emcee announced that the winning film in the foreign language category was not Loy's, but a French film. Hearing this, the two veteran directors leaped up and danced with joy. "Stick it in Nanni Loy's ear! Stick it in his ear!" they shouted, embracing.

The story, says De Sica's son, Christian, captures his father's character: direct, tempestuous, very humane. "That is one of the most admirable things about him, his deep humanity," says the director's younger son, himself a well-known and successful actor in Italy who recently published a prize-winning book about his memories of his father, entitled "Daddy's Boy." "He was a man who could seem patronizing or arrogant or boastful, because he loved women, because he was elegant," De Sica continues, "but he was also very accessible, very simple, very humane. He had a great love for people, he was attentive to everyone and he always had a good word for every person. On the street he just smiled at all the passersby. You know, that is something worth doing - I saw how people's faces changed. It doesn't cost anything to smile and it changes everything. The great humanity you see in the films was there in life, too."

Vittorio Domenico Stanislao Gaetano Sorano De Sica was born in July 1901 in the central Italian city of Sora, to an impoverished family. Years later, he described the economic situation in the home as "tragic and aristocratic poverty." De Sica discovered his love for the arts and the stage at a young age, during a cholera epidemic in Naples, where the family moved when he was a boy. The city left an indelible impression on him. Every day, his mother, Teresa, went out to buy figs from itinerant peddlers in the city. As part of the effort to eradicate the epidemic, the authorities banned the sale of figs, but the De Sica family could not afford anything else and ignored the prohibition. De Sica accompanied his mother on her fig-buying forays. His task was to be the lookout and sound a warning - by bursting into song - when policemen approached.

Similarly, the long and illustrious career of the director who, with Luchino Visconti and Rossellini, is considered one of the fathers of neorealism in cinema, began at an early age. After moving with his family from Naples to Florence upon the outbreak of World War I, De Sica began acting on the stage. His first parts were small and improvised, in performances for wounded soldiers in military hospitals. Afterward, he appeared in the local theater.

At the age of 16, while still in high school, De Sica got his first part in a film, and with persistence and his father's support, obtained more roles. In the 1930s he consolidated his status as a successful comic actor. In 1932, in collaboration with Sergio Tofano and Giuditta Rissone (who would later become his first wife) he established an independent theater company. The De Sicas' daughter Emilia was born in 1942. By the beginning of the 1940s, De Sica had appeared in dozens of films, mostly light comedies, and was an Italian matinee idol.

Even after he became a director and made some of the classic films of Italian cinema, De Sica remained an actor at heart. He continued to appear as an actor in many more films, including "Times Gone By" (1952) and "Bread, Love and Dreams," with Gina Lollobrigida (1953). He also played several dramatic roles, notably in "General Della Rovere" (1959), directed by his friend Rossellini. Visconti said of him: "He is like Titian, successful in everything. We know how to do only one thing - Vittorio, everything."

In no small measure, De Sica made the transition from acting to directing thanks to his good friend and artistic collaborator, the screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, who wrote many of De Sica's films, though his second wife, Maria Mercader, also played a key part in the decision.

"My mother encouraged him to work with Cesare; she spotted his enormous talent," Christian De Sica relates. "My father did not want to become a director. But all intelligent people have doubts - anyone who does not doubt himself is an idiot.

"He was a very successful actor," De Sica continues, "and when Cesare showed him the road he should follow, he was appalled. It was my mother who gave him the final push. She said: 'Do you want to end up like other actors, old and confused, whom no one can stand the sight of, or do you want to tell your truth? To show what you have within you?'

"My father would shout all the time, 'You are destroying me! You are destroying me!' Like all geniuses, he too did not understand the power of what he created. It's usually mediocre people who think they understand the importance of their work. When you create at a high level you are not aware of it, you work with a kind of simplicity, and he created with the simplicity of genius."

