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Tag Archives: Italian Cinema

Bicycle Thieves (Nov. 24, 1948)

Ladri di biciclette

Ladri di biciclette (1948)
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Produzioni De Sica / Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche (ENIC)

Every decade since the 1950s, Sight & Sound magazine has polled an international group of professional film critics to assemble lists of the greatest movies ever made.

For most of the 20th century, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) dominated the lists as the greatest film of all time, but in the very first critics’ poll, published in 1952, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves was their choice for best film of all time, followed by two Chaplin movies, City Lights (1931) and The Gold Rush (1925). (Kane didn’t quite crack the top 10.)

In the most recent Sight & Sound poll, published in 2012, Citizen Kane was unseated as the greatest film ever made by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), and officially became merely the second greatest film ever made. (Bicycle Thieves was #33 on the list of 250 films.)

“Greatest films of all time” lists are notoriously contentious and usually somewhat arbitrary, but Sight & Sound is one of the few that carries real weight.

I first became aware of De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece when I was 14 or 15 (back when it was still called The Bicycle Thief in English), but I never got around to seeing it until a few days ago.

Watching a widely acknowledged masterpiece for the first time can be a difficult experience. It’s easy to overanalyze it and constantly ask yourself, “Well, what’s so great about this really?”

So when I watch one of the “great films” for the first time, I just try to let it all wash over me and not think about it too hard until the credits roll.

Bruno and Antonio

Bicycle Thieves is based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini. It’s the story of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a man with a wife and young son and a baby. Like most of the citizens of Rome in the post-war 1940s, they are poor and struggling, and Antonio is desperate for work. (His son Bruno, played by Enzo Staiola, is only 8 years old, but even he works part time at a gas station to help the family.)

When Antonio gets a job hanging posters throughout the city, it’s the answer to his prayers, but he needs a bicycle to do the job, and he pawned his bicycle some time ago. So his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), pawns their precious dowry sheets to get the money Antonio needs to get his bicycle out of hock, which allows him to do his job and earn a regular salary.

Antonio’s joy is short-lived. As he’s standing on his ladder one day, pasting up a poster of Rita Hayworth, his bicycle is swiped from the wall where it is leaning next to him.

The rest of the film follows Antonio’s journey through Rome with his son Bruno as they search for the bicycle, the bicycle thief, and the larger network of thieves who helped pull off the theft.

When Bicycle Thieves ended, it left me with a mixture of sadness and exhilaration that I haven’t felt since the first time I watched Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950).

Bicycle Thieves is very different from Los Olvidados, and its tragedies are less earth-shaking, but it affected me in a way that cinematic death and destruction almost never does.

Antonio and Bruno

The Italian neorealist movement started with Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). Neorealism rejected Hollywood-style glamor in favor of nonprofessional actors working in real locations. Although neorealist films are shot in a verité style, none of them are documentaries. While De Sica’s actors were all appearing in a film for the first time, he was a seasoned director working with a professional crew. There is even a rainstorm in Bicycle Thieves that De Sica and his crew created themselves.

As Antonio, Lamberto Maggiorani is not always likeable, but he is always relatable and always seems like a real person. Enzo Staiola, who plays his son Bruno, gives a deeply affecting performance. In the beginning of the film he’s a “little man,” and makes a lot of gestures and utterances that are funny because they seem so adult. But in the end, he’s just a child, and his wordless acting conveys so much.

What impressed me most about Bicycle Thieves was the way it used grandness of scale to tell a story of individuals. When Maria pawns her family’s linen at the beginning of the film, we watch it slowly disappear into a huge warehouse of pawned linen. Each bundle tells its own sad story. For the majority of the film, the number of people and bicycles in Rome is overwhelming. But we never stop thinking about that one, precious bicycle that Antonio and Bruno are searching for. The film ends with Antonio and Bruno disappearing into a crowd, just the way the linen disappeared into a warehouse of linen, and the way his bicycle disappeared into streets full of bicycles. The man and his son are just two tiny people in a sea of humanity, but when the film ended, their story meant more to me than I can express.

