The Underclass Goes to Heaven

I now wish I’d seen MIRACLE IN MILAN (directed by Vittorio De Sica, written by Cesare Zavattini) as a kid. Seeing it as an adult, though I was charmed and impressed by much of it, I had the words of Luis Bunuel (in paraphrase) running through my head on a ticker tape: “What is the incentive to get out of poverty if to be poor is to be so noble? Social injustice corrupts on every level — the rich are better able to protect themselves from it.”

Of course one could argue that if a film asks you to believe in a magic, wish-granting dove from heaven, believing in the virtuous residents of a shanty town shouldn’t be too hard. It’s a fable, and doesn’t even take seriously its own fantastic rules.

My two favourite jokes involved human beings used as props, and are arguably too similar to belong in the same film. The rich man, Mr. Mobbi, has a guy in unform hung from his window to keep him notified as to which way the wind is blowing.

And a poor family have attached a cord to their baby, said cord leading to outside the door. Visitors pulls the string to make the baby give out a notification of their arrival.

“Answer the door, the baby’s flying!”

Having failed to see it as a kid, I should certainly have seen it in Bologna, restored, where the crowd reaction might have crushed my inner Bunuelian cynic.

4 Responses to “The Underclass Goes to Heaven”

  1. revelator60 Says:

    As always Bunuel has a good point, but one could also argue that giving moral self-confidence and a measure of affirmation to members of a downtrodden and derided class would also help in the struggle to rise above poverty. De Sica and Zavattini’s best work usually avoids sugarcoating poverty and turning affirmation into moral complacency.

  2. Yes — I think even a fantasy needs a bit of grit, and this one would have more oomph if poverty actually looked bad and had negative effects one could take seriously, or was encouraged to. Then the arrival of wish-granting pigeon would actually seem MORE miraculous.

    It’s a beautiful-looking film with terrific caricatures, but actually De Sica’s later Technicolor feasts have more social conscience.

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Parasite is a movie that depicts poverty with the insight that the poor are made to fantasize in order to endure their lives (with the ending being especially about that). A number of people have noted that Parasite is a successor to The Bicycle Thieves.

    At the other end though in terms of portraying poverty…Bela Tarr (whose other films like Almanac of Fall, Damnation, Werckmeister Harmonies I saw earlier this year) is totally hopeless. And it shows it as a kind of pit you can’t get out of. Poverty without fantasy and so on.

  4. The “happy ending” fantasy at the end of PARASITE (which I’m sure some people take at face value: “If he studies hard he can get rich and everything will be OK”) is a great example of a fantasy which makes life endurable, like winning the lottery. But it’s a kind of trap, it makes people willing to accept the unacceptable.

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