The De Sica-Zavattini collaboration became one of the most fruitful in the history of Italian cinema. Still, it was not until he was 42 that De Sica dared to abandon his regular comedies and make a serious film that heralded the neorealist turn in his career: "The Children Are Watching Us" (1944) tells the story of a family's breakup from the viewpoint of a 7-year-old boy. Three years later, De Sica directed one of his most important films, "Shoe-Shine," which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was the first of four Oscars that De Sica garnered in his career.

Following the enormous success of "Shoeshine" in Italy and abroad, De Sica was invited to the United States to attend a festive screening organized by the British actress Merle Oberon. Among those who attended the event were Judy Garland, Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable. De Sica liked to tell the story of how, at the end of the screening, Charlie Chaplin remained seated, his eyes red from crying. He told De Sica that he had a unique style, but that America was not yet ready for it. "Get out of here, De Sica, get out," he told him.

On the same occasion, De Sica, who had to fight hard throughout his career to obtain financing for his films, received a surprising offer from David O. Selznick. The powerful producer told the Italian director that he would finance "The Bicycle Thief" if Clark Gable played the lead. De Sica declined; heeding Chaplin's advice, he hightailed it back to Italy.

In the years that followed, De Sica made some of his most moving films, notably "The Bicycle Thief," which won an Oscar; "Miracle in Milan," which won the Grand Prize at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival, and "Umberto D." in 1952, an homage to his father and De Sica's personal favorite among his films. "That was the film he loved best, and I can say the same for myself," his son says. "Yet it is a movie about an antipathetic person who does not want to live, a university professor who has to sell dictionaries in order to earn a livelihood. It's true that 'The Bicycle Thief' is a masterpiece and already contains the story of father-son relations, but artistically 'Umberto D.' is far tougher, far more tragic."

The films De Sica made with Zavattini in the 1950s and 1960s consolidated his status as one of the premier directors of the time. Films such as "The Gold of Naples" (1954), "The Roof" (1956), "Two Women" (1960, for which his beloved Sophia Loren won the Oscar for Best Actress) and "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" (1963, with Loren and Marcello Mastroianni) won many prizes, but alongside them De Sica made no few mediocre movies that were panned by the critics. They had one aim: to generate revenue so De Sica could pay the debts he accumulated from an addiction to gambling.

"At the height of his glory he earned 500 million lira per film," he son relates. "He owned buildings and apartments in several of Rome's central areas, and the money he earned was the livelihood for his two families [Maria Mercader was De Sica's mistress for 22 years and he had two sons with her] and quite a few other relatives, such as his brother and sister and their families."

But most of the money was lost on the gambling tables of casinos in Venice and Monte Carlo. Mario Puzo, author of "The Godfather," described De Sica as one of the three most obsessive players in Las Vegas. He was known as a compulsive but elegant player, kissing the hands of the women at the table when he left and tipping the croupier. His addiction reached a peak in the mid-1960s. In letters he wrote to his daughter Emilia, which she later published as "Letters from the Set" (1987), De Sica described how he ran up a debt of more than three million lira.

His fondness for gambling began early in his life, while he was still an actor in the so-called "white telephone" movies. (These were simplistic, conservative films, in which a white telephone was ever-present, about the Italian bourgeoisie. They were very popular in Italy during the period of fascist rule.) At the time, large amounts of money passed through De Sica's hands, and sometimes he earned or lost millions of lira in a single day.

He gambled obsessively on everything, often returning home with only his coat in his hand. In one case, after he lost everything at the Sanremo casino, the manager slipped 1,000 lira into his pocket for train fare, but De Sica gambled the money away. For "The Monte Carlo Story" (1957), in which he participated as an actor, De Sica wanted Marlene Dietrich as the female lead and wrote her long letters to persuade her. Dietrich agreed, but on the set she was miffed when De Sica preferred to spend all his time in the casino rather than in her company. On one occasion, when he and his friend Aristotle Onassis, the shipping magnate, were walking along the shore in Monte Carlo, Onassis said, "Do you see this marvelous city, the parks, the skyscrapers? They were built in large part with your money, Vittorio."

