Movies have the great artistic advantage of bringing life to you remotely—life that, being lived, enjoyed, or suffered, moves in the immediate moment in time. Such as with Gold of Naples, a 1954 Italian film directed by Vittorio De Sica, whose six stories take place in the title city, where De Sica grew up. The episodes ranges from serious to to bizarre to funny, but each one shares in a lusty, teeming humor towards all these small, strange, sad, or comic minutes of existence.
Such comic benevolence seems lodged in the city itself. Its characters, plots, mise-en-scène, even its very architecture, are part of this vitality. De Sica brings to life the twisting streets, busy courtyards, the pockmarked walls of old stone, the layers of floors in an apartment building where a man inside a slowly rising open elevator comically shrieks imprecations to the earth below. The interiors, filled with old, overstuffed furniture, dark spaces, crowded corners, are lived-in and reek of their inhabitants; you can almost smell the dust and odor of food and sweat. Life isn’t clean and tidy in De Sica’s cinema. It’s caught happening for his camera, the actors, sets, and locations stripped of glamour. We see life itself—life, yes, composed for the camera, but with exuberance and spontaneity (what performances De Sica gets!), and exploding with the accidental, the mysterious, and the loved.
The film is wonderful. That’s all I have to say—wonderful.
The first story stars the great Totò, an actor whose tragi-comic face, with its drooping eyes and a long jaw jutting upwards to meet a down-curving beak of a nose, is straight out of commedia dell’arte; he’s a sorrowing Punchinello. And in this episode he plays a sorrowing man. For ten years a local crime capo has lived with Totò and his family (ever since he was invited to stay for a night, out of misguided compassion), and he’s embedded himself in their lives like a tick in flesh. The capo bullies everyone, ordering the wife to starch his collars and training Totò’s three small sons to remove his shoes and fetch his ashtrays (while the boys ignore their father, they scamper to obey the Don). Poor Totò himself has no existence outside the Don’s wishes. When first seen, he’s standing over a grave, presumably in mourning; it turns out he’s actually visiting the burial site of the Don’s late wife—the Don hadn’t time to attend himself and sent Totò instead. No wonder Totò addresses the grave’s occupant as “lucky.”
Then one afternoon the capo staggers into the apartment in dire pain: he’s had a heart attack, he says, and has been diagnosed with heart disease. He mustn’t have any noise or shocks, as he could die any minute. In response, Totò drops a huge armful of plates—for the shock-and-awe effect—and orders the man out of his house. The now capo-free family celebrates with pasta and wine; joy reigns unconfined. Meanwhile the departed Don gets a second doctor’s opinion and finds out he’s merely suffering from indigestion. He returns to Totò’s apartment, right when Totò is topping the wine glasses (he’s so startled that he keeps pouring, wine spilling onto the floor). The family crouches in fright, yet is filled with anger and hate for this parasite. In response, the Don menacingly brushes walnuts off a cake; one small son whimpers. “You’re all against me,” the Don snarls. He leaves, and the camera, from his point of view, lingers on the terrified family, the implied threat of a possible future return hanging from the ominously closing door.
The episode lasts no more than 25 minutes, but so much is going on. Like a great short story, it give us the whole of Totò’s life and character beneath the capo’s ten-year weight of tyranny. If Totò passes a barbershop where the Don is being shaved, a barber runs out and gives him the Don’s umbrella, with instructions to take it home. If his sons are too noisy, he must ask the Don to control them (“Bambini,” intones the capo, and the children immediately fall silent). De Sica centers most of the action in the family dining room, but the center itself is displaced. The Don occupies Totò’s place, next to Totò’s wife at Totò’s table (where she ceaselessly irons his collars), reading Totò’s newspaper, while Totò marches in, out, and around in impotent fury, banished to the fringes of his own life.
