Sunday, 6 May 2012

Bicycle Thieves As An Example of Italian Neo-Realism

Introduction to Italian Neo-Realism
Italian Neo-Realist films are among the most influential films of all time, simply for the fact that they used a realistic stylistic approach that was alternative to that of the glossy Hollywood films (Corrigan & White, 2009), and that they realistically discussed themes and subjects that were present throughout Italy at the time, breaking away from the “vacuous entertainment” that Italian cinema was previously regarded as (Monticelli, 2000). While Italian Neo-Realism was made distinctive as a result of elements of cinematography such as shooting on location and using natural and available light on “set”, there is so much more to Neo-Realism than what we see on the screen. In no other film is this more evident than in Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece Bicycle Thieves, a film that is a fantastic example of neo-realism.

Story Instead of Plot
Of all the 90 or so Neo-realist films (Monticelli, 2000) made during 1942-1952 (Corrigan & White, 2009), none of them had as much impact as that of Bicycle Thieves. The story of a man,  Antonio Ricci, played by Lamberto Maggiorani, and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) searching for his bicycle which was stolen by a young thief. Just by looking at the story, you can see how the film is a great example of neo-realism, for the film has more of a story than a plot. What happens in the film doesn’t follow a cause and effect pattern, rather events just occur, much like life itself.  There is much more to the film than a man just searching for his bike. We see themes presented such as “human suffering in a hostile environment” (Sorlin, 2005).  This theme is easily summarised through the opening and closing shots of the film, where we see Antonio caught up amongst hundreds of people, who all appear to be in the same boat as him. The fact that we see more story than plot comes down to the fact that Neo-Realist films have little editing, providing real continuity. For example, there is a shot in the film of Bruno using the toilet, a shot that was perhaps unnecessary to the story but necessary in conveying the realism of the film, showing how Bicycle Thieves is an ideal presentation of Neo-Realism.

Real Characters and Situations
Film theorist Andre Bazin in his essay Neorealism and Pure Cinema: The Bicycle Thieves (Bazin, 2007) defined Bicycle Thieves as “pure cinema…it tells a simple story composed of real events involving real people in real places.” This is another way that the film can be seen as an ideal example of neo-realism. The film includes characters that the Italian people of the time could relate to, and placed these characters into situations that people could also relate to. The importance of a bike to Antonio could mean nothing to us living in the developed world of the 21st century. However, we need to place ourselves in the context of the period. The film is set in a period when mechanical transportation was rare and expensive (Bazin, 2007). What we see in the film isn’t fiction; it’s the type of living conditions that people were living in. This wouldn’t be as accurately conveyed across if it weren’t for real characters that we are also presented with. There isn’t anything theatrical about these characters. All of the characters actions and reactions mirror that of regular people. Pierre Sorlin in his book Italian National Cinema: 1896-1996 (Sorlin, 2005) states that “when [Antonio’s] bike is stolen, there are no hints to the man’s state of mind. We only see his immediate, erratic reactions.” This also comes down to the fact that neo-realist films use unprofessional actors instead of major stars. Therefore, Bicycle Thieves is an ideal example of neo-realism.

Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is a fine example of how to convey neo-realism by using more than just cinematography. Through having more of a story than a plot, as well as placing real characters in real situations and having them deal with themes such as human suffering, we can see that Bicycle Thieves is an ideal presentation of neo-realism.

The Auteur Theory

Introduction to the Auteur Theory
What makes cinema so exciting and interesting is the fact that we have not just directors, but auteurs as well. As with many things, there isn’t one clear definition of what an auteur is. Film critic Andrew Sarris, in his essay Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962 (Sarris, 1962), breaks the auteur theory up into 3 different circles. The outer circle refers to the techniques used by the director. According to Sarris, if a director has little technical skill, then he cannot be considered an auteur, as he believes in the idea that a great director needs to at least be a good one. The middle circle of the auteur theory refers to the personal style of the director’s filmmaking. Sarris states that the auteur must display a set of recurring characteristics that become the auteur’s signature. He also says that the look and movement of the film should have some connection to the way the auteur thinks and feels. Finally, the inner circle is the interior meaning that the auteur places within the film. A director who follows this auteur theory is Danish director Lars Von Trier.

Agent Provoc-auteur: Lars von Trier
There is perhaps no other director working today that is as polarising as Lars von Trier.  People see him as a genius or a master filmmaker, others as a pretentious misogynist. When you look at the guidelines set by Andrew Sarris, and compare them to von Trier, there is no doubt that he is an auteur. Caroline Bainbridge in her essay The Cinema of Lars von Trier: Authenticity and Author (Goss, 2009), states that he is not only an auteur because of the films he makes, but also because of the influence he has on the film industry. This is clearly evident through the Dogme 95 manifesto he created with Thomas Vinterberg which, like the French New Wave, created rules for a fresher and more simple style of film making (Goss, 2009).

The Outer Circle: Techniques
From the techniques used in his films, you immediately identify it as a von Trier film. In his later films, he uses a hand held camera to shoot the film, adding a sense of realism. This is completely evident in Breaking The Waves. The use of hand held cameras allows us to be more engaged with the story of Bess, as it seems less cinematic and more realistic. From this we see that he is an auteur, as he is breaking the traditional conventions of filmmaking by going for a more realistic approach by using hand held cameras.
The Middle Circle: Personal Style
One of the most important aspects of being an auteur is that you have to be distinguishable from other directors. Lars von Trier conforms to this in that there are many characteristics of his filmmaking that is recurrent throughout his work. The majority of his later films all focus on women who are placed in tragic circumstances. Melancholia focuses on a woman going through depression after her failed wedding day while a planet is on a collision course with Earth, while Dogville centres on a woman hiding from gangsters in a small town. 

The Inner Circle: Interior Meaning
Von Trier’s films are some of the most beautiful looking films in cinema history, easily seen through the opening scenes of both Melancholia and Antichrist. However, to be an auteur, your film needs to go further than just looking nice. They need to have an underlying theme or message. Von Trier deals with many weighty themes in his films, ranging from religion in Breaking The Waves to grief and loss in Antichrist. While many view his constant use of woman portrayed as victims in his films as misogynistic, von Trier says that “those characters aren’t women. They are self-portraits.” (Macnab, 2011) His producer Vibeke Windelov goes on to say, “In society, women are allowed to express more emotionally and verbally.” This is evident through the character of Justine in Melancholia, who’s constant sinking into depression, according to von Trier himself, is “a description of my own state” (Sobolla, 2011).

Lars von Trier is the perfect example of a modern auteur, as stated by Andrew Sarris. In his films, von Trier uses a unique set of techniques, has his own personal style of filmmaking and includes underlying messages, conforming to the guidelines set by Sarris.