After De Sica's death, his wife and children had to cope with the economic wreckage he left in his wake. "People think I am the classic spoiled 'daddy's boy,'" says his son, who has always lived in his father's giant shadow. "But I was only 23 when he died. I wanted to be an actor, but I was very young and I was the son of Vittorio De Sica. You can understand what that meant. The economic situation was far from simple. Thank God I persisted in my university studies, as he wanted me to, and that I started to work from an early age. I started from the bottom. I appeared at parties in the piazza, I sang, I performed - no great shakes, but otherwise I would have lived in the street."

Ironically, it was the manager of the Venice casino who a few years ago organized a donation of 135,000 euros for the digital restoration of "The Bicycle Thief."

Although he was never a member of a political party, the political dimension in De Sica's films is sharp and unmistakable.

"They were both communists, both Cesare and De Sica," his son says. "The difference was that De Sica was a religious believer and kissed the soil of the Holy Land, while Cesare was an atheist who donated a hefty share of his profits from the films to the Communist Party."

The barbed social criticism in De Sica's work, its documentation of the shabby lives led by many Italians and their day-to-day struggle to survive in the face of an unbending and cruel bureaucracy, stung many politicians. They accused De Sica of washing Italy's dirty linen for the whole world to see. Like his friend Roberto Rossellini, he devoted his finest films to the suffering of the lower classes without prettifying the reality in the slightest. Relations between the two great Italian filmmakers were always very close, but complex, Christian De Sica says. "They were both overweening types. It's not that they hated each other, but there was great competitiveness between them.

"Roberto Rossellini was one of the most fascinating people I ever met. He was truly exceptional. It was an experience to know him. Italians like that no longer exist - they are extinct. He was extremely intelligent, full of life, wracked up debts all the time, lied pathologically, hated actors and despised intellectuals. He was very - very much everything. When he fell in love with a woman, the first thing he usually said to her was 'Let's have a baby.' Women, of course, worshiped him, and the truth is that he fathered a great many children."

Christian De Sica's first serious girlfriend was Isabella Rossellini, the daughter of Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman. Thanks to her, De Sica says, he got his first film role. "It was a film that Rossellini produced for Italian television, a didactic film. Isabella bugged her father until he agreed to let me be in it, and I of course was appalled, because I had no experience," he laughs. Rossellini, whose tough character was legendary, was not especially pleased to discover the romantic ties that were developing between his daughter and the son of his close friend. He even called Maria Mercader, Christian's mother, and asked her: "Maria, do you think Christian and Isabella are screwing?"

The competition between the two directors did not cease even after De Sica's death. Seeing his friend's grand funeral, Rossellini asked Isabella: "Tell me, when I die, do you think I will get a beautiful funeral like this, too?"

"De Sica and Rossellini were from the old generation - charismatic, powerful," Christian De Sica says. "In many ways, my father was a typical 19th-century figure: authoritarian, inflexible, brimming with pride." De Sica was meticulous about his apparel and usually directed his films wearing a suit and a Panama hat, even when shooting in the dirtiest and poorest areas. "On the other hand, in many ways he was far more modern than others from his period. After all, he divided his life between two families - I was the son of the lover, my sister was born from his marriage to his first wife. Such behavior was untenable at the time, even if today it is par for the course."

De Sica's complex family life could easily be the subject of some of the comedies he starred in at the outset of his career. Five years after he married his partner in the Florence theater company, the actress Giuditta Rissone, De Sica fell in love with another actress, Maria Mercader, the diva of Spanish cinema. Mercader arrived in Italy in 1939. (The following year, her brother, Ramon Mercader, assassinated Leon Trotsky in Mexico at Stalin's behest.) A chance meeting with De Sica on the set of one of his films led to a tempestuous affair. Mercader moved into a small apartment in The Boston, an apartment hotel in Rome, where De Sica also kept a flat. She and De Sica had two children together: Manuel, a well-known composer who wrote the music for most of his father's later films, and Christian. However, De Sica refused to divorce his wife, preferring instead to maintain a double family life.

