Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Bicycle Thief, and its parallels with Ray's cinema

Watching Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief last night was quite an experience. Really. I remember it as one of the major films I saw back in Calcutta (was I in high school then or college?) during the early days of liking films, thinking of the medium as a rather useful one and so on.

Now, there's an interesting aspect to film-watching in Calcutta, something that's often glossed over when we think of Calcutta and the cultural aspect of the place. You know, Calcutta - the people that is - is interested in good cinema, good literature, good theatre and suchlike things. But the problem is that despite opinions to the contrary, most of us there are clueless about developments post a certain era. As a result, while someone like, say, a Kubrick would be part of a lot of people's information bank, not many would have seen a lot of Kubrick while being totally clued in about the works of the Italian neo-realism period, Kurosawa, the European masters, early Hollywood like Paul Muni and John Ford and stuff. Oh yeah, Hitchcock too.

Therefore, festival after festival would have featured Rashomon and Bicycle Thief, but not, say, a 2001: A Space Odyssey. Similarly, Catcher In The Rye was a classic, but A Clockwork Orange was not. get back to Bicycle... watching it last night, I was amazed at the bits that so, so resembled some of Ray's films. Of course, De Sica's film came earlier (1949) than any of Ray's films (starting 1955), and in any case, Ray has said and written in countless places how he was influenced by the Italian neo-realists during his formative years. But to actually see these influences is quite amazing. Not just of Bicycle, but also of a movie like Umberto D. The use of non-actors, of course, is a different matter. What isn't, is how similarly such non-actors as Lamberto Maggiorani (De Sica's Ricci) and Kanu Banerjee (Ray's Harihar in Pather Panchali and Aparajito) act. Or, for that matter, De Sica's Bruno (Enzo Staiola) and Ray's Apu and Durga (Subