13 December 2015

Ladri di biciclette (1948)

Faces of postwar Italy

One of the all-time, masterpiece staples of neorealist filmmaking is Ladri di biciclette / Bicycle Thieves, a gritty illustration of the indecencies of post-war societal order in Italy. Many critics have lauded director Vittorio De Sica's film as a triumph, "one of the first examples of pure cinema," despite its subject matter being difficult and unusual for audiences to watch in theaters (Bazin, 60). Behind the success of this film is a compelling story supported by untrained actors that De Sica found suitable for the parts. He rounds out the drama with film techniques that allude to the classics and yet also firmly roots his characters with miserly mise-en-scène and soot to spare. The perfect matching of a contemporary, yet classically tragic, story with "real" characters makes this a film worth watching, even if you're not quite in the mood to bear it. 

Put quite simply, the story centers around a father and son, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) and Bruno (Enzo Staiola) who live in terrible conditions. One day Antonio's bike is stolen; without it, he cannot secure a job. The rest of the film shows Antonio and Bruno looking for the bike, trying to get jobs, and trying to enjoy themselves if at all possible. Eventually out of desperation, Antonio becomes a bike thief himself in the end, and gets caught.

There are countless critics and scholars who have done their homework on this film. Most of my critical reading on this film is from André Bazin and Peter Bondanella, both excellent sources on Italian neorealist films. Rather than summarize or restate what has already been said, I'd like to delve further into De Sica's obsession with realness in his approach to this film. Reality plays a key part in Ladri di Biciclette; it enhances the story by showing us plausible scenarios of theft and misfortune, happening in real-time to real people. At the end of a scene one can almost imagine the characters walking off set and one block over to the next tenement to sleep. The simplicity and chronological structure of the storyline reduce constant dramatic tension, making the pace of the film closer to a real lived experience.

However, there is also a constructed, dramatic tone throughout the film. If De Sica's aim was to highlight poverty and social injustice, he does so with a very focused spotlight. This gives the film's portrayal of reality more of a bent toward the artistic rather than the documentary. Not only does the tragic story arc support the artistic intentions of the film, but the camera movements, editing, and acting show us De Sica's influence on reality. The scene in which Antonio sells his sheets for cash shows a careful, slow pan up a huge shelf full of linens, already pawned for the same purpose. The visual scale of such poverty speaks more than dialogue. A similar effect is created when Antonio and Bruno go to the restaurant to eat and forget about their worries. The back and forth mirror editing of Antonio and Bruno at an empty table contrasts with the middle class family busy with plenty of food. They are too busy eating to notice their starving neighbors, but their son snobbishly glances over to Bruno, painting a picture of two Italys, a society of entrenched inequality. De Sica has in effect made a dinner scene a scathing political statement.

Furthermore, the film time stretching from Friday to Sunday keeps characters continuously in the present, and alludes to, as Bondanella puts it, the "Death and Resurrection of Christ but also to Dante's journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise towards salvation" (61). The Ricci family does not find salvation, we are reminded. The heart-throbbing violin wavering above the dialogue inserts an element of Romanticism in stark contrast to the gritty street scenes. Even Antonio's stolen bicycle is a brand called Fides, meaning faith, which was tellingly disassembled by the black market.

De Sica inserts these elements in order to heighten the sense of realness, to prove its compatibility with other masterworks, and to bring its simple, pure nature across on film. He states that he carefully instructed Lamberto Maggiorani, a factory worker, on how to play the part of Antonio, "thus establishing in a round-about way a hidden but continuous parallelism between the [Ricci] family and his own...I realized that a kind of osmosis had operated between the reality and the fiction, between his life and Antonio's" (Stubbs, 55). This real/constructed film "osmosis" layer is the filter by which Bazin judges De Sica's work the "pure" cinema.