"He succeeded in hiding the situation from us, the children, for many years," Christian De Sica says. "He did all this to prevent my sister, Emi [Emilia], from suffering." De Sica celebrated holidays and other social events twice. He ushered in the new year with Maria, Manuel and Christian at 11:30 P.M. and then rushed by taxi to his wife and daughter for a second celebration. His week was divided: three days in Rissone's home with his daughter and three days in Mercader's home with his sons. He often put on his pajamas and got into bed at Rissone's home, and then, after his daughter fell asleep, got dressed and snuck out in order to spend the night at the other place. He returned at dawn, before Emilia woke up.

The children from the two families did not meet until they were grown, De Sica relates. "One day, I got a call and the person on the other end said: 'Hello, this is Emi, I am your sister, let's meet at the Villa Glori [a hotel in Rome] - and I had no idea who she was."

In 1968, when he was 67, Vittorio De Sica finally married Maria Mercader so that he could fulfill an old dream: to give his sons his name. The fact that the two boys, who were born out of wedlock, were known by their mother's surname caused De Sica much anguish.

"How will this boy enter university as a bastard? He must have my name," De Sica would say with chagrin. In fact, he and Mercader had already been married once, in 1959, in a ceremony held in Mexico, but the Italian authorities refused to recognize the marriage. De Sica therefore decided to move to France, obtain French citizenship and marry again, this time with formal recognition of the union. "We lived four years in Paris so we could be called De Sica," his son says.

Maria Mercader gave up her career in order to raise the children and stand by her man. In many cases, she intervened in his work and gave him moral support, particularly at moments of crisis when he wanted to abandon directing. For example, after he failed to find funding for "Shoeshine," De Sica planned to return to the theater. Mercader did not want him to give up the career she regarded as his true vocation - and was also unhappy at the thought that her lover would go back to acting alongside his wife, Rissone. She joined forces with the screenwriter Zavattini to make him change his mind. In one of the most dramatic episodes in De Sica's life - the making of the film "The Gate of Heaven" in 1944 - Mercader played the lead role, on and off the screen. The film, a religious work produced by the Vatican, is about a few dozen sick people who go on pilgrimage to the basilica of the Holy House in Loreto, Italy. Mercader, the star, was living in sin, but was a very popular actress. She, for her part, insisted that only De Sica must direct the picture. Her insistence probably saved De Sica's life.

"What happened," Christian De Sica relates, "is that Fernando Mezzasoma [the minister of popular culture in the Salo Republic, the Italian puppet state of Nazi Germany] wanted to establish the Italian motion picture industry in Salo, and Goebbels personally told him: 'I want De Sica to come here.' My father was appalled to learn that he would have to appear before Goebbels and Mezzasoma. In the end, he met with Goebbels and simply lied to him." Christian De Sica laughs.

When the two propaganda ministers ordered De Sica to leave Rome and establish a film industry, De Sica clung to the film in which Mercader was to star as an excuse to remain in Rome. "Your honor," De Sica mumbled, "your offer is extremely flattering to me, a prize for my long career as the servant of culture and art ... But most regrettably I have committed to another project."

"What project?" Mezzasoma asked.

"A film for the Pope," De Sica explained. Mezzasoma was furious. "Leave, De Sica! I will make sure you are sent to Germany when you finish this movie for the Pope."

Christian De Sica: "Of course, he made up the story about the film - he did not yet have a signed contract - but he knew that my mother was going to be in the picture. And then, to persuade Goebbels, he quoted him a poem by Goethe ... In the end, they told him to get out. When he got back to Rome, he immediately asked my mother to make sure he was assigned to direct the film 'because otherwise either the Nazis will shoot me or the partisans will shoot me.' It worked: he got the project."

