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The Criterion Collection presents
The Children Are Watching Us (1944)

"Don't say anything to Daddy."
- Nina (Isa Poli)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: March 27, 2006

Stars: Luciano De Ambrosis, Emilio Cigoli, Isa Poli, Adriano Rimoldi
Director: Vittorio De Sica

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:24m:35s
Release Date: March 28, 2006
UPC: 037429208021
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-A-B+ C+

DVD Review

Grandma was right when she used to say that little pitchers have big ears. This heart-wrenching movie from Vittorio De Sica is deeply moving, and will overcome any intolerance you may have for child actors—on its own, that would be enough, but looked at retrospectively, it's also a marvelous opportunity to see the emergence of Neorealism, the Italian filmmaking style that flourished in the last years of World War II and immediately afterward. This movie isn't without its melodramatic qualities, either, but it earns the right to pluck on your heart strings, and you'd have to be hard-hearted indeed not to feel badly for our little hero.

The story is told from the perspective of Pricò, a sweet little Roman boy, but all is not paradise at home. While playing on his scooter in the Villa Borghese, Pricò spies his mother, Nina, stealing a few secret moments in the woods with her lover, Roberto—they all know that the little fellow has stumbled upon something he shouldn't, but they all make silent promises to keep up appearances. But even though Pricò holds his tongue, the rifts in the marriage between Nina and Andrea, the boy's father, have been exposed—she walks out on her family, even though her cuckolded husband seems ready to forgive, and Pricò's love for Mama is unconditional. (For now.) Soon thereafter, the boy is passed around like a prop, a beach ball, first to his aunt, a seamstress; later to his forbidding grandmother; and then back home, when his parents reach an uneasy truce.

The fractious family takes a summer holiday in the picture's second stanza, but Andrea tempts fate when he's forced to return to Rome for work, giving his wife the opportunity to live up to her very public reputation as a tramp. It's heartbreaking to see this little boy emotionally terrorized, by both of his parents, in a way—in truth the story is the basic stuff of melodrama, but it's invested with such feeling that it never feels false or derivative. And of course it's exciting to watch De Sica finding his way to his mature style, familiar in great films like The Bicycle Thief. This movie is decidedly more bourgeois, and even less urban, than what we've come to think of as classic Neorealism, but you can see the director's eye at work, the smart use he makes of locations, his sense of street life, and the liberation that came from getting the camera out of the studio.

What's modestly surprising, given when the film was made, is the near total absence of mention of the war—it's only the costumes and the household appliances that situate us in time, and there's no talk of rationing, of military service, of any of the things that informed so much of life on the home front, and the movies made about those years. Perhaps the worst hadn't arrived yet; but for the little boy at the center of the story, there's emotional carnage enough for a lifetime.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Italian films of this vintage generally haven't aged well, and this one shows its share of battle scars. Still, a 2000 restoration did wonders for it, and the transfer here is a solid and clean one.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Some static on the mono track, but nothing too objectionable.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
  2. color bars
Extras Review: In a 2004 interview (08m:12s), Luciano De Ambrosis, all grown up, discusses playing Pricò, and his relationship during the filmmaking with De Sica, who, unsurprisingly, he looked at as a paternal figure. Providing some context is De Sica scholar Callisto Cosulich—in an interview (08m:41s), he talks about this as a transitional picture, and discusses why there are no fewer than six credited screenwriters. The two essays in the accompanying booklet, by Peter Brunette and Stuart Klawans, emphasize the relationship between De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, who would work with the director on such films as Shoeshine and Umberto D..

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

A heartbreaking story that compares favorably with something like Henry James' What Maisie Knew, a tale of adult deceit told from a child's perspective. And aesthetically, this film was a vital step toward the flourishing just a few years later of Neorealism, one of the great gusts of fresh air in filmmaking history. Que bello!


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