All of these elements combine to create a film that is at once startlingly real, yet artistic and poetic. For these reasons, Ladri di Biciclette remains one of the most recognized neorealist films. De Sica's ability to create a film that is at once a mirror on real society and also a classic tragedy is an early example of Italy's industrial transition from the fascist era of filmmaking into the economic boom years that would redefine the country.


Ladri di biciclette. Dir. Vittorio De Sica. Produzioni de Sica, 1948. 93 min.

Bazin, André. What is Cinema? Vol II. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971.

Bondanella, Peter. A History of Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York; London: Continuum, 2009.

Stubbs, John C.. “Bicycle Thieves.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 9.2, 1975. pp 50–61

26 July 2015

Io sono Li (2011)

Io sono Li / Shun Li and the Poet is a wonderfully methodical film directed by the young director Andrea Segre. I had the pleasure of seeing its debut at the London Film Festival, when Segre was there to answer questions about the unsettling subject matter of the film. The plot centers on a young Chinese immigrant, Shun Li (Zhào Tāo), who works ruthlessly in order to obtain the documents to bring her son to join her in Italy.

The film begins when Shun Li gets transferred from her textile factory job outside of Rome to Chioggia, a small fishing village near Venice. She is forced to work in a café, where her clientele consists of pension-aged fisherman and the occasional petulant villager. Speaking little Italian, she forms an interesting bond with a Slavic fisherman named Bepi (Rade Šerbedžija). Bepi finds it easy to empathize with her experience in a strange land far from home, and they later discover that they both have estranged relationships with their children. In the end, Shun Li gets the documents for her son with the secret financial aid of Bepi, and Shun Li must come to terms with her good fortune at the expense of Bepi's health.

On a larger scale, Io sono Li is also a remarkably astute depiction of a common immigrant experience in Italy. Foreigners who don't speak the language are often treated as a separate class. Africans and Asians are particularly excluded on the basis of racism, xenophobia, and other factors which merit further attention. My post on the film Va' Pensiero: Storie Ambulanti, a documentary on the African immigrant experience in Italy, shines further light on this issue (interestingly, Zhào Tāo became the first Asian to win the Best Actress David di Donatello award for her role in this film). Furthermore, Segre attested, and spent most of his Q&A time, elaborating on the greater importance of the film. He insists that it is meant to shine a spotlight on the indentured servitude of foreign residents in Italy, but also felt that it did not require kicking and screaming to do so. His film reflects this attitude of ease and pacifism, underlined by the smooth and serene omnipresence of water and fog throughout the movie.

Shun Li herself is remarkably good at maintaining calm despite her indentured servitude. Her soft, soothing voice floats over the film, leaping over cuts as she recites letters to her son off-screen. The desaturated, earthy tones of the film also help to ground the characters in their lagoon setting, making Shun Li's plight all the more real. She often wanders the city, looking off into the distance as if she could see all the way to China.

This is also a film that merits its slowness, even though I do not usually gravitate toward slow films. Its slow suspense is illustrated by long sequences, a general lack of action, and Shun Li's awkward inability to communicate with others. The resulting effect is a film in which the viewer must pay careful attention to her myriad cues and glances. It is a very effective way to absorb such a complex topic when one is forced to pay attention to what is unsaid.

The excellent acting combined with Segre's mood-setting talents make this a great film to watch and learn from. It is raw, subtle, and layered with meaning.


Io sono Li. Dir. Andrea Segre. Jolefilm/Aeternam Pictures, 2011. 98 min.

Aloisi, Silvia. "Insight: Italy's Chinese garment workshops boom as workers suffer." Reuters online, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/29/us-italy-sweatshop-insight-idUSBRE9BS04D20131229.  December 2013.

28 March 2015

Le mani sulla città (1963)

Directed by the late Francesco Rosi, Le mani sulla città (1963) is a sort of neorealist curve ball thrown into the 1960s. Its inability to classify comes from its mish-mash of corruption films, neorealist documentary, New Wave auteurism, and politics all'italiana.   

