Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di bicyclette, Italy, 1948)

Where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here?

What happens when you watch a ‘classic’ movie – and there are not a lot that are more ‘classic’ than Bicycle Thieves – and you think ‘that was good’;  ‘good’ is not  good enough for ‘classic’. The ‘good’ reaction was the first I had nearly 30 years ago, when I saw the film twice; in the intervening years I’ve seen it on two more occasions and now agree with the ‘great’ and the ‘classic’. The film hasn’t changed though it has gotten older. It was a ‘mere’ 30-odd years old when I first saw and that amount of time has passed again; it’s not getting better with age, it was a classic in the ’80s, so presumably I’ve become more discerning.

In the decades between first seeing it and now I’ve become a dad and I suspect that’s made the difference as the key to the success of Bicycle Thieves is Bruno, Ricci’s faithful son. Children, of course, are often used to pull the heartstrings but di Sica, and his scriptwriters, use Bruno with subtlety.

There’s no sentimentality of the portrayal of the father-son relationship, Ricci’s stress leads him to strike Bruno and then buy him lunch in a posh restaurant to assuage his guilt. Bruno goes off on a sulk at one point, Ricci allows him then fears the worse as someone nearly drowns in the river. These events encapsulate parents’ treatment of, and anxieties about, their children. Throughout the film, di Sica occasionally gives us Bruno’s viewpoint, though Ricci is the protagonist; and Bruno is always there doggedly supporting his dad. The ending, when Ricci loses his moral authority over his child, Bruno slips his hand into his father’s cementing the bond between them. This simple hand-holding gesture was similarly effective in Mandy (UK, 1952).

Bicycle Thieves is not simply a great film because of Bruno, it’s portrayal of desperate poverty remains potent but what excuse is there now? Post-war Italy was bound to be a place in turmoil, for the rich – of course – it was different, but in the early years of the 21st century in the ‘advanced nation’ that is Britain we are faced with vast cuts in public spending which will inevitably disproportionately impact on the poor. And the reason for the dire state of public finances is the bailing out of the private sector banks. Neo realist films were politically left wing, what we need now is a left wing party that will increase taxes for the rich to pay for public services for all.

Germany Year Zero (Germania anno zero, Italy, 1948)

As grim as it gets

As grim as it gets

Germany Year Zero was director Roberto Rossellini’s third World War II film and it followed Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisa (1946) in filming, on location, the ‘here and now’ of the end and aftermath of the war. While both use melodrama as much as realism, Germany Year Zero is probably the bleakest, which is fitting given the devastation visited upon the defeated Berlin. I was glad that the film runs only 70 mins (on DVD) as the graveyard scene at the start sets the tone and it gets progressively grimmer.

It would be interesting to compare the film with the noir The Third Man (UK, 1949) shot on location in Vienna, which I haven’t seen for some time. Whilst I admire the British film, compared to Rosselini’s portrayal of the degradation forced upon people by war simply ‘cuts to the chase’; or rather, it doesn’t bother with philosophy it simply shows the ‘state of things’ for the defeated nation.

Like Rome the use of location shooting is crucial to realist project, though unlike in De Sica’s work, most of the actors are professionals. The shots of the people looking at the camera as they get off a tram signifies the film’s authenticity in that it was obviously ‘there at the time’.

Los olvidados (The Forgotten Ones, Mexico, 1950)

Feral kids

Feral kids

This is a fascinating film as it’s obviously heavily influenced by neo realism however it was made by a renown surrealist, Luis Bunuel. How to square the two, apparently, disparate forms? Like his (neo realist) Italian counterparts, Bunuel shoots on location ,however he uses professional actors. Also, similarly, we are offered a ‘slice of life’ that we are invited to generalise as typical. Bunuel’s politics, like most of those who pursued neo realism, were left wing; the thrust of the movement was to show how the conditions of working people were so bad that they were forced into criminal behaviour.

Los olvidados focuses on street children in Mexico City, however, as the prologue points out, these children exist in all big cities and can’t be ignored as a feature of the Third World. As City of God (Brazil, 2002) showed, the situation is worse in some cases now. The final image of the film is amongst the most devastating committed to celluloid and it’s a shame this film is so difficult – in the UK at least – to see.

As for the surrealism, Bunuel contents himself with a terrifying dream sequence.

The Navigators (UK-Germany-Spain, 2001)

Working the railtrack

Working the railtrack

This is a wonderful dramatisation of the stupidity of ‘free market’ economics. As British Rail was dismantled, having been starved of investment for years, the private sector moved in with flashy logos and cut price practices. As ‘headline’ unemployment in the UK barrels over 2 million, it is useful to be reminded of the the ’80s recession (when the film’s set) that decimated communities in the name of efficiency. As the film shows, the ‘free market’ (it can never actually be ‘free’, that doesn’t exist in reality) takes no account of people on its balance sheet. The bullying boss who insists that if you can’t implement the cost-cutting policies then you’ll have to resign knows that he won’t suffer as long as he’s exploiting others.

As is usual in Loach film’s, the camaraderie and humour of the working class looms large. The authenticity of milieux allow us to engage sympathetically with the characters; why then do Loach’s films fail to engage on audience in the UK? This film was even premiered on television! Maybe its because the British (English?) working class are greatly lacking in class consciousness (though that wasn’t true of the miners) or the anti-intellectual strand in British culture is suspicious of films that try to be more than entertainment.

It would be worth putting this in a double-bill with The Full Monty (UK, 1998) – both are set in Sheffield – and discussing afterwards what messages and values these films convey.

