A review requested by Maciej, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Director Vittorio De Sica released the bitter and grim Bicycle Thieves in 1948 and the utterly crushing Umberto D. in 1952, and in between them made only one film, about the dirt-poor inhabitants of a shantytown. With this evidence in hand, it is easy to make all of the wrong assumptions about 1951's Miracle in Milan, which is to those films as... I don't even have a pithy comparison lined up. I cannot say that it resembles them not at all, because in point of fact it resembles them a whole lot. Broadly speaking, it is Neorealist: real-live locations are used with barely anything to dress them up, and real-live human beings populate those locations, rather than professional actors. It's shot in unsentimental black-and-white by G.R. Aldo, and it takes place squarely in the present, with an Italy that's still not quite done shaking off the recent war hovering in the back of every scene. There's a truly angry critique of the no-holds-barred capitalism that has swept into Italy, replacing the infrastructure of the country at the cost of individual human lives.

Despite all of this, it feels entirely unlike anything else that De Sica was producing around this period for one overriding reason: it is monumentally joyful. There is no other word I'd rather use to describe it: the opening sequence presents a situation of domestic joy so intense and unapologetic that it feels almost impossible that a director of De Sica's clear-headed pragmatism could have ever believed in it, and yet it sets up a tone that the movie never really deviates from. It is a film dedicated to the principle that no matter how miserable life might become, it is still possible to be truly and completely happy, and no matter how crushing one's circumstances, it is still possible to life with great dignity and love. For a director of De Sica's convictions, one could almost decry this as reactionary, and yet during the film's 100 minutes, it's practically impossible not to wholly and enthusiastically believe in all of it, and the embrace with both arms the film's prescription for how the world could be so much better if only the people in it were more open and forgiving and sincere, a theme that makes up for in raw conviction what it lacks in real-world sophistication.

Miracle in Milan is above all things the story of a pure fool. It begins, explicitly, "once upon a time", where an old lady named Lolotta (Emma Gramatica) discovers to her ecstatic delight an infant boy hiding among the cauliflowers in her garden. She adopts him and raises him with a giddy sense of the world's possibilities, in which every mistake is the possibility to create something new, in which learning and discovery are joyful, and in which everything is to be greeted with the sheer pleasure of being alive. Then she dies, and the little boy, Totò (Gianni Branduani) knows sadness for the first time, as he is sent off to an orphanage. When he turns 18 (and is thereupon played by Francesco Golisano), he re-enters the wide world, having learned only what Lolotta has taught him. While this means he's quite smart in a book-knowledge sense, he's also completely at sea with the cynical, untrusting world of adults, and thus he ends up falling in with the homeless population of Milan. Undaunted - perhaps not even realising that "daunted" is a thing - Totò encourages his fellow dispossessed to build a thriving community on a large, seemingly abandoned parcel of land, creating a complete shanty-city, with names like "1 X 1 Plaza" and "5 X 5 Street" so that the children of the community can learn simply by living there, and with a complex, self-sustaining, mutually supportive society run by no individual, but simply by the sense of the collective good.

There ends up being a plot in all that - a couple, in fact, one with a cruel land developer who feels like an extra from a Soviet propaganda film in the '20s, the other involving the titular miracles, which are presented in a flagrantly and unapologetically un-Realist way - but it's almost besides the point. Not least because how much of the not-super-long movie has passed by before anything that seriously looks like conflict decides to assert itself. This is very a much a film of mood and attitude, all of it derived from Totò, as written, and as Golisano plays him: with a big, broad, friendly grin at all times, but importantly not a pervasive sense of naïveté. He's not a character unaware of cruelty, greed, and politicking; he is a character who perceives these to be a violation of the basic goodness of humans, and who responds their presence with a self-conscious decision to counter them by being pleasant and warm. It's a performance that takes some finessing, and Golisano - who had acted before and would again, though this is far and away his most prominent role - does fine work in shading Totò as an intelligent, thinking, aware man, and not simply a generically good one.

On the back of this character, De Sica and his team of writers - the most important being Neorealist mainstay Cesare Zavattini, who wrote the unproduced screenplay that he turned into a novel that he re-adapted into this film - have founded a truly beautiful and moving fable of human beings at their best in the most adverse situations. It is a delicate movie, without the self-conscious Importance that makes De Sica's better-known and more widely-seen work so easy to admire, but I wholeheartedly prefer this to any of the director's other films that I have seen: it manages to be so profoundly sweet and uplifting without sacrificing any sociological insight - the portrait of contemporary Italy that the film paints is a grave one, powered by thoughtless men acting from short-sighted greed - or easing back on aesthetic savvy.

Indeed, Miracle in Milan is a greatly impressive, multi-faceted piece of cinema: right from its fairy tale garden, the film has already started in on its most persistent stylistic trope, which is to present a deep background to the action, in which we see not just three-dimensional spaces like Lolotta's home or the shantytown, but also have a sense of the world beyond which contains these spaces: a world of buildings, trains, cities, and God knows what. It is a full world, and maybe not a kind or humane one; but Aldo's cinematography presents it all in an evocative greyscale range that makes this among the most beautiful Italian movies of its generation that I've seen. Nor does the beauty stop with Neorealist landscapes: the visual effects by Hollywood import Ned Mann (who retired after this project) include some absurdly lovely picture-book images, like the early depiction of desperate men huddled together in a sunbeam that manages to be severe in its depiction of suffering even while possessing something of the spiritual awe of an illustration in a Bible.

All of this is to say: Miracle in Milan is both an incisive depiction of Italy's problems and a deeply pleasurable magical realist proof that those problems needn't be crippling. "Deeply pleasurable" is not a phrase one typically throws at the films of Neorealism - at least I never have - and the fact that De Sica was able to make something which boasts the best Neorealism in a crowd-pleasing framework is a miracle in and of itself. Given its pedigree, it is astonishing how relatively little-known the film is; this is a complete masterpiece.