But the vignette is hilarious. The absurdity of Totò’s existence is reflected in his job, a kind of professional opener-of-things. Dressed in gaudy silk breeches and jacket, he’ll march through the streets, waving a sheaf of pasta like a baton, accompanied by a small band and a curious crowd; then he’ll stop in front of a deli and solemnly declare it open, with all the ceremony of launching a ship. Totò’s own life has become such a series of grand, empty gestures, and it takes a false medical diagnosis for him to reassert his manhood. When he orders the capo out of his life, he hurls a trunk of the Don’s possessions from the balcony window, and a box containing those infamous collars bursts open on the street, its contents flying out like suddenly uncaged birds. As Totò yells out his freedom, the other windows on the plaza open, and voices shout in unison rejoicing.
The second episode starts with a young, luscious Sophia Loren leaving her lover on a Sunday morning, to return to her husband before the end of Mass. The lover is young, handsome virile, the husband is small, round, shlumpy, with the look of a bereft puppy. He and his wife operate a pizza stand, selling (as per the episode title) pizza on credit. Sofia (as her character is named) rolls out the dough into small pies and hubby Rosario fries them. He keeps account of all charges in a particular notebook. Customers loiter by: a worker heading home from a night job gets a snack to eat before sleeping for the day; a young cart driver flirts with Sofia (Rosario tells her to “cover” herself; she looks ready to fall out of her blouse); a man grieving because his wife is ill buys a pie for comfort. All is quiet on the pizza front.
Except: crisis looms! Rosario notices that Sofia is not wearing his wedding gift to her, an emerald ring. Sofia thinks quickly: she must have dropped it in a pizza, she claims. So now the couple must check the charge book and seek out that morning’s customers. The search is not easy. The sleeping worker, angered by his disturbed rest, shoots a pistol at Rosario; a priest given a pizza while collecting alms chases him away; the sorrowful man cannot be bothered because, unfortunately, his wife has just died. “While I was eating a pizza!” he wails. All is loud lamentation at his house; as Rosario tries to get the man’s attention, the new widower tries to kill himself, banging his head against a mirror and then climbing the balcony railing. His neighbors cluster round to restrain him; “Courage!”, they cry. Someone serves him a plate of spaghetti to assuage his grief.
Finally Sofia catches sight of her lover on the street and signals that she has left her ring with him. He gallantly returns it to Rosario—who can’t find a record of the fellow’s pizza in his notebook. “I forgot to mark it down,” explains Sofia, adding that it was bought when Rosario had gone to find a charcoal shovel. A smart wife can always find the way.
Calm restored, Sofia trots back to the pizza stall in the episode’s most famous bit: her wiggle-ass walk down the street. She’s tall, confident, beaming, her figure a ship’s masthead breasting the air, the eyes of onlookers, and young men, trailing in her wake. This was the actress’s star-making moment. Only 20 years old, Sophia RULES here; she’s a phenomenon, a slumming goddess visiting earth, strutting for all eyes to admire, the most beautiful woman alive. Who else looks like Sophia Loren? Meanwhile, Rosario slumps in defeat behind his wife. He knows he can never control this magnificent woman; he might have his suspicions but he’s left to nurse them in solitude. The couple continue their work; a drizzle has started and Sofia covers the pizza table with a cloth and calls out to the passing multitude. Where does her life go from here? The film doesn’t say; she lives entirely, vividly in the present, every moment fired by her beauty and poise. Her life is hers to live and to enjoy, while she catches the admiring eye. And when she twitches that great, shapely ass, it’s like the whole screen rumbles in response.
The next segment, called simply “the death of a child,” is not so much a rounded short story as it is a fragment, a sliver in time—here, of the most agonizing moment in a mother’s life. A woman is arranging the funeral for her dead child; relatives, friends, schoolchildren, a surviving daughter, join her on the street, in small, fidgeting groups. The funeral car that holds the tiny casket is an elaborate white coach, flourished with scrolls and finials, like something out of a fairy tale. The woman lines up the people behind it, gives final instructions, and steadies her nerves—this is a play, a march, a procession, a moment of significance; she is honoring her dead child and everything must be just right.
