Why We Should Indulge Quentin Tarantino

The release of a Quentin Tarantino film always follows the same routine. Hype, great reviews and then following release, the backlash. The Hateful Eight appears to be no exception, with soap opera drama of leaked scripts and cancelled productions. Only with Tarantino should the production be part of the plot!

The criticism is always along the same lines: too long, too violent, too indulgent, rips off everyone else. But is the casual criticism founded? The comments come from both those who like and dislike his films; “I hated it because…” vs “I loved it, but…”.

What you see is what you get with Tarantino. Complaining his films are too long or that he’s self-indulgent is like saying you enjoy the winter and then saying it’s too cold. All his films take their time and are laden with influences.

Reservoir Dogs is a reasonable length, as is Kill Bill or Death Proof. But consider that Reservoir Dogs is possibly part of the Pulp Fiction universe, hence the Vega character link and Kill Bill was merely part of a four-hour opus, as was Death Proof, it starts to become clear that Tarantino likes to wallow.

I enjoy his indulgent nature. I know if I’m going to see a Tarantino film chances are I’ll be there a while, but then I’ve always enjoyed narrative more than anything else; to see the director as the hidden voice, the story teller. Accept Tarantino’s method and those three hours for The Hateful Eight fly by without much of anything happening, particularly if you try not to assume anything about what is going on and just let it unfold.

Some directors plot films like they’re telling you a knock-knock joke, straight to the point. Others, more like a limerick with a dash of poetry. A romantic analogy, but Tarantino is like a guy at a campfire telling ghost stories, or an old man in a pub who knows everything that happened in the town for the last fifty years and likes to playfully tease those that bother to listen.

He is also like Spielberg or Hitchcock, or even Orson Welles, though he takes a lot longer than any of them to tell a yarn. He shares their thirsty nostalgic love for cinema and makes the films he would want to watch himself. To be one of the audience. And like a lot of this generation’s filmmakers he draws on what he’s seen before, but that’s not to be dismissed as talentless ripping off, especially not when done with the skill and brio he brings to it. Martin Scorcese made a documentary some years ago (A Personal Journey with Martin Scorcese Through American Movies, which is brilliant by the way) where he spoke of the director as a smuggler, demonstrating that motifs and sequences have been reused repeatedly since cinema began.

Quentin Tarantino is one of cinema’s most brilliant modern storytellers because while he boasts his influences a little more than he should, the films are still original. In Reservoir Dogs there are at least three plot lines nested together in a terrific piece of audacious writing. Pulp Fiction is just as fresh now, the perfect example of how his brand of procrastination can work. Only Death Proof tries my patience as it does with many people, but what he attempted should be congratulated; a modern twist on Psycho, proving that what Hitchcock achieved was extraordinary: Kill the central character halfway through, yet keep hold of the audience. It was the second bit Tarantino couldn’t quite grasp.

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Since Inglourious Basterds, he has shifted into a more character based and confident style. A style that exaggerates Hitchcock’s theory of suspense: that the drama is not in the bomb exploding, but in waiting for it to explode. A Tarantino movie is now typically people nattering while the tension builds and focuses to a point of cathartic, extreme violence. While some yearn for his leaner Dogs days, maybe this is the film-maker he always wanted to be.

So why is Tarantino so indulgent? Why can’t his films quite escape his shadow? Or should they? It’s worth considering him in relation to Sergio Leone and Once Upon A Time in The West in particular. He isn’t shy about any of his influences, but that one he positively shouts about, right down to Ennio Morricone creating original music for him. I can’t blame him as I think OUATITW might be the pinnacle of cinema as an artform pre-1970. I’m not dismissing the subsequent 50-ish years of film, but our modern view of cinema was formed in the 70s with the birth of the blockbuster and the rise of independents. It’s hard for us young(ish) film-nerds to put film history into context, avoiding nostalgia and revision. For the purposes of the example, we need to look at where Tarantino came from, which is Leone’s era.

