Sunday, September 4, 2011

Miracle in Milan

Miracle in Milan
I am not given to talking or writing about films. To me, movies fall in of the following categories- they are “a waste of time”, “worth watching if someone else is paying for the tickets”, “good” or “would like to see it again”.  No explanation is offered for the yardsticks I apply and a debate on the subject is not encouraged.

However, I must make an exception with a film I saw recently. It is “Miracolo a Milano”(Italian for “Miracle in Milan”). The film was made by the celebrated director, Vittorio de Sica in the middle decade of the last century. It is a fantasy set in post World War-II Italy. Somehow, I couldn’t help connecting the story with contemporary situation.

The story is quite simple. Toto, the protagonist, was found by an elderly woman in her cabbage patch. She raises him as her own and Toto grows in a loving and protected environment. Soon his adoptive mother dies and, with no family or wealth to fall back on, Toto is left to fend for himself.

Circumstances lead Toto to a group of squatters who live on a piece of land by the railway line. His innate good nature, helpfulness and organizational abilities draws the squatters together and they build a shantytown on the land. 

As their song went, “All I need is a shack, a pair of socks and a piece of the sun”. Toto ensured  that everyone got a shack and a bit of sun.

Their contentment did not last. Oil is discovered on the land and the owner, Mr Mobbi, wants to get rid of the people. Toto leads a group to to Mr Mobbi’s office to plead their case. But, as they are being lavishly entertained by Mr Mobbi, the police arrive at the shanty and begin to evict the squatters. Toto returns to find the shanty being demolished and the people forced to move. 

Disheartened by Mr Mobbi’s deception, he is about to give up the struggle. Suddenly, the ghost of his adoptive mother appears and gives Toto a dove which has magical powers. With the help of the dove Toto and his group succeeds in driving back Mr Mobbi and the police. But their joy at having won is short lived.

The dove is taken back by the angels who do not like the idea of a human being using it. With Toto and the squatters being rendered helpless, the police move in again, round up the group and take them to jail in paddy wagons. As they reach the city square, the dove is restored to Toto and there is yet another miracle. Toto’s wish for freedom and happiness for his friends is granted in a classic, fairytale scene which must have few parallels in cinema.

The film is set with the constant movement of the trains in background as if to remind one that progress is inexorable and impersonal. You do not matter to the world. There is  the unforgettable scene in which dozens of squatters crowd together in a small patch of sunlight-the only source of warmth in a cold and gloomy landscape. Truly a cinematographic achievement when you remember that the film was shot in black and white.

Some of the film's best moments combine satire with the poignant. After having beaten back the challenge of the police, Toto is besieged by his followers to use the dove's powers to satisfy personal needs and, then, greed. It begins with someone asking for a decent set of clothes, another for a pair of shoes, and so on with the demands becoming increasingly outrageous till two men trying to shout each other down in asking for " a million, million, million...and a million lire" till they run out of breath. A police sergeant, who is watching all this, creeps up to Toto and begs to be made a general. Toto obliges and the man returns happily to his post-then promptly refuses to obey his superior's orders because he is now a general!

"Miracle..." is rich in satire and humor that is intelligent and ironic by turn. Above all, it is also a compassionate view of those who are not as privileged as us. It also reminds us , sixty years after it was made, that it does not need special effects, booming guns and Dolby sound to tell a good story that also entertains.

Grazie, Signore de Sica


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