Who is this woman? What is her history? We’re never told, we don’t even know her name. De Sica just lets us see her in this one small, sad, horribly vivid moment of her life. The procession, led by a priest, starts, the coach, pulled by black horses, moves slowly, the crowd follows as slowly behind. As the coach inches through traffic, people stop to pay honor. Two mounted policemen hold their swords and salute; a bickering couple seen in an apartment window turn, see the coach, and fall silent as they cross themselves (once the coach passes, they start fighting again). De Sica moves his camera between overhead long shots of the coach marching in stately, stalled rhythm and close-ups of the woman’s face, watching to make sure all is moving smoothly. She even looks proud, aware of this splendid send-off, which she’s organized all for the sake of her dead little one.
As the procession proceeds past the Bay of Naples, the mother takes a paper bag of sugared almonds and starts casting the sweetmeats to the right and left, the sound, as they hit the cobblestones, echoing like pistol cracks. Small urchins run to pick them up; some of the processional children even break rank to gather them. Left and right the woman throws the almonds, and the children ignore the coach, the procession, its grim meaning, in their scrabbling for treats. Then, finally, the bag is empty; the woman crumples it and tosses it to the side. “I have no more,” she says. The procession pauses, the street children look at her expectantly. “I have no more,” the woman repeats—then she bursts into tears. Perhaps something of the bag’s crumpled emptiness has struck her with a greater emptiness; perhaps the ceremony’s ending signifies a greater ending and loss. As she quietly weeps, the children become aware of the event’s enormity, their small faces turning solemn and sympathetic. The woman continues weeping as the procession moves on; the street children drift off, some talking to each other, comparing how many sugared almonds each one picked up.
There the segment ends. It’s a kind of in media res moment; we don’t see the beginning (the child’s death, the funeral preparations), nor the end (the burial); just this one brief, rending episode in this woman’s life. All her careful preparations are as flimsy as that bag she tosses away—reality bursts through the ritual; heartbreak cannot be put off.
The next segment is a comic tour de force. It’s two players this time, opponents in a match, the back and forth of human personalities. De Sica himself is the star; or more accurately, one of them. He’s the impoverished Count B., who’s lost all his money gambling (a real-life obsession with De Sica), and his Countess wife has ordered that no one is to lend him any more. This order extends to the servants, of whom the Count, at segment start, is seen begging one, his valet, for 10,000 lire. The valet must politely refuse; the Countess (a slab-faced, dour woman who looks like Lon Chaney Jr. just come from the beauty parlor) is watching. She even commands the valet to search the Count’s pockets, where he finds a (pawnable) silver salt shaker. Thus the Count—handsome, noble, silver-haired—is reduced to the status of a naughty child. Leaving in a huff, he yet casts a hilariously mute, imploring look at his also-mute valet. It’s like a moment out of P.G. Wodehouse, master and man wordlessly communing, a sad knowledge in their eyes. Each knows that the Count has no real power; the Countess’s will rules all.
The Count is actually sneaking out to play cards—with, it so happens, a seven-year-old boy. He’s the son of the building’s doorman, gently ordered by his father to stop playing with his friends and do this task “for Daddy.” The small boy weeps with disappointment—he’s only seven years old—but reluctantly obeys. He’s to play a different game with the Count, one with higher stakes. For the Count, the game is deadly serious: first he bets his sunglasses (the boy bets a slingshot); then he bets his castle; then his lands; then his jacket. He loses constantly. The boy is an expert; the cards know where to go, he says laconically. Child and aristocrat are a contrast in styles, the Count’s blowhard extravagance, his hands-to-the-air gestures, his eyebrows, eyes, mouth, cheeks waggling in indignation, amazement, and horror, versus the boy’s stolidity. Depleted of bettable goods, the Count exits in wrath, shouting rage against the heavens, while the doorman escorts him to the elevator. Left to himself, the small boy fingers his slingshot and strokes a cat. He’s just a little boy, after all, who’d rather be out playing with friends; and this strange adult world is a weary puzzle to him.