Leone’s sprawling Western is the perfect marriage of Hollywood escapism and European restraint. From its earliest days Hollywood churned out movies in the mould of Romantic Realism (as Mark Cousins would call it); we recognise the worlds and situations the films present, but realise they aren’t necessarily real or of our time. The Italians, artistically speaking, responded to this sentimentality with neo-realism in the 1940s. Bicycle Thieves, Il Posto, etc., were fictional, but set in real places and acted by regular people often playing themselves. Camera style and editing were almost documentary-like. Neo-Realism then developed further with Pasolini’s Mamma Roma. It contains a couple of mistakes, but Pasolini left them in because… well, they happened. This led into Fellini’s , a fascinating journey through the brain of a director. We see his dreams, his fantasies, his reality, all the while he is trying to make an actual movie, partly the one we’re watching. A bridge between the artist and the audience had been created.

Genius it may be, but is not an easy watch. That’s the job of the Western to at least start with an intention to entertain, and so we reach Sergio Leone and his spaghetti. If we take it for granted that he has been brought up in a neo-realist world, but loving Hollywood, what kind of film is OUATITW?

It’s long, indulgent and operatic, but importantly the indulgence comes from not trying to hide that it is a film, the basic ‘rules’ of which Leone ignores. He tells his story with exuberance as if he himself was relating it. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly we have the famous Ecstasy of Gold sequence, a perfect example of taking a simple moment and making it huge. Same with the opening gunfight in OUATITW. I wonder if people came out of the cinema saying, “fantastic! But a bit long. That Leone bloke and his ego, etc”.

A typical movie today might be more fun if just occasionally it would acknowledge that the audience is in on the joke. Consider the Bond franchise vs their inspiration, North By Northwest, a film fundamentally better because Hitchcock embraces the absurdity. Deadpool represents an opportunity to play with narrative again and break that trend, an opportunity that will more than likely be squandered.

Unlike Clint Eastwood who learned from and ultimately rejected Leone’s style, Tarantino embraces it. He does so, I would argue, naturally, not as a mimic, indulging where Romantic Realism couldn’t. It’s his stage, his sandpit and his play-pen. He interrupts The Hateful Eight with narration, so the narrative is literally embodied by the director, happy to remind us he’s part of the fun. Just as you would remember details about the camp-fire and the old man trying to scare you with shadows, so you remember his story.

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One has to be careful defending Tarantino’s excesses because we end up only considering him in isolation. The development of realism is just one thread in cinema’s rich tapestry and can be mirrored across the world, for instance, Japanese cinema. Tarantino certainly isn’t the only one who can employ that history. In 2015 Alejandro González Iñárritu won the Best Picture Academy Award for Birdman, a love letter to that arguably manages to be more entertaining than Fellini’s masterpiece. He has a chance of taking the same award this year for The Revenant, tackling Tarantino’s current favoured genre and stealing his thunder. He does all this quietly, without hype.

Tarantino is frustrating because he can be selfish and petulant. Jackie Brown was superb, but its relative misunderstood failure at the box office led Tarantino to say he’ll never adapt someone else’s work again, so he can’t take a direct hit to his ego. And while he can pull together as good a soundtrack as anyone, on the flip-side, this is only because he can’t work with a composer. Ennio Morricone did segments of original music for The Hateful Eight, but only segments. Then there’s the usual noise around sequels and prequels and uncut versions (will we ever get Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair?) or the rubbish about retiring. Perhaps he simply needs to shut up and let his work speak for itself.

Put his ego aside (if you can, it’s got some weight to it) and separate his films from his personality and there’s nothing else quite like anything in his oeuvre; all are brazenly violent, entertaining and artistically credible in equal measure. You might baulk at the running times (Kubrick covered the evolution of mankind in less time than an average Tarantino flick), but peek under the surface and question if it really could be shorter. You’ll find a rarely matched standard of screenplay and mise en scene from a master film-maker who simply loves movies as much as the rest of us.

Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

 ★★★★★ 

BIRDMAN or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is a black comedy that tells the story of an actor (Michael Keaton) – famous for portraying an iconic superhero – as he struggles to mount a Broadway play.  In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself.

Birdman might feel fresh and exciting, but it’s all been done before. That isn’t a critiscm though when the predecessor is Fellini’s 8½, the 60s pinnacle of Italian Neo-Realism and one of the most important films ever made. This is arguably filmmaking at it’s most pure, and impossible to ape; it either works completely or it feels fake and pretentious. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film goes all in and it’s an utter joy. Actually, it’s much more fun and accessible than Fellini’s intensely personal film.

In fact the script makes it feel more personal for Michael Keaton. It’s a superb performance anyway, but it could really be his ego on show; it’s almost awkward to watch. Birdman? Of course they mean Batman and there’s also his casual jealousy of Robert Downey Jr., superhero movies in general and his inability to use social networking. ‘Meta’ is so cool and modern, isn’t it? Yawn. Don’t let this put you off though because it’s what adds to the realism. The story is now, in our world, and Keaton has never been better, the dialogue-heavy role playing to his strengths, giving him more emotional room than he’s ever had before. This isn’t some (deserved) Oscar-baiting, navel-gazing turn either. Much as he has demons to battle and you empathise with the seriousness of him risking everything on a play while trying to deal with his ego, he’s never allowed to take himself too seriously. For one thing the voice of Birdman (Keaton again) taunts him and for another the brilliant Edward Norton is a complete arsehole, undermining Keaton at every opportunity to hilarious effect.

The film itself contradicts him as well, batting along at a terrific pace. With no discernible editing the camera roams the theatre corridors, closely following the cast and capturing the mood of a play rather than a film. It gives no time to establishing a plot, instead starting with Keaton floating in his dressing room before he goes to a rehearsal scene (which in turn demonstrates a deft script that seamlessly blends roles within roles). It ventures outside rarely (memorably so when Keaton gets locked out in his underpants!) and scenes pass with no regard for time in between. It’s a masterpiece of editing and makes for an exhilarating experience, especially when it plays with your perception too; purposefully predictable in one moment, throwing a curve-ball in the next.

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Easy as it is to focus on Keaton’s blistering performance, this like any theatre production is a cast effort. As well as Norton, standouts include Emma Stone and Naomi Watts, at her best probably since Mulholland Drive, with Zach Galifianakis in an effective part as Keaton’s long-suffering agent.

Birdman is vibrant and confidently ambitious. It’s classic film nerd Realism with a punchy, modern twist and makes for an interesting companion to Black Swan, another bird themed theatre story! It’s thoroughly entertaining and we’re unlikely to see anything quite like it for some time.

Much as I love cinema there is little real originality these days. Audiences want formula (which Birdman himself demonstrates at one point, teasing Keaton with a fantasy set-piece that surely his audience would prefer) and attempts to deviate from the predictable become just that. There’s nothing wrong with assured, classical filmmaking, in fact I embrace it, but it’s reassuring to see someone like Alejandro pushing the boundaries of what is typically acceptable and succeeding so completely.

Fellini’s 8½ (Otto e mezzo)

 ★★★★★ 

A film director (Mastroianni) is struggling to find the creativity required to deliver his next movie and consequently is being hassled by industry figures as well as his wife and his mistress. In order to escape his tormentors, the director retreats into a world of memories, dreams and fantasies. The result is a dazzling array of themes and images which make 8 1/2 the quintessential Fellini movie. It also closely mirrors his own problems prior to getting the project off the ground.

Reviewing a film like is quite tough. Easy to recommend, hard to say why, and impossible to say whether you’ll like it, regardless of how much you appreciate it. Suffice to say it is an intensely personal film for the director, Federico Fellini, and it might just be one for you too. Its beauty is intoxicating whatever your conclusion, so dive in, embrace it and let it simmer on your mind.

