June 29, 2011

Understanding Cinema Lecture: Italian Neorealism and ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948)

Italian cinema in the early 40s was dominated by ‘white telephone’ films – a derogatory term to describe bland mainstream stories of the affluent class. This and the best of Hollywood provided the escapism the Italian audience aspired for – especially in the situation of poverty and depression post the Second World War. As a reaction to this, and further forced by limited resources, some film-makers started making starkly different films. Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio De Sica were the prominent makers who gave birth to a movement that has been celebrated in cinema history by the name of Italian Neorealism.

These films were strongly and unashamedly political, set among the poor and the unemployed. Instead of taking the audience on a fancy ride, they exposed the bitter reality of the contemporary period. Mostly shot on real locations, using natural light, simplistic camerawork and editing, and most importantly employing non-professional actors in leading roles, these films, perhaps intentionally, tried to imitate newsreels rather than movies, and hence appeared so much more real. They attacked the Church, the government institutions, and often did not provide any solution to the plight of their characters. The impact of these films on world cinema was exceptional. The Americans, especially, were pleasantly surprised at the realistic acting, a sharp contrast to the Hollywood style of acting during the then Studio Age. Academy Awards and other international recognitions followed, though the power and people of Italy remained allergic to these ‘grim’ films that were ‘washing their dirty linen in public’. But the biggest achievement of Italian Neorealism was that it freed cinema from the restricting domains of studios, sets, and stars.

A young Bengali artist, and film-buff, watched De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948), and decided to turn into a film-maker. He knew that if he had a powerful story to tell, he can just go ahead and shoot it, using non-professional actors, and in real locations using natural light. The boy was Satyajit Ray and the film that resulted – ‘Pather Panchali’ (1955) – went on to become the most celebrated Indian film around the world. Satyajit Ray was just one of the filmmakers inspired by Neorealism – the aesthetic style of which is evident in films all across the globe, over all decades that followed. From Bimal Roy’s ‘Do Beegha Zameen’ (1953) to Majid Majidi’s ‘Children of Heaven’ (1997), Italian Neorealism continues to be reflected in some of the most loved films we have seen.

Coming back to ‘Bicycle Thieves’, also known as ‘The Bicycle Thief’, I must share my first experience of it three years ago. I knew it was historically important but had never expected its impact would be so powerful. The lump in the throat remained throughout its 90 minutes, but the biggest blow came in the end. After the devastating climax, as the film closed, I shut the laptop, and let my emotions flow. I wanted to go back in time, to that part of the world, and somehow help Ricci and Bruno – two of the most unforgettable characters in film consciousness. Knowing that it was not possible, I cried, uninhibitedly, inconsolably. This, I’m sure, is a reaction common to everyone who loves the film. And I believe it will evoke the same reaction in anyone who watches it now, or even fifty years later. For its universality of emotional impact and timelessness, ‘Bicycle Thieves’ is a definite must-watch-before-you-die.

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