Have you heard of Italian director Vittorio De Sica?
On July 7th, 1901, in the small Italian town of Sora that lay between Rome and Naples, actor and Neorealist director Vittorio De Sica was born. His father, Umberto De Sica, had composed a song, “Tarallo Tarallino,” in the case that a boy was born to the family since until 1901, the family only had daughters. Umberto De Sica was an employee for Banca d’Italia which required the family to move from city to city quite often, living in places like Florence, Rome, and Naples for some periods of time.
Despite living in Rome for much of his later life, Vittorio remembered Naples with particular fondness with its winding streets full of vibrant, colorful personalities. Vittorio, who was not fond of math, was intent on getting a degree in accounting so he could work with his father at the bank. He did work at the bank for a little while, but he came to dread working in the office every morning and one day asked his father if he could be an actor. His father agreed.
The young Vittorio was already accustomed to entertainment before entering the theater business. He had been in a choir and, during World War 1, he had accompanied his father to military hospitals where he would sing and his father would play the piano for wounded soldiers. It was in 1923 that he got one of his first roles from a theater company run by Russian actress and director Tatiana Pavlova.
Vittorio De Sica
He stayed with the company for a while performing light comedies until he eventually joined the Za-Bum Theater Company in 1930. With actor Umberto Melnati, the two were very successful in their performances of radio skits and songs such as “Lodovico, you’re as sweet as a fig.” In 1933, Vittorio along with Sergio Tofano and Giuditta Rissone (who would later become his first wife), formed their own theater company where they continued to perform theatrical comedies.
His first breakthrough role in the film industry was with the 1932 film Gli uomini, che mascalzoni! (What Scoundrels Men Are!). Having already been very popular in the theatrical realm, he soon became famous in the world of film as well. He continued to act until the end of his life, but today he is often best known for the films he directed rather than the films in which he starred. He only started directing films in the 1940s, his first film being the comedy Rose Scarlatte (Scarlet Roses) in 1940.
He continued to direct several comedies throughout the ’40s, but towards the later half of the decade, he began wanting to direct more impactful and meaningful films that showed the reality of life. Films like The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. made him one of the founders of the Neorealism movement along with Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini.
Many of his Neorealist films were disliked by the Italian masses and were accused of giving Italy a bad reputation as a place of poverty, grittiness, and hunger. However, post-war Italy, along with other war-torn countries, embodied many of these aspects. De Sica himself was no stranger to these misfortunes as he had grown up poor.
Even in his early days of theater, he barely had enough money to buy clothes or food and once nearly fainted from hunger on stage. His Neorealist films did, however, find great success in other countries. Still, the age of Neorealism did not last very long and one of his last tries at the genre was the 1956 film Il Tetto (The Roof), although his last most impactful Neorealist film was Umberto D. (1952) which he dedicated to his father.
Neorealist films never generated De Sica much money and he had to pay for much of them out of his own pocket. He once claimed of these films, “I’ve lost all my money on these films. They are not commercial. But I’m glad to lose it this way. To have for a souvenir of my life pictures like Umberto D. and The Bicycle Thief.” In the 1960s, he directed hugely successful comedies such as Ieri, Oggi, E Domani (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow), and Matrimonio all’Italiana (Marriage Italian Style), both of which starred Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.
He also produced some poorly received films such as After the Fox (1966) and A Place For Lovers (1968). It was only in 1970 when De Sica was again able to direct a movie he was truly passionate about: Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Contini), a film that explores an aristocratic Jewish family’s inevitable persecution by the Nazis during World War 2. This was one of his last highly successful films until his death from lung cancer in 1974.
Despite being a relatively private person, De Sica never hid his passion for gambling. Whenever he and his family went on vacation, they would often either go to Sanremo or Monte Carlo, both locations having luxurious casinos. He would sometimes win huge sums of money, but more often he would lose them. For this reason, he acted in more than 150 films in his lifetime in order to get back enough money to fund his own projects.
In the 1956 film The Monte Carlo Story starring De Sica and Marlene Dietrich, actually set in Monte Carlo, Dietrich complained that her co-star spent far too much time gambling, especially at the roulette table. Despite this, he was well-liked by everyone; generous, kind, a jokester, and said to have been the balance between serious and carefree. He was also known to kiss the hands of women before leaving the casinos.
The Family Life of Vittorio De Sica
A curiosity of Vittorio De Sica’s life was his effort to lead a double life between two families: with his first wife Giuditta Rissone and their daughter Emilia and with his second wife Maria Mercader and their two sons, Manuel and Christian. He had married Rissone in 1937, but in 1941 he met and fell in love with Mercader on the set of a movie he was filming.
Rissone allowed De Sica to continue living with her and their daughter for part of the week while for the remainder of the week he would stay with Mercader because Rissone did not want to deprive their daughter of a father figure and, indeed, the couple still loved each other despite the strange marital situation. He went as far as to attend both family’s dinners during the holidays and changed the clocks by two hours on New Year’s Eve in Mercader’s house so he would have enough time to eat dinner and give a toast in both households.
Divorce was illegal in Italy at the time, so he got a divorce in Mexico in 1954. He married Mercader, also in Mexico, in 1954, but the marriage was not recognized by Italian law. After becoming a French citizen in 1968, he was finally able to marry Mercader in Paris. Even after his official divorce from Rissone, he couldn’t give up his first family and continued to visit them.
His children described him as strict at times, but above all, very warm, attentive, and affectionate. He also enjoyed playing the piano at home, singing Neapolitan songs, and telling exciting stories to his children. His son Manuel became a musician and even composed music for some of his father’s films such as The Garden of Finzi-Contini. Christian followed in his father’s footsteps and became an actor, singer, and director.