It has such a varied and playful structure, that scenes can differ wildly, verging on a collection of set-pieces, yet they flow effortlessly together between Guido’s (Mastroianni) present, his fantasies, and his past. His memory of the exotic Saraghina is a stunning moment in particular. There would be a tendency these days to make the memories and dreams overly romantic and strange to emphasise their place in the story, but here the moments in Guido’s reality can be just as theatrical. There is no signposting between them either, challenging your own perception of the events. What I’m trying to say is that there appears to be no design, when of course there is. In fact, it is astonishingly clever as the self-referential dialogue relates to us the difficulty Fellini is having while making his eighth and a half film, within the film we are watching! Phew… I’m reminded of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation screenplay. He had been asked to adapt a novel and the film is about his attempt and failure to do so. While it bends your mind, it boils down to the writer having a block and working it out on screen. Fellini is doing a similar thing.

Mastroianni is marvellous as Guido and he has a great cast to support him, especially the women. The wonderful Anouk Aimée is his long suffering wife, and may be his and the films anchor, while he is teased in his own mind at least by Claudia Cardinale. Barbara Steele also pops up and her entrance is a real wow moment! I’ve often said I think Hitchcock gave Grace Kelly the best entrance of any actress in Rear Window. I’m tempted to put Barbara’s introduction a close second.

Here in these elements is where the film can easily divide an audience. Guido is exhausted, as much from his affairs as from a previous film, but because we are so focused on him and he is suffering from essentially being too successful, it is easy to see it as pretentious self-pity, which he is suffering at his own convenience, you might say. And the film is clearly so personal to Fellini that it may be auto-biographical, so you can’t help but wonder if he is coming to terms with his own addictions and shortfalls by making . So at the end, he feels better and self-satisfied because he shared it with us? If the film wasn’t so bloody good, its self-serving nature and cheap treatment of women could be offensive.

It does have a light and cheeky sense of humour throughout from the first moment to the end and in truth, you are not forced into sympathising with anyone, things just move along as they would naturally. You see his dreams and fantasies, but it is not some sentimental inner voice relating them to us in retrospect, dictated by a narrative. Indeed it entirely avoids committing to having some sort of focused resolution. We see them as they happen and all his neuroses, faults and ambitions are laid bare. Guido is a hard character to dislike, regardless of your perspective (oddly the same problem his wife has!) and it is possibly the most honest and pure film ever made.

I have recently watched three Italian films from the early 60s that demonstrated how Neo-Realism had evolved. Il Posto, La Commare Secca and Mamma Roma (also 1962). That last one, an early film from Pier Paolo Pasolini, demonstrated how the director was seeking such realism in his work that he didn’t want the audience to entirely forget they were watching a film. As such, there is a brief moment where a young actor stumbles during a dance scene and, embarrassed, his eyes look straight at the camera. Passolini left this ‘mistake’ in as part of the experience. The barriers between the film-makers and their audience were being broken down, even while the film still had a poetic and important story to tell.

Fellini took this to a natural end-point in. There is no story as such to tell as it is merely a snapshot within the film-making process. So it’s an enigma because it could be the purest expression of realism, but there’s surely nowhere else for it to go. And does it even have a point? Well, it is at least a fascinating demonstration of what film can achieve and should be required viewing for everyone. So I suppose it makes its own point, which just sums up the whole, wonderful, infuriating genius of the thing!

Mamma Roma

 ★★★★★ 

I was somewhat reluctant to see Mamma Roma, as I am not a fan of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s more famous and controversial work, such as Salò. Thankfully it is a glorious film with a fascinating story that epitomises the potential of Neo-Realism without losing entertainment value, largely thanks to Anna Magnani’s incredible starring role. It was written in some ways to be a challenge to other Neo-Realist themes of the time and certainly when you consider the style of Il Posto and La Commare Secca, Mamma Roma is definitely angrier.

Mamma Roma is a prostitute who has managed to save enough money to almost escape the trade. She has a new apartment and a market stall, and feels she can now bring her son to live with her in Rome. Ettore is 16 and has been living in a village, but his mother worries about who he mixes with and thinks she can help him live a respectable life with her in the city. Unfortunately, he definitely mixes with the wrong types there, resorts to stealing to buy gifts for his prostitute (ironic!) girlfriend and can’t hold onto a normal job. Mamma Roma does everything she can to keep him safe, but it’s a struggle, not helped when her pimp returns and blackmails her into returning to the streets. It is clear that despite her efforts, Ettore would fare better without her. It is a sombre thought that is never spoken, but there nonetheless.