The story is simple: a building collapses in a poor area of Naples, injuring many and causing one boy to lose his legs. In Italian fashion, the residents, local politicians, and capitalist developers swoop in and attempt to control the situation, each to their own benefit. The residents want safe and clean housing provided by the city. The city squabbles over how to proceed with the inquest into the collapse. Cautiously observing, the real estate developer plans his route of attack so that construction may begin as soon as possible. In the end, with the Church's blessing, the developer gets to build his new district of Naples and the people continue on as before. 

While the film is loaded with social commentary borne of one of Italy's economic boom cycles, various stylistic elements reinforce this 1960s optimism mixed with postwar desperation. For example, some scenes resemble neorealist films (the building collapse) while others could be taken from La Dolce Vita (the title sequence). The first ten minutes of the film exemplify this mixture of genre elements and easily qualifies as one of Italy's best film introductions.

In four scenes loosely woven together by editing, we see the developer outlining his new development, then we see the city representatives proclaim its creation, then the credits show a panorama of Naples' newer tower blocks, and finally a building collapses in a slummy district. Isolated, theses scenes might become four different films, but taken together they are a potent mixture.

The developer stands defensively in front of his canvas.
In the first scene, developer Edoardo Nottola (Rod Steiger), displays his grand vision for a new neighborhood in Naples. Filmed much like a Pasolinian journey to the Roman borgate, grand tower blocks defiantly adorn the hillsides of Naples like giant teeth,  facing a gaping gulch below. On the other side of the gulch where the developers stand, Nottola waves his hands around in the foreground while progress marches onward in the distance. The stark contrast between city and hillside reinforces the abrupt nature by which economic success literally carves up large areas of Naples.

The following two scenes reinforce the sense of change and progress in the air. In the second scene, the city assembly holds a proclamation for the grand development scheme. Talking mostly to themselves, the speaker proudly holds a sheet of paper while hovering over a large model of the development in the center. The room itself seems erased from the city; in the background a large Versailles-meets-Mondrian spread of grass and fountains seems too sleek for the previous scene. The representatives themselves look like they walked off of a Fellini set. Their fit black suits and thick-rimmed glasses are a reminder of the times. Something seems suspicious in it all; no one seems particularly interested, yet there is a ritualistic overtone set by the speaker's grandiloquent speech.

In the following credit sequence, this suspicion is further heightened by placing the camera in a helicopter and whizzing it around the city's tower blocks. Despite the nauseating camera work, the footage itself is a remarkable documentation of what are today considered some of the uglier buildings in Italy. To see them in their prime helps to understand the lure of modern conveniences in the postwar years. The eery music is a departure from the previous two scenes as well. It is the opposite of the exquisite city meeting; combined with dizzying aerial shots and floating, dissonant musical tones, with text overlayed, the credit sequence begins to feel like a giallo film.

To understand the next scene, it helps to know a bit about Naples. In certain historic areas like the Spanish Quarter, buildings are very tightly packed into a vertical nest of apartments. Clotheslines, flags, lamps, windows, shutters, and various other objects and instruments adorn the canyon-like walls forming a sort of vertical community. The streets echo as a result of the construction, and everyone can generally see or hear what is going on from any part of the street with window access. In this way, many streets in Naples serve as miniature theatres for the daily dramas of life.

The fourth and final scene of the introduction features one of these buildings collapsing in a particularly poor district. The damage is extensive and many people rush out from the buildings, with a large cloud of dust gathering overhead. The relative quiet of the street activity is broken as the first stone drops right next to a family cooking. The lack of music is substituted with screams and sirens, creating the feeling of a newsreel. The footage is spectacularly devastating. As the building settles somewhat and the falling stones begin to taper, the jarring shifts in genre and style create an exhilirating introduction to a fairly straightforward story.

