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The Children are Watching Us: The Criterion Collection

In America, the template for child actors has always been Shirley Temple, the preternaturally precocious child who manages to charm everyone around them. They are often sexless and all-knowing, to which the descendants can now be traced into television stars such as Gary Coleman and the Olsen twins. But in European cinema, when a child is a leading player, the film is rarely loaded with expected triteness — often the kid is used to witness transgressions of a personal or global nature. And to trace the origins of this sensibility, one must turn to Vittorio De Sica's 1944 I Bambini ci guardano ("The Children are Watching Us"). Luciano De Ambrosis stars as Prico, the five-year-old son of Andrea (Emilio Cigoli) and Nina (Isa Pola). Nina has been carrying on with Roberto (Adriano Rimoldi), and the two decide to run off together, leaving Prico to the father. In her absence, no one is willing to take care of the child, and so he is handed off to numerous adults who can't watch over him. Eventually the mother returns, and the family decides to go on holiday. Things seem to be going well, until the father returns home and leaves his wife and child on the beach. Shortly thereafter, Nina is targeted for romance by a lothario until Roberto shows up and tries to steal her away again, prompting Prico to run away. Cinematically, children — like animals — are inherently sympathetic, and as such, when abused, can create maudlin tugs at the heartstrings. And yet, the beauty of De Sica's work here is that there is a sense of honesty to the proceedings — it eliminates the feeling of unearned manipulation. It's a masterful slice of life, with the subtle nuances of character, and the honesty of behavior makes it still resonate. This was De Sica's first major collaboration with screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, and the two would collaborate on De Sica's finest run of films, including 1946's Shoe-Shine, 1948's The Bicycle Thief, and 1951's Miracle in Milan. It's also seen as one of the progenitors of the Neorealist movement, for which De Sica would later become famous. Alas, the film was made in 1942, and though it was completed in 1943, the war kept it held up until 1944, where it was barely released. Such makes this DVD all the more important — the title has since become something of a Rosetta Stone for film buffs. The Criterion Collection presents The Children Are Watching Us in a restored full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with the original monaural Italian audio and optional English subtitles. Extras include two interviews, the first with star Luciano De Ambrosis, which is amazing simply in seeing a five-year-old boy 60 years later (8 min.), and another with De Sica scholar Callisto Cosulich (9 min.). Keep-case.

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