So she is still trapped and can only rely on others like her. In the last act, there is a reference to The Divine Comedy, reflecting that these characters inhabit a tormented circle of hell they can’t escape. All of the main characters are outsiders of society, such as prostitutes and thieves and there is a damning indictment of the role of religion in society. There is a lot of religious imagery in the film, and note how the Priest is unable to help her son find work because he has not studied and seems to chastise Mamma for wanting a quick answer. In truth, Ettore needs the job to earn self-respect and she is forced to use underhand methods to secure him one. She cannot even rely on the church.

It may sound like a tough story, and it is, but despite their unhealthy lives, Pasolini’s characters are passionate and vivacious, with fruity dialogue (see the opening wedding scene) none more so than Mamma who has a filthy laugh she uses often! The narrative unfolds in a poetic manner, bridged by two sequences when she is walking the streets. She relates a story as she walks, alone in almost complete darkness, but for companions who listen for a time and are then replaced. It makes for a striking effect. While this is firmly a Neo-Realism film, there is still a theatrical staging to the scenes.

Anna Magnani is wonderful as Mamma. She fills the screen with her personality, but can be soft enough to break your heart when she is quieter and lets the intelligence of her character come through. After the exciting wedding scene that opens the film, Pasolini cuts to her years later, just watching her son at a fairground before explaining her plans to him. At this point, Ettore is in full control, but she unwittingly brings him into Rome as an outsider. He is played by Ettore Garofolo and he is very affecting, with a natural screen charisma, very laid back to reflect his character. With some effort, he comes to life with Mamma, first in a funny dance sequence and when he takes her for an exhilarating ride on the new motorbike she has bought him.

But is it all for nothing? His frustration continually gives way to temptation, yet she will not give up on him. The final scene will keep you thinking for some time. The film overall is stunning and I haven’t begun to scratch the surface with this review. It shows Neo-Realism taken to a breaking point, full of metaphor and imagery. The dark plot is not exactly uplifting, but it is very watchable and satisfying.

La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper)

 ★★★★☆ 


Based on a book by Pier Paolo Pasolini, La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper) was Bernardo Bertolucci’s debut. He would go on to more sexually charged work with Last Tango In Paris and the more recent The Dreamers, but there is still an undercurrent of strong passion within this film.

It is essentially a crime thriller in a Neo-Realistic style, structured in a very similar manner to Akira Kurosawa’s seminal Rashomon. Though the comparison can be distracting, La Commare Secca is still a consummate and often beautiful piece of work. The opening scene is quite stunning, especially with the music score, as Bertolucci’s roving camera finally settles on the body of a murdered prostitute near the banks of the river Tiber. The story reveals she was last seen alive in a park and the plot unfolds in flashback as the police interview each suspect who was there that night as well.

As in Citizen Kane, we never see the policeman asking the questions which may imply it is us, the viewer. That idea was explicit in Citizen Kane, but much looser here. What the suspect says in the interview is never the full story, which we see in more detail. Each sequence pauses during a rainstorm to show us the prostitute preparing herself in her apartment, before briefly returning to the current flashback.

The sequences feature a youngster who robs people in the woods with his friends; a chancer working with a woman to demand money from her clients; an aimless soldier; a loner; and a kid who gets in trouble for robbing a homosexual, the same man who reported the body and will eventually identify which of these people was the murderer. The common theme of each suspect and the victim being that they are on the edge of society and there is some irony in them all being suddenly so important.

I found it to be a rather uneven film. The second sequence with the guy dealing with his girlfriends and turning out to be driver for one of them was the best, while the kid who robs the man in the park was very annoying. He and his friends had an incessant habit of giggling between bouts of overacting. Italy’s answer to Beavis and Butthead? Not liking that so much!