De Sica is marvelous here, but the boy he chose is a wonder. The director was known for his work with children, and this small actor is a splendid testimonial to De Sica’s guidance. A tiny creature, with a dried-prune face and itty-bitty hands, he handles the deck with a cardsharp’s slickness. Thought at times bewildered by the Count’s loquacious bluster, he’s otherwise all hard-eyed business. He has no real interest in the Count or in the game, he’s there at Daddy’s orders. Only by himself, or crying at his father’s commands, do we recognize the little child deprived of childhood pleasures. It’s a snippet from life, an observation of types, exaggerated for humor, but poignant nonetheless. This is how life sometimes goes, the film seems to be saying. And this is how the small things of life reveal us for who we are.
The fifth, and longest segment, “Teresa,” is the most dramatic. Silvana Mangano plays the title character, a whore leaving the brothel to get married. But she’s never met the groom. The elderly go-between who fetches her explains, evasively, that her future husband had fallen in love after seeing her from afar. Teresa pragmatically accepts this far-fetched story, but she’s indignant that the groom had left her “turning tricks” right up to the wedding day. Couldn’t he have put her up somewhere beforehand? The scenes are done in quick shards of action: we see Teresa leaving the brothel, her fellow whores, excited at her good fortune, gathering to wish a find farewell. They’re a ragged, hearty bunch, not as good looking as Teresa, who’s dressed in what’s meant to be her best: a cheap-looking suit that’s a little too tight, and with a spot on it that she can’t get off. She also carries a beaten-up suitcase. Apparently the groom hasn’t provided his impoverished bride with a trousseau. There’s something a little off here.
Teresa finally meets her husband-to-be, Don Nicolo, who’s young, attractive, and well-to-do. The bride is eager and abashed; the groom is formal and aloof. He brings her to his home, where everything Teresa sees is a wonder to her, from the mansion’s grandeur to the beauty of his mother’s jewels. Freshening up in a bedroom, she opens a huge linen cabinet and, in amazement, strokes a huge pile of lacy shawls. There’s comfort and opulence here, something Teresa is not accustomed to; she has seemingly stepped into a fairy tale. But she also notices in the room a large, framed photograph of a dark-haired girl—a strange, silent intrusion into what should be a happy moment. It’s one more mystery among so many others.
At the wedding itself, relatives and guests are uniformly cordial and welcoming, and Teresa starts to enjoy herself. When someone asks how she met Nicolo, she makes up a romantic story of meeting him on the street. She’s beginning to believe in the fairy tale, in the possibility of happily-ever-after. The only one who does not seem to believe is the groom himself; he seems oddly detached from his own love story. Joining Teresa for a wedding group photograph, he doesn’t reciprocate her affectionate squeeze of his arm.
Some hours later, with the now-married pair back in that same bedroom, Teresa learns what is really going on. As the gloomy Nicolo lights a candle before the photograph, he explains that the pictured girl is dead, a suicide from unrequited love for him. He had made light of her desire, but she was of a graver mindset. Now for this sin Nicola wants to punish and degrade himself; hence his marriage to a whore. He has no intention of consummating his marriage to Teresa, he had never even seen her before that morning, having merely instructed his go-between to find him a whore, young or old, it didn’t matter (the go-between apparently took it upon himself to find a young, pretty one). It’s all part of his abasement. Further, Nicolo wants everyone to know who he’s married, why he’s done it, how he’s living, so all will despise him. He doesn’t care, he announces dramatically, just so long as he can suffer.
Understandably enraged, Teresa dresses and packs, sobbing that she’ll go back to the brothel (though at first she can’t find her way out of the immense house). Once outside, however, in cold, darkness, and damp, she hesitates. A short distance away is a carriage, which could return her to the whorehouse (or even to a client); behind is the grand house, a light coming through a balcony window. We see, in close-up, Teresa’s face as she decides, her lip curling with derision, her eyes flashing, then deadening, her body shrinking in on itself. Then she returns to the house, banging its huge heavy door knocker as if to rouse the dead. In long shot we see someone open the door and let Teresa in.
