The Children Are Watching Us (1943)

I bambini ci guardano | dir: Vittoria Di Sica | Italy | 85 mins

The children may be watching, but they don’t like what they see. Vittorio De Sica’s melodrama shares the child’s perspective of The Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine, stylistically with low camera angles, and also morally and through his expressions. Four-year-old Pricò’s parents’ relationship is disintegrating as his mother Nina (Isa Pola) tentatively pursues an adulterous relationship, initially moving to Genoa with her lover leaving her boy (and his father Andrea played by Emilio Cigoli, also in Di Sica’s Shoeshine) behind. Torn, she returns and willingly agrees to go on a family beach holiday, to seek peace and escape to allow the family to re-establish bonds, but it isn’t to last.

Di Sica’s film has some stunning moments, such as a train journey where Pricò (Luciano De Ambrosis) projects his anxieties onto the carriage window and a perilous moment when he carelessly, almost suicidally, wanders down a railway track. What resonates most is Di Sica’s ability capture an unsettled and innocent childhood in the small moments – an interaction with another boy over a bicycle bell, or an obsession over the starfish and seashells he brings back from the beach. Pricò is a victim, of course, and he’s also an observer, from his puzzled expression when he first sees his mother talking with her lover in the park, to his deductions when he observes her interactions after his father has departed the holiday.

Isa Pola as Nina with her son Pricò (Luciano De Ambrosis) distracted at the beach in The Children Are Watching Us

Although the film mostly sticks with Pricò’s perspective, there are many scenes where the boy isn’t present. The audience gets to know more of situation than the boy as we watch Pricò try to understand; this makes it all the more emotional affecting as he gradually detaches his trust and affection from his impulsive and selfish mother feeling betrayed and abandoned. Unlike in preceding fascist-era Italian films, in The Children Are Watching Us the family is resolutely not the solid foundation at the centre of society, although there are plenty of gossiping neighbours and tutting onlookers to pass judgement on the situation, demanding peer-pressure conformity as a constant chorus of collective compliance.

Nina and Andrea form a comfortably middle class family – Andrea is a well-paid professional and they employ a live-in servant. But they’re position in society always feels insecure, not least financially. To save building maintenance costs, Andrea votes to that the lifts in their apartment block are only used for upwards journeys; as a neighbour sardonically puts it, if they didn’t have a working lift they might as well live in a tenament. Nina also worries about whether they can afford the cost of their holiday and its sophisticated social engagements, a financial sacrifice Andrea is willing to make if it will save their marriage. But in truth they don’t comfortably fit in that moneyed millieu; Nina is both tolerated and gently mocked by the wealthier socialites she meets at the beach resort. Her infidelity. so harmful to her marriage and her son, seems unadventurous compared to the casual flings that briefly amuse the rich young things and that discomfort Nina. Although the film shakes up the solidity of family life, there is no question of it condoning any sense of social mobility.

By making use of naturalistic performances from an innocent protagonist and setting many of its scenes in real locations, Di Sico’s first collaboration with screenwriter Cesare Zavattini has the early stylistic hallmarks of imminent Italian neorealism. The film is beautifully shot, and the string orchestral music by Renzo Rossellini (father of Roberto) is emotive without being slushy, offset by the unsentimental situations it accompanies. For although both parents are genuinely concerned for their son and try to behave in a way not to cause his upset, they are often far from mindful of the impact their abandonment and distance has on him, rendering the film’s title ironic.

Pricò (Luciano De Ambrosis) reluctantly trying on his new school uniform with encouragement from his father Andreas (Emilio Cigoli) in The Children Are Watching Us

The film isn’t all despair, however. There are moments of genuine warmth and levity, mostly from the children, including perhaps the earliest example I’ve seen in film of a mischievous photo bomb.

The final scene, of Pricò slowing walking away from his mother as an act of refusal and disengagement is an affecting moment of tragic agency, framed beautifully and in long-focus as Renzo made small and vulnerable by his surroundings purposely walks out a distant door.

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