The brilliance of the film is in Bertolucci’s directing. He successfully builds a whodunit drama through the film, regardless of the shifting tones between the flashbacks, while each of those is a substantial development in the plot, with a sombre atmosphere each time it returns to the doomed prostitutes apartment. While each sequence is a perfect example of Neo-Realism in itself, what you don’t see between them, you form in your own mind and so a typical crime thriller is unfolding into the spaces.

A good film lessened by its similarity to Rashomon and uneven acting, but still worth seeing for how smoothly Bertolucci weaves the different parts into a cohesive whole.

In La Commare Secca you can possibly see the influences from other world cinema and it is in the comparisons that we find the Realism. For instance, I referred to Citizen Kane’s device of making the viewer feel like the interrogator and how Bertolucci does a similar thing. However, in Kane you could argue it was purely a narrative decision -the audience are tied to one viewpoint until the childhood sequence- whereas in La Commare Secca it isn’t so focused. Perhaps it is there to remind us we are watching a film and make us aware of the other sources which seem to be involving us directly.

This is what fascinates me about this period of film. Although this was an example of Realism, it has matured enough to involve the audience and create a kind of whodunnit plot. So creating a plot by not slavishly adhering to a plot!  Whoa, dude. Where are the drugs?!   You can start to see the seeds of Dario Argento’s movies too. His approach is often compared to Hitchcock, because of how the narrative is aware of an audience and plays up to them, but that’s starting to creep through here as well.

What’s also nice about this period is how closely some of the film-makers were working together, specifically exploring the limits (or not) of their Genre. So La Commare Secca was written by Pasolini, who also directed the Mamma Roma.

 

Il Posto (The Sound of Trumpets)

 ★★★★★ 

Director Ermanno Olmi’s apparently auto-biographical film is charming, precise and ultimately melancholic. It isn’t as attacking as some other examples of Neo-Realism, as it tackles the inevitable resignation to work that none of us can do much about, but does so with humour and can be oddly uplifting. The story follows a young man from a relatively poor rural background as he visits the fast developing city to take a series of tests before getting a job in a large corporation, where he will have “a job for life” as his father has told him. The films message subtly balances the pride of getting such a job and the promise of what it could bring, with the awful banality of the work and the daunting prospect of “for life” that most of us face! The themes in that sense are as relevant now as they ever were, despite lacking a more pointed agenda that might have aged the film. Putting aside Neo-Realism for the moment, Il Posto shares some DNA with films as diverse as Ikuru, The Apartment, Billy Liar and even Brazil or Office Space!

Olmi directs with a graceful style, long shots and fairly neutral lighting, somewhat typical of Neo-Realism. Such restrain in some cases can cause a film to appear unfocused, but Olmni has all sorts of character moments to give it substance. The relationship between the boy and his parents is particularly wonderful.

Sandro Panseri is excellent in the lead role as Domenico. He has an awkward Buster Keaton quality about him, as we see a range of emotions despite a fairly impassive face and an ever present air of bewilderment. The only thing he seems absolutely sure of is his attraction to Loredana Detto as Antonietta, a girl going through the same process that he can’t take his eyes off.

There is a wonderful sequence during their lunch break on that first day, as he tentatively plucks up courage to speak to her and they get a coffee together, which seems like an adventure on its own! Before reaching the café, they have passed by all sorts of materialistic attractions that they may be able to afford sometime and a psychologist could have a field day with the quiet character moments between them. No pointed dialogue, no exposition, yet it is as rich and captivating as any Hollywood romance you might care to mention, even though there is no plot to speak of that will allow for a contrived relationship between them. In fact, when they are assigned departments, Domenico struggles to find her again.

