The Roof

film stillIl Tetto, or The Roof, was directed and produced by Vittorio DeSica in 1956 and first shown in the U.S. in 1959.  A New York Times reviewer claimed the belated U.S. screening was due to what he called the film’s “somewhat cheerless theme.”  Indeed, the viewer reads in the film’s prologue that “the story you are about to see…is the heroic struggle of a young couple to build a tiny home on [Rome’s] outskirts and was actually filmed at a typical squatters’ colony where many Romans shared the same real-life predicament.”

Cesare Zavattinni was inspired to write the script for The Roof by observing the real-life events of a young couple:  Natale, a laborer, and Luisa, a domestic worker in Zavattinni’s apartment building.  Natale and Luisa’s names are used for the film’s main characters.  In keeping with neorealism, DeSica used non-professional actors and shot on location.  Natale is played by Giorgio Listuzzi, a twenty-two-year-old soccer player from Trieste.  Luisa is played by Gabriella Pallotta, a seventeen-year-old clerk in an infants wear store in Rome.

The film begins with Natale and Luisa’s marriage.  Luisa is not employed but Natale is an apprentice bricklayer. Though they are now very poor, getting and holding a good job does not seem to be the couple’s problem.  Rome needs brickmasons for its postwar construction. There will be plenty of work; the future seems promising.  The couple’s problem, instead, is their overcrowded, intolerable conditions of living with Natale’s parents and siblings.

Social contradictions of the couple’s predicament are shown throughout.  Natale helps build modern high-rise apartment complexes he can’t afford to live in.  The walls he builds are barriers that keep him out.  Rome’s homelessness grows, yet in perhaps one of the earliest social commentaries of space exploration, the ill-housed couple is shown hearing news about landing on the moon.  “That’s a big help,” Natale wryly comments.

After unsuccessful attempts to find an apartment of their own, they learn they could chance building their own house in a squatter’s settlement.  The law says that if they were to build a structure during the night while the police do not patrol, and if that structure had a completed roof, the house was theirs to live in.  Without the roof, it would be demolished at daybreak.  Natale turns to his workmates to help in the building, and the race against time begins.

What intrigues us is the couple’s strong and unfailing motivation to achieve dignity in life.  This is especially true for Natale.  We see this from film’s beginning, such as during the couple’s wedding photographs, to the end, when Natale boldly directs the construction of his tiny house.  He doesn’t want to waste too much time crawling before he walks.

The couple’s fight for dignity is a central theme in the film, and this is marked shift in perspective on working-class life.  Minor classics in sociology have impressed generations of scholars with gloomy accounts of working-class life, such as Sennett and Cobb’s Hidden Injuries of Class and Rubin’s Worlds of Pain.  Natale and Luisa,instead, personify the popular adage, “We’re just broke, not poor.”

I’m happy that the film makes us confront our common and opposing assumptions about working-class behavior.  We might say that, due to class disadvantage, working-class members naturally strive to move up and demand respect.  Yet we assert with equal confidence that due to this same class disadvantage, the working-class naturally is unable to aspire, it is happy to settle with what it has.  Well, which is it?  Perhaps we must first realize that the working class does not share a uniform experience due to the particular conditions they face. How might their experiences vary?   We might consider age, i.e., that it’s the couple’s youthfulness that explains their drive.  After all, in the Italian, Natale means “birth.”  Or, perhaps it’s the power of their love and drive for privacy.  Or, maybe it’s a matter of personality.

There is another possibility:  the particular labor we do. Consider bricklaying.  While physically demanding and dirty, it could afford the worker much autonomy and self direction.  Unfortunately, DeSica decided to cut out much footage of the actual bricklaying work from the final version.  We must turn to DiDonoto’s novel, Christ in Concrete, or Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich for such vivid accounts.  Nonetheless, Natale was not in a factory molding his body to the demands of a machine or deadening his mind at a moving assembly line.  Bricklaying requires human technology-hands that set bricks and manipulate trowels-as opposed to non-human technology of machine-mediated labor.  Perhaps such particular aspects of work explain the way we live outside the workplace.

We know that alienated conditions of the workplace extend out and shape a feeling of powerlessness in one’s family, community and nation-as we saw in last week’s film, Distance.  But, what of the workplace marked by worker autonomy and control?  Might not a less-alienating labor nurture and inspire the untiring struggle for a dignified life?  I found evidence of this in a now largely defunct occupation very similar to bricklaying:  brick making.

In 1910, New York State produced the largest amount of bricks in the world, made largely by Italians, eastern Europeans and southern-states blacks in the mid-Hudson Valley, in hundreds of brickyards along the shore of the Hudson River.  Like Natale and Luisa, most wanted dignity; most had high hopes for their children’s’ futures. I know this because I am the grandson, son and nephew of brickmakers from that region, and I studied a brickmakers’ community.  Like masons, they had to build huge kilns with walls of millions of bricks.  Like Natale, these workers had much control and self direction despite the physically brutal work, demanding pace and the low regard others had for them.

We fail to see the control and autonomy in many jobs because of the dirt and muscle they require.  Note the emphasis on drudgery expressed in this recent comment from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: “Job opportunities for brickmasons … are expected to be excellent through 2012.  [But,] there may be fewer applicants than needed because many potential workers prefer to work under less strenuous, more comfortable conditions.” I’m unaware of any data on these potential workers’ preferences.  This is pure assumption rooted in the faulty distinction we’ve long made between head work and back work and the faulty assumption that there is no worker control in the latter.

Natale and Luisa inspire us all to demand dignity.  But not just dignity at work, which is currently gaining much attention and support by students of the workplace, but dignity in work, i.e., expanding workers’ level of control and self judgment in their work, which we should fight for with equal or even more vigor.

I should point out that those familiar with DeSica’s best-known films, like The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D, are undoubtedly anxious to see if the conflict is resolved or not at the end.  Well, I ask you to consider the little character, Luigi, who appears in the final scenes.

Tonight’s movie is well timed, for October 4th is “World Habitat Day.” Designated by the UN General Assembly in 1985, “World Habitat Day” is the day for “the world to reflect on the state of human settlements and the basic right to adequate shelter and to remind the world of its collective responsibility for the future of the human habitat.”

Finally, we owe thanks to Martin Scorsese for collecting this film and storing at the George Eastman House.

This introduction was presented by Vincent Serravallo at a screening of The Roof on 24 September 2004.