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Vittorio De Sica's "La porta del cielo" ("Gate of Heaven") was made during the last part of the Nazi occupation of Rome and was not released until after the liberation and then only minimally and pretty much shelved. De Sica took on the project as a delaying tactic so as not to be forced to join the Italian cinema industry in its forced move northward after the Badoglio government signed the armistice with the Allies and Italy was thrust into a fratricidal civil war. De Sica told the urging Nazis that he had taken on a film project for the Vatican and worked on the movie, slowly, hoping the war would end while he filmed.
The movie was financed by the Centro Cattolico Cinematografico and much of it was shot inside the extra-territorial basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, with the interior doubling as the shrine of Our Lady of Loreto. The story follows a group of pilgrims, each with personal health issues and other problems, hoping to find a cure or solution in the church at Loreto, Italy's version of the shrine of Lourdes in France. Much of it takes place on a special train ("treno bianco" or "white train") transporting these pilgrims to the shrine from the south of Italy and making stops in other cities along the way to pick up additional participants.
The narrative includes several flashbacks into the lives of the people on the train. Among the pilgrims is a young concert pianist, played by Roldano Lupi, who has lost the use of his left hand, and who hopes for a miracle, despite his not being a believer. There are two workers, Carlo Ninchi and Massimo Girotti, one of whom is blinded in a factory accident that turns out to be caused by his friend. The blind man wants to regain his sight; the other seeks forgiveness for his act of malice. There is a handicapped boy in a wheelchair accompanied by his sister, played by Maria Mercader. Mercader was De Sica's wife/mistress and it was she who had arranged for the project to take place. There is an old woman, a governess in the service of a wealthy family, who wants to seek peace for the warring family members. There are many wonderful sequences, and the screenplay, written in part by De Sica's great collaborator Cesare Zavattini, adds a good deal of humanity to the movie and a realism not characteristic of much Italian cinema of the time. In a way this was a precursor of neorealism as much as Visconti's "Ossessione", and De Sica's own "I bambini ci guardano."
For De Sica himself this was one of his favorite movies and he always regretted that circumstances had caused it never to reach a public in the period after it was made. For the longest time De Sica's son Christian owned what was the only know copy of the movie, a 16mm print that she showed to people from time to time, including the writer Nino Lo Bello, who published on article on it in 1981 after a private viewing. In 1991 The film was shown, based on newly discovered archival-quality 35mm materials, as part of a De Sica retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That was where I first saw it. DVD copies of the movie can, as of now, only be found in private collections and derive from a RAI-TRE television showing.
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