The story is odd, and painful. It’s a bent fairy tale, even a horror narrative, of a princess rescued by a cold fish. But Teresa, although a prostitute, has, in Mangano’s lovely performance, an innocence and tenderness about her. She is entering this marriage honestly and honorably, and does not deserve such treatment. The story highlights the class differences that weave through so many of the film’s episodes: the Count versus the small urchin, the grand funeral procession versus the street kids; the capo sponging off Totò; the working-class shop vendors versus the middle-class widower. Here it’s the affluent Nicolo, who can afford to marry a streetwalker and keep her living in luxury while actually abandoning her—his wife in legal terms only. Yet Teresa’s decision to return is one of rough survival. What else could she do, continue whoring? At least she’ll have a nice place to live, three meals a day, and the status of a married woman. There’s something in her face as she decides, a hardening of aspect and determination, which makes me think she will survive. A Grim Tale indeed.
The last story is another comic vignette. Don Ersilio, known as “the professor,” and played by the noted playwright Eduardo De Filippo (De Sica would later adapt one of his plays as the film Marriage Italian Style) sells advice to the inhabitants on his street. A woman needs an epigram for her Madonna picture (a large, vulgar image emblazoned with lights) to inspire passers-by; a young man wants revenge on a girl who scorned him; a group of men wants to know how to deal with an obnoxious old Duke who insists on clearing them from the street whenever he drives by in his chauffeured car. Ersilio is brisk, confident, and knowledgeable; and De Filippo, whose cheekbones are as tightly drawn in as Dietrich’s, is neat, elegant, and suave in his playing. For the Madonna’s picture he will come up with a couplet by that evening (it bears thinking about, he says); for the vengeful lover he suggests carrying a razor in a newspaper; for the street denizens he instructs them in, of all things, the Bronx cheer.
But Ersilio does have a heart. When he later questions the young man as to who is his would-be victim, he discovers that it’s a girl whom Ersilio himself had previously advised, and about this same man. For the briefest moment Ersilio’s face changes: something flickers in his eyes, as swift as a spark from a match. He realizes he is responsible for this conflict. The young man wants to knife his fiancée because she won’t give the ultimate “proof” of her love; but Ersilio had advised the girl to hold out on sex in order to get the man to propose. The professor makes his decision; he sides with the (unseen) girl and tells the man to marry her, thus resolving the conflict. As the young man leaves, the Duke drives by in his elaborate vehicle and the street residents, acting on Ersilio’s advice, derisively chant his name and blow him several mighty raspberries, like a chorus of frogs mocking a fat, elderly snake. So, as another conflict resolves, so life goes on, as both episode and movie end.
In watching Gold of Naples in its entirety, I’m aware of how De Sica highlights his character’s individual stories, of his compassion for their troubles, both comic and dramatic. But I also note how he handles groups: how he moves them organically, like an ocean wave or a field of grass shifting in the breeze. People cluster and break apart; they gather round the mourning widower, for example, or trail the capo in lockstep; they follow the funeral procession in ragged lines or drift off like dandelion seeds in the wind. The masses for De Sica are not objects to be prodded, arranged, and posed, but are a living, breathing collection of individuals, impelled by curiosity or sympathy. They’re alive to the moment, piqued by what they see, exploring and inquiring, and then wandering off when the excitement’s over. They take part in the great, moving ferment of existence, of life happening in the here and now, before our eyes.
But there’s also De Sica’s humanity, his recognition of empathy and a common alliance between individual and group—as seen with those who restrain the widower or commiserate with the mother, or with the party of wedding guests who welcome a bride; they’re curious but friendly, they want to share comfort, grief, or pleasure. Crowds are never just a backdrop or a block of architecture for De Sica. They live and breathe; they exist in their own right and once they break up, you sense that each individual’s life continues on in its own way, still being lived offscreen in the daily hubbub and tumult of mundane survival.
Don’t deprive yourself. This film is wonderful. Go see it—it’s WONDERFUL.
Bonus Clip 1: Here’s the trailer from Gold of Naples, highlighting several of its episodes:
Bonus Clip 2: Part of the epic card game between Count and kid in Gold of Naples: