‘Il Tetto’ or — Gimme Shelter?

Colin Edwards
3 min readFeb 13

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It opens with the humble wedding of Natale and Luisa, a young couple deeply in love. We suspect Natale doesn’t have much money because he pays the chauffeur with wedding candies. We then know he’s really broke when we discover he and his new bride don’t have anywhere to live and so end up having to stay with Natale’s brother and his family in their crowded apartment in Rome.

Soon the inevitable happens with the newlyweds desiring their own space and feeling they are getting under foot, and when Natale’s sister in-law gives birth it’s the final sign that Natale and Luisa need to leave and find housing for themselves, even though it now renders them homeless.

In her search for possible accommodation in one of the shantytowns on the edge of the city Luisa witnesses a man being evicted from a little unfinished brick house he was building on some spare land. Bystanders inform her that if he had managed to finish the house to the point that it had a roof and front door then the police, who patrol this waste ground at morning and night to prevent such abodes being erected, would’ve been powerless to evict him as it would now, by law, be his legal home. If only the poor guy had just a few more bricklayer mates to help out he might’ve succeeded in time.

Luisa, whose husband is working as an apprentice builder and bricklayer at a nearby construction site, suggests to Natale that he might succeed where the other guy failed and that with some help from Natale’s co-workers they might, just might, be able to build a home during the night before the morning patrol arrives. The fact that Luisa is now pregnant means that, you know — no pressure or anything.

Vittorio De Sica (director) and Cesare Zavattini’s (scriptwriter) ‘Il Tetto’ (1956), or ‘The Roof’, is another one of their typically touching, charming, moving tales about those at the bottom of the ladder struggling to survive a harsh economic environment. Yet Zavattini doesn’t overly romanticse this young couple’s situation by having everyone magically appear to their aid for nothing (as one of Luisa’s friends tells her, “everyone is struggling”) meaning Natale and Luisa still have to pay, cajole and bargain to have even the slightest chance of getting this seemingly impossible job done. This helps keep the schmaltz at bay, allows the couple to keep their dignity and raises the tension for the viewer.

‘Il Tetto’ is simply wonderful. It has that deep humanist touch you’ll find in Ozu and McCarey and I’d bet hard cash De Sica’s work must’ve heavily influenced the films of Aki Kaurismäki (this movie would make a great double-bill with the Finnish director’s 2002 film about struggling for housing, ‘The Man Without a Past’). De Sica and cinematographer Carlo Montuori provide some of the best location cinematography you could wish for with, again, the way De Sica captures the startling and alienating look of cityscapes and desolate wastes heavily informing the work of directors such as Antonioni.

Moving, entrancing and with a clear end goal needing to be achieved within an incredibly tight time limit meaning it’s also utterly gripping ‘Il Tetto’ is further evidence, if any more were needed, that even though he might be somewhat over-looked now De Sica was, at his best, one of the most influential, and truly human, filmmakers of the 20th Century.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.