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Paisà (Dec. 10, 1946)

Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (Paisan) is the follow-up to his wildly successful 1945 film Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City).

Roma, Città Aperta is one of the most famous examples of Italian neorealist cinema, and is better known than Paisà, but I think that Paisà stands head and shoulders above Roma, Città Aperta as an artistic achievement. It’s a sprawling, chaotic picture of life in Italy during the last days of World War II. The title of the film comes from the word that American soldiers called Italians — “paisan,” or “buddy” — and over the course of six vignettes the film explores a variety of Italian characters’ attempts to communicate with and understand their occupiers.

Rod Geiger, the American G.I. who carried Roma, Città Aperta back to the United States, worked closely with Rossellini on Paisà, and is listed in the credits as a producer. Most of the Americans in the film were played by off-Broadway actors cast by Geiger’s father, who ran a theater in New York. Depictions of foreigners and foreign cultures in movies are tricky to get right. Usually there are at least a few things that just don’t ring true, but there were times while I was watching Paisà that I forgot that I was watching a “foreign” film featuring American characters. The American actors play their parts in a naturalistic, unaffected fashion, and their dialogue often seem ad-libbed. There are even aspects of the film that ring more true than anything coming out of Hollywood at the time, like an extremely drunk African-American soldier (played by Dots Johnson) who is full of anger and resentment.

Many writers contributed to the film, including Klaus Mann (the son of Thomas Mann), who wrote a treatment. A few of the six episodes that comprise the film function as parables, and have endings that border on being trite, but the overall effect of Paisà is an overwhelming panorama of violence, yearning, friendship, misunderstanding, and horror.

The film is a journey from the south of Italy to the north, and the segments take place in Sicily, Naples, Rome, Florence, a monastery in the Apennine mountains, and in a partison hideout in Porto Tolle. Unlike the American characters, the Italians mostly play themselves. The Sicilians are all played by Sicilian non-actors. The partisans in Porto Tolle are played by real partisans. A street urchin in Naples named Pasquale is played by a real street urchin named Alfonsino Pasca. The monks in the Apennines were really monks, but they were dubbed by different actors, since their accents would have made it clear that they were from the south of Naples, not to the north.

Most of the segments of Paisà end tragically, with characters the audience has grown to care about killed in combat. The deaths are senseless and sudden, and the feeling that no one is safe makes Paisà one of the most affecting and least cliched war films I’ve ever seen.

Roma, Città Aperta (Feb. 25, 1946)

Roberto Rossellini’s Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City) premiered in Italy on September 27, 1945, and premiered in New York City on February 25, 1946, at the World Theatre on 49th Street, a 300-seat theater where it would continue to play for nearly two years. It was shown at Cannes in September 1946 and won the festival’s grand prize. It also received the New York Film Critics Circle award for best foreign film of 1946. It’s cited as one of the earliest masterpieces of the Italian neorealism movement, and has been generally accepted as a great film since its release. The problem with instant masterpieces is that sometimes they coast for decades on reputations that might not be fully deserved.

Does Roma, Città Aperta fall into this category? Yes and no. The cartoonish villains and black and white morality sometimes skirt the edge of the ridiculous, and the Italian population is painted as victims of the Nazis to such a large degree that a person who saw this film in a vacuum would be forgiven for thinking that Italy was an occupied Allied power. Also, the exteriors are shot in a verité style that sometimes clashes with the more traditional interior shots. For example, a sun-drenched, slightly overexposed street scene with genuinely angry-looking extras might be followed by a carefully lighted interior scene featuring a stereotypically mincing Nazi officer and his right-hand dyke. For the most part, however, Roma, Città Aperta holds up as a suspenseful, well-crafted wartime espionage yarn that inspires and uplifts, even though … spoiler alert … all the good guys die.

Roma, Città Aperta arrived at just the right time for a positive reception. While Mussolini’s Italy was an Axis power, the country had been completely dependent on Germany since the end of 1941. Rome was occupied by the German army, with help from the Mussolini’s fascist blackshirts, but Italy has never been the most organized or politically unified country, and plenty of Rome’s citizens were understandably restive during this time. Roma, Città Aperta is a story of resistance that takes toward the end of the German occupation of Rome. Rossellini began working on the script with Federico Fellini and Sergio Amidei in August 1944, two months after the Allies had forced the Germans out of Rome, and he began shooting the picture about five months later. The picture’s politics (staunch Communist and anti-Fascist) were also perfectly suited to receive a warm reception from audiences immediately following World War II. If it had been shown in America and Britain just a few years later, the picture’s cheerleading for Communist principles would doubtlessly have gone over less well.

The new DVD from the Criterion Collection I watched looks great. It’s the full version, too, with the blowtorch torture sequence in its entirety, and while the subtitles are merely adequate, they do appear for each line of dialogue (a complaint about one available DVD version I’ve seen is that whole sections of conversation weren’t translated). Even the snatches of conversation in German are subtitled, which seemed unnecessary, since the main baddie, Maj. Bergmann, speaks Italian most of the time. (He’s played by the Austrian actor Harry Feist, who lived in Italy most of his adult life.) Visually, the film captured my interest immediately. The sequence in which resistance member Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero) eludes the Gestapo by fleeing along the rooftops is thrilling. The human drama took a little longer to jell for me, partly because there are a lot of characters, and since this is a neorealist picture, they don’t appear at the beginning with title cards explaining their relationships. Aldo Fabrizi gets top billing. He plays the priest, Don Pietro Pellegrini, who ties all the characters together. He transmits messages, cash, and weapons for the resistance. Giorgio’s friend Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet) is a fellow member of the resistance, but seems less dedicated to the cause than Giorgio. Giorgio’s girlfriend, Marina (Maria Michi), works at a nightclub and doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of Giorgio’s situation. Francesco’s fiancée Pina (Anna Magnani) shelters Giorgio and cares for her young son Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico), who gets involved with his own resistance against the Nazis, a sort of children’s crusade that involves blowing shit up really good.

As I said, it’s the cartoonish villains that seem most silly six decades later. Maj. Bergmann is as prissy and effeminate as he is cruel, which would be easier to ignore if he weren’t paired with an evil lesbian named Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti). The scenes in which Ingrid cajoles the easily manipulated Marina are like something out of a ’60s James Bond film.

There’s an oft-repeated story that Roma, Città Aperta was an ad hoc production, and that it was shot on scraps of discarded film, which gave it its distinctive choppy look. According to David Forgacs’s recent book on the film for the British Film Institute, however, when the Cineteca Nazionale restored the film in 1995, they found that the original negative consisted of just three types of film; one for the exteriors and two different, more sensitive, types of film for the interiors. The inconsistencies and changes in brightness are now blamed on poor processing. It’s an alluring legend, though; Rossellini and his crew shooting in a beautiful, ancient city still damaged by war, picking film up out of the gutters, but it’s just that … a legend. There’s another great story about the film, also of questionable veracity. According to Fellini’s essay “Sweet Beginnings,” the American producer of the film, Rod Geiger, was a half-drunk American private stationed in Rome who bungled his way on to the set and misrepresented himself as a producer with connections. With a copy of the film in his barracks bag, Geiger somehow managed a theatrical distribution deal when he got back to the states, even though, according to Fellini, Geiger was “a nobody and didn’t have a dime.” Geiger disputed Fellini’s account, however, and the essay was the subject of a defamation lawsuit that led to the film being banned due to legal reasons in some countries.

Roma, Città Aperta is a very good film, but I think its reputation as a masterpiece is partly due to when and how it was released. In my opinion, Luchino Visconti’s 1943 film Ossessione is just as good, if not better, but it wasn’t shown in the United States until the ’70s, partly because it was produced during the war, but mostly because it was an unauthorized adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice and legal trouble affected its distribution. It’s a must-see for students of cinema, especially ones interested in both film noir and neorealism.