Miracle in Milan (Miracolo a Milano)
Italy (1951) Dir. Vittorio de Sica
An eccentric old lady Lolotta (Emma Gramatica) discovers a newborn baby in her cabbage patch which she takes in and raises as her own, naming him Totò. Upon Lolotta’s death when Totò is 11 years-old, he is sent to an orphanage until aged eighteen where Totò (Francesco Golisano) enters the big wide world with a naive but positive outlook.
He befriends a poor man Rappi (Paolo Stoppa) who offers Totò a bed for the evening in his tiny wooden tent sized construction in a nearby shanty town. Totò sees that there is room for improvement on the site so he sets about involving everyone in a complete reorganisation of the shanty town making it more homely and communal.
When rich business man Mobbi (Guglielmo Barnabò) makes an attempt to buy the land, he agrees to let the people be when they show him some honest hospitality. But after oil is found on the land, Mobbi reneges on his promise and orders the vagrants to vacate his property. Only divine intervention can save the day for the squatters and that is exactly what they get.
Sandwiched between The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. this is another classic slice of neo realism from Vittorio de Sica and the lightest of the three as far as tone although the content has a message as powerful as its companions. The film is seen by many a loose take on the gospel of Christ with Totò being the ostensive messianic figure of the tale but there is nothing for those of a religious persuasion to be offended about.
Totò doesn’t even profess himself as any kind of leader of the people – it is more an adopted role although the community is a fairly autonomous one. Totò’s congenial manner and resourcefulness put as him above the others in the shanty town and it slowly rubs off on the many homeless and poor people in the area. If anything it is simple tale of greed and corruption.
Even with a paucity of money and food at their disposal, the vagrants are boosted by Totò’s presence and the results of his labours may still be meagre by typical standards but they suffice the needs of the poor community. Life is pretty good until Mobbi and his opulent colleagues show up but the simple gesture of allowing them to warm their hands by the camp fire assuages any signs of hostility.
Mobbi relaxes and notes how everyone is the same after all, and proposes a policy of “live and let live” – until a little water divining produces some oil and for Mobbi, any previous promises of leaving the vagrants in peace are null and void.
A simple rebellion by the shanty town dwellers is initially effective forcing Mobbi to up the ante and bring a larger police force. Outnumbered and out powered, surrender is imminent until Lolotta’s ghost appears before Totò and gives him a holy dove which will grant any wish and lo and behold it works.
Having repelled the police attack, the vagrants take advantage of the dove’s powers asking for every materialistic item you could imagine. This however upsets a couple of angels who show up to reclaim the dove throwing everything into jeopardy
With its descent into fantasy in the final act it should come as no surprise that humour is more prevalent in this film than De Sica’s other neo realist works, and just as well as it would be impossible to imagine this being played out with a straight face. There is some straight up levity to lighten the mood and a few wry smiles.
One particular laugh which may seem a bit touchy in today’s climate sees a young couple of a black man and a white woman making furtive eyes at each other but the idea of anointer-racial relationship is apparently a no-no. When Totò is doling out the goodies with the dove, the black man asks to be made white and Totò obliges. He then runs off and bumps into his lady friend, Guess what she asked for? Yup….
There is no real religious iconography anything overtly referential to any biblical parables with the exception of the vagrants coming together to blow away a fog of tear gas which parts like a certain expanse of rouge coloured water. Otherwise this is a sharp satire on human greed from both those who have it and those who don’t, with both parties being corrupted by it.
An interesting note is how adult Totò is not a tall, handsome hero but a stocky little chap barely taller than his female counterpart and the least likely choice of a leading man you could imagine, But Francesco Golisano – imagine an Italian version of a young Bernard Cribbins – is marvellous in his role as he wide eyed and bewildered Totò.
Miracle in Milan sees Di Sica at his most playful while still wielding his axe of savage social commentary, delivering another stunning piece of thoughtful cinema.