Looking for Eric (UK-France-Italy-Belguim-Spain, 2009)

New career for Cantona

New career for Cantona

There can be few more surreal moments than Eric Cantona blasting out La Marseillaise on a trumpet high up on a block of flats in Manchester to have appeared in a Ken Loach film. Loach is renowned as a realist filmmaker so to dramatise a figment of Eric’s (beautifully played by Steve Evets) imagination with Cantona (‘I am not a man, I am Cantona’) himself is surprising. What’s not surprising is that Loach, and script writer Paul Laverty, pull it off. If the visual style and downtrodden milieux is recognisable, as is the working class solidarity of Eric’s workmates, then the feelgood ending is also unusual for Loach.

Cantona, of course, is Cantona; he acts as he did in Elizabeth (UK, 1998) but here it doesn’t matter as he is playing himself. There are plenty of clips of his genius on the pitch and he was one of those players that you had to admire even if he was playing for Man Utd.

The Sight & Sound reviewer complains that the sequence excoriating Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of Man U (by borrowing money then loading the debt on to the club thereby, in effect, buying it for nothing) is didactic. So what!? These things need to be said; there are many fans who don’t realise that football has been hijacked by money men.

Platform (Zhantai, Hong Kong-China-Japan-France, 2000)

Looking to the future

Looking to the future

Whilst Xiao Wu focused on one individual experiencing the transition to capitalism in China, Platform follows a theatrical troupe during the 1980s, a period of vast change as Deng Xiaoping instituted economic changes. Jia Zhangke’s second feature is stylistically very different from the handheld realism of Xiao Wu; often the motionless camera observes the action in long takes. Micheal Berry, in his excellent BFI Film Classic book on the ‘Hometown trilogy’, compares the style to Ozu; I was reminded of Miklos Jansco where action often wonders offscreen.

Despite the stylisation the film still feels realist; location shooting and non-professional actors and the ordinary lives of the protagonists suggest we’re seeing an authentic vision of a Chinese backwater. Berry mentions that the DVD cut is an hour shorter than the original, it is Jia’s preferred version, and a lot of explicatory material has been excised. That might be one of the reasons I was occasionally confused as to what was going on. Similarly, I didn’t pick up on all the cultural references; however, that’s part of the point of watching ‘world’ cinema: to learn.

Although there are realist aspects, the film also has almost-surreal moments. For example when Zhong Ping goes to a meeting with a new perm, a signifier of modernity, she’s the butt of jokes; ‘you look like a flamenco dancer’. Cut to the same setting, a run down hall, with Zhong dancing in a resplendent red flamenco dress. Similarly, another scene is interrupted by a ‘one child parade’; however that wasn’t contrived but were an occurence during the late ’70s.

Jia also swamps the mise en scene in blue (all trucks in China seem to be blue!), red and green also predominate. This stylisation aesthetises the film suggesting the film is more than reflecting people’s lives but a statement about ’80s China.

Xiao Wu (China-Hong Kong, 1997)

Life is passing by

Life is passing by

Director Jia Zhangke dropped beneath my radar, for some reason, until I saw Still Life (2006); that presented me with the enticing prospect of ‘catching up’ on some terrific films. It’s obvious to go chronologically so, surprisingly, I am; Xiao Wu was his first feature. Heavily influenced by Italian neo realists, and Bresson’s Pickpocket (France, 1959), Xiao Wu features location shooting and non actors in a tale of a pickpocket (also an alternative title for the film) who finds life in ‘new’ China is passing him by.

The film’s shot in Fenyang, a ‘middle of nowhere’ place, and one of the fascinating aspects of the film is this rundown setting and the people (who are real) in it. ‘Middle of nowhere’ in the middle of China is a long way away from most places but children play skipping in alleys, just as the do everywhere else in the world.

Although not as surreal as Still Life, the naturalism of the visual style – much of it handheld camera – doesn’t mean the mise en scene isn’t expressive. Greens and  reds are prominent sometimes submerging scenes in colour expressionately reflecting the protagonist’s stagnation. Whilst his boyhood companions make something of their lives, though their ‘success’ is not something that Jia is necessarily celebrating, Xiao Wu drifts through petty theft unable to connect with women or his family: something common in all nations.

The film was initially banned in China and celebrated in the West; we like celebrating what others ban as it shows off our tolerance. Clearly the censors noticed the lack of celebration of China’s growing economic prosperity. As in Still Life we see characters who are living lives in transition, looking for roots where they no longer exist.

Shoeshine (Italy, 1946)

Preceded Bicycle Thieves and follows the same tragic pattern – well it had to didn’t it in post-war Italy given the fact this is a neo realist film. Brilliantly done, particularly in the performances and cinematography (much of it shot in a prison). Maybe a tad too melodramatic (well there’s a contradiction in terms) at the end but still wonderful. (DVD)

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Aparajito (India, 1956)

Second of the Ray’s Apu trilogy. Fascinating look into a ‘coming of age’ life in ’50s India. Un/surprisingly not so different in the conflicts as a western life now. Superbly done. (DVD)

Pather Panchali (India, 1955)

Rightly regarded as a classic, directed by Satyajit Ray. Whilst the content is a realist ‘slice of village life’ the visual style mixes observation with telling rhetoric (such as focusing on the water covering the stolen bracelet). The cinematography is great as are the performances. It’s the first part of the ‘Apu’ trilogy, though this focuses on his sister Durga (the ‘actresses’ only film). The father’s pain on his return is as chilling as any horror movie. (DVD)