Filming began on March 1, 1944. The set was built inside the Basilica of St. Paul in Rome. At De Sica's insistence, Zavattini was brought in as the screenwriter. After the two saw with their own eyes Jews being loaded into trucks in Rome, they cast Jews, partisans and workers as extras to play the sick people in the film.

"He and the whole crew closeted themselves in the Basilica of St. Paul and thus, in a way that was unplanned - it's not that he was Schindler or something - he saved a great many people," Christian De Sica says. "Besides Jews, there were also many partisans and comrades. A story that was supposed to include 30 people turned into one with more than 300 people who took refuge in the basilica and waited for the Americans to liberate Rome."

Chaos reigned. Everyone involved in the project spent their days and nights in the church. In the morning the monks collected used condoms. One day, the official in charge of the production for the Vatican, Monsignor Montini - later Pope Paul VI - appeared on the set, furious at the goings-on. "This is God's house!" he shouted. Trying to calm him, De Sica knelt and kissed his hand. "De Sica, be aware that we know everything. Be careful, do not stretch the rope too far," Montini admonished the director. Christian De Sica: "They went on pretending to shoot the movie, because at one point they ran out of film. When the budget was depleted, they used electricity from generators that were hooked up to the power supply of the train station. In fact, though not many people know it, a great many Jews were rescued in Rome. In my house, a story was told about my aunt Maria, my father's sister, who hid a woman in her house: she just rolled her up in a carpet."

In 1970, four years before his death, De Sica returned to the fascist period in Italy in his film "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis." He was the guest of honor at the premiere in Israel. "My father had a business manager named Arthur Cohen. He was born in Tel Aviv, but was from a family of Jewish bankers in Basel. We went to Israel for Arthur's wedding. It was just after my father completed 'The Garden of the Finzi-Continis' and we went to the premiere in Tel Aviv," De Sica relates. "I sat next to my father, and Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir sat not far from us. When the movie ended, no one applauded. My father turned to me and said, 'I think we screwed up.' Then the lights came on and we saw that everyone was crying. They didn't have the strength to applaud," De Sica says, still moved by the recollection.

"I remember Golda Meir with red eyes," he continues. "I will never forget it. Then stormy applause broke out. My father said, 'Mama mia, I am so sorry I made them suffer.' But the audience was happy, of course. My father felt the need to make that film in order to show the young generation in Italy the horrors of Nazism. But he told the story in an unconventional way, from a different angle of the tragedy: from the viewpoint of an aristocratic Jewish family, a family of pampered people who did not understand what was happening and what was about to happen. It was a great success. He showed the film to Ingrid Bergman and she was wild about it. It won the Oscar [as Best Foreign Language Film]."

The visit to Israel, he adds, remains etched in his memory. "We stayed at the King David and went to Haifa and the desert. We flew El Al - me, my mother and father and Cesare - and Zavattini passed out from fear after we took off." He laughs.

"My father did not go to mass, he was not a churchgoer, but he believed in God and said over and over, 'This is the Holy Land, this is the Holy Land.' Zavattini, who was an atheist and a communist, looked at him as though he were insane. When we were shown the house in which Jesus was born, he scraped the wall and saw that it was all fake, built from plaster, and went wild."

Some of the top actors of the period visited De Sica at his home. The visit that Christian De Sica recalls most vividly was that of Montgomery Clift, who co-starred with Jennifer Jones in De Sica's "Indiscretion of an American Wife" (1953). Clift, a gay man who never came out of the closet, decided to fall in love with Maria Mercader, even sending her desperate love letters which she read to De Sica. Seeing that De Sica remained indifferent, Mercader railed at him: "You could at least show a little jealousy." "Come on," De Sica replied, "don't you know that he is a homosexual and that he sleeps with Truman Capote?"