The Italian corruption film often runs parallel to many giallo films in terms of style and tone. Bridging neorealism, auteurism, giallo, and corruption, however, makes Rosi's wonderfully directed film something entirely unique for its time. That it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1963 is a testament to its critical recognition as a culturally resonant film. As I watched the film in the context of 2015, I couldn't help but smirk at how much the film still resonates with contemporary Italy.


Le mani sulla città. Dir. Francesco Rosi. Galatea Film/Societé Cinématographique Lyre, 1963. 105 min.

07 February 2015

Stromboli, terra di Dio (1950)

When I moved to California I noticed that the earth shakes. Coming from Texas, where the land only moves if you drill it wrong, it is a profoundly odd feeling, and one that I still haven't gotten used to. Since this tectonic activity is on the mind I thought it would pair well with a review of Stromboli, terra di Dio (1950), Roberto Rossellini's dark, yet very rich and mysterious film.

Ingrid Bergman plays Karin, a displaced immigrant who marries an imprisoned local fisherman. Fleeing a "displaced persons" camp in Farfa, Italy, she marries a husband sight unseen to secure a safe, albeit temporary, future for herself. In reality, her husband Antonio (Mario Vitale) brings her to Stromboli, a volcanic island with a scattering of hovels perilously attached to its perimeter. This was to be her new home. Perhaps too predictably, her time spent on the island parallels the charring and grinding of the ground beneath her. She has trouble integrating with the southern Italian lifestyle consisting of fish, sun, and fish. Her tantrums become uncontrollable, and she turns to the village priest for consolation. Perhaps out of boredom and embarrassment for her new lifestyle, she redecorates the house to make it into a home. Unfortunately, her husband's latent disapproval of the feminization of his space brings her no respite.

In creating 'spheres' of personality for both Karin and the villagers, including the island itself, Rossellini's islanders seem shallow and simple. Even Antonio has a limited scope of understanding, thinking that by only providing fish for Karin, they would live happily, and that would be his extent of the marriage. Karin, however, also falls victim to the limits of her personality and often appears as a caged, delicate animal of little to no value to the community. 

In the end, Karin faces the cruel irony of fleeing from Nazis only to find herself fleeing from Nature itself. As she stares into the volcano's deep crater, her body exposed as if in self-sacrifice, the existential sensation of giving in, hopelessness, and a new beginning come to mind. It is a hallmark of neorealismo, and a fine documentation of one of Italy's more interesting island communities.


Stromboli, terra di Dio. Dir. Roberto Rossellini. Berit Films/RKO Radio Pictures, 1950. 107 min.

Iordanova, Dina. "Modern Marriage on Stromboli." Criterion Collection, 2013. http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/2908-modern-marriage-on-stromboli

11 January 2015

Anita Ekberg (1931-2015)

No one set the standard for platinum blonde quite like Anita Ekberg.

Having played bit parts in America in the 1950s, Ekberg met Fellini on the set of War and Peace in Italy. The rest is history. Passing off extremely well as a Marilyn Monroe-pastiche in Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), Ekberg was rocketed to fame as the Trevi fountain sex kitten named Sylvia.

Ekberg often played the mesmerizing female object because of La dolce vita. On screen (and also in real life) no other woman could counter the gravitational pull she had on men. It was a given that if she appeared in a film, she would have top (read, upper body) billing. Famous for her ample curves, sultry glances, and that squeaky-smokey voice, her breasts were often given their own shot in a film.

Although her body speaks for itself, her 50-year acting career is quite impressive. She averaged a project or two every couple of years and never stopped. Although appearing mostly in Italian films,  she was known to make the jump to English-speaking films as well. Here's a bit scene of hers from Back From Eternity (1956), in one of her few English speaking films.

As you can see, she never really left the fountain.

I will leave you with one of my favorite Ekberg characters, Sister Gertrude from Killer Nun (1978). Not only is this a bizarre lesbian horror film, but it is also one of her last great performances in my opinion. A must see if you like giallo films.

Goodbye Anita! Italian cinema will never be the same without you.