This indistinct plot allows Olmi to explore other employees at the corporation and the narrative steps away from Domenico in the middle act for brief vignettes, including a lady who keeps arriving late because of her irresponsible children, a talented man who sings at a bar in the evenings and an aspiring writer. As we catch up with Domenico, these other workers colour the scenes. Note for instance the key moment at a company dance where Domenico is desperately hoping Antonietta will turn up. The man who can sing asks to join in with the band, but they make apologetic excuses so he can’t. Even when they’re supposed to be having fun, the company manages to dull the things that make them individual.

The final scene is a superb culmination of the themes, with a touch of sentimentality setting up a sharply ironic conclusion. Olmi closes on Domenico’s bemused expression and despite this fantastic film being 50 years old, you might ask how much of yourself you see in those eyes!

A wonderful film that is occasionally funny and profound, with a critically sharp observation on society that doesn’t feel dated at all. This is highly recommended and if you are looking to explore Neo-Realism for the first time, this is as good a point as any.

Compared with Bicycle Thieves, there is more of a narrative to Il Posto and a kind of invitation to the viewer to be complicit in what they are seeing and how they react. It’s important to say at this point though that if you completely put aside the notions of Realism, Il Posto is simply a bloody wonderful film. It makes me smile, just to think about it. It’s worth watching simply because it exists and requires no further analysis.

Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette)

 ★★★★★ 


Hailed around the world as one of the greatest movies ever made, Vittorio De Sica’s Academy Award-winning Bicycle Thieves defined an era in cinema. In postwar, poverty-stricken Rome, a man hoping to support his desperate family with a new job loses his bicycle, his main means of transportation for work. With his wide-eyed young son in tow, he sets off to track down the thief. Simple in construction and dazzlingly rich in human insight, Bicycle Thieves embodied all the greatest strengths of the Italian neorealist movement: emotional clarity, social righteousness, and brutal honesty.

Bicycle Thieves should be required viewing by any modern film-maker. Without money, without hype you can still make something genuine and powerful, in fact, more so. When you think about the story, there is no escaping the misery. Antonio finally has a job, but his bicycle is essential and it’s in the pawn shop. His wife, Maria, pawns her linen, which was part of her dowry, to get the bike back. And then on Antonio’s first day, it gets nicked! The following day, he and his son Bruno traipse around the city trying to track it down, while a sense builds that this is part of a cycle (no pun intended) and the people who stole it are not malicious, but suffer the same daily problems. How long can a good man survive? And that is it so far as a plot is concerned.

Barrel of laughs that one, eh? But there is a point to Italian Neo-Realism, which is easiest thought of as the opposite of German Expressionism, which uses visual storytelling to wring potential out of every scene, usually via a set or even a scale model of a set, so every angle can be controlled. Mise en Scene becomes essential as everything is carefully tailored to express the meaning behind the story. Neo-Realism never uses manipulation like that. Locations are real and everything is stripped back to bare essentials, to reveal a social conscience with absolute honesty. Casts are often made up of normal people and dialogue is succinct and real. Small moments normally dismissed as superfluous become huge, while a sense of mood and the tiniest gestures take on paramount importance.

In this story, while chasing that bike, you see what’s really important for Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani). You might hardly notice on a first viewing the way his relationship with his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) is drip-fed in with the most delicate touches and it is the same for the character who in a sense is losing focus of what’s important. Not to downplay the importance of that bicycle, it really is essential, but the longer he spends running around after it, the more likely things will get worse. So a story that on paper is sorrowful becomes magical. The key to this is in no small part to the natural charisma of Staiola as Bruno and his expressions in the pivotal cafe scene are wonderful. If you want an emotional connection to characters, there are none better than Bicycle Thieves and you will be rewarded with a sublime ending.

It’s a technique I’d love to see used more full-blooded these days too. I suppose it’s a technique that offers nowhere to hide so if the film is rubbish, you can’t rescue it in editing. It will always be crap! Bicycle Thieves is one of the reasons I get frustrated by “greatest films” lists. I love Citizen Kane, but this film, which came eight years later or so, is just as important for an entirely different approach. How can one be “better” than the other? Hitchcock, steeped in German Expressionism, nevertheless would be quicker to thank the Italians for elements of I Confess or especially The Wrong Man.