In one of his visits to the De Sica home, Clift saw Christian, who was 2 years old at the time, sitting on the potty in deep concentration. Amused, Clift sat down next to him, and when the toddler had finished Clift gave him a gift - a wooden boat. Christian was so thrilled that from that day on he refused to sit on the potty without Clift's presence, and the actor had to return to the De Sica home every day for the next two weeks.

Some of his father's friends were somewhat less likable, Christian De Sica recalls. During one of his many trips abroad for film shoots, he stopped off in Las Vegas for two days to relax. Just as he was about to go to sleep in his hotel room, the phone rang. "Christian? Christian De Sica?" a deep guttural voice asked in a heavy Italian accent. It was Carlo Gambino, the head of the famous mafia family. "I was your father's friend," Gambino said. "Do you need hookers?"

"Ah, no thanks, I'm very grateful," De Sica replied.

"I was your father's close friend," Gambino continued. "Go down to the casino tomorrow morning. There will be an envelope there in your name with $5,000. Play, enjoy yourself." Unnerved, De Sica thanked his would-be benefactor, but passed up the offer.

Vittorio De Sica cultivated broad social ties. "He was a colorful character, cursing nonstop," Emilia De Sica often related. His personal charm proved irresistible wherever he went. Men and women fell in love with him, among them the writer Thornton Wilder, who gave De Sica a pencil drawing by Modigliani as a present.

"He had charisma that could silence a whole street," his son says, and tells a story to prove it. During the filming of "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" (which went on to garner another Oscar for De Sica in 1965 as Best Foreign Language Film), in Naples, there was such a racket in the street that it was impossible to hear a word the actors said. Finally, De Sica, nattily attired as always, stood up and boomed out a message through a megaphone: "This is Vittorio De Sica speaking to you. I have to shoot a scene for my next film with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. I need three minutes of quiet, please." The whole street went mute. The cameras rolled. At the end of the scene, De Sica again picked up the megaphone. "Thank you," he roared. And the whole street responded in a chorus, "You're welcome."

De Sica died on November 13, 1974, in a hospital in a small town outside Paris. Christian De Sica appeared in a play in Milan that evening, and after getting a call from his mother, took the first plane to Paris and went to the hospital. His brother Manuel and his sister Emilia preferred to stay home. They could not bear to see their father on his deathbed. "How I regret that you are so young, you and Manuel," his father said to him shortly before he closed his eyes for the last time. "Be close to your mother, Christian, and see what a gorgeous ass that nurse has ..."

The two continued to joke, tears in their eyes, for a while. The doctors said that he could live another few days in terrible agony, or one more night, if he were injected with Pentothal. The family decided to spare De Sica further suffering.

Almost 36 years after his father's death, Christian De Sica continues to miss him very much. "He instilled goodness into his films, a sense of compassion, and that is the greatest thing in his work," his son says. "Many people can tell a story well or reconstruct the past, make the camera do acrobatic tricks, make 'Avatar,' but to be able to introduce compassion into the story, to put it on celluloid, to grasp the love between the audience and the story, to convey a message of love - that is something very complex, which he did successfully and with great ease. I have never seen anyone else who managed to do it like that. His humanity was what I most esteemed and what I miss most about him, especially now that I am old and live in an Italy I no longer recognize, in a world I can no longer identify.

"The quality of life is far worse than it was 50 years ago. That sounds absurd, doesn't it? But from the humane aspect, the situation is worse. Never mind all the terrible historic events - Saddam Hussein, bin Laden, Hitler - there have always been monsters. But beyond the monsters, there was always greater optimism than what exists today, despite the hunger, poverty and disease. Just think if all those tragedies were to happen today, things would be even worse, no? The generation I am talking about - my father's generation - no longer exists. They were true bulldozers. They were strong. And now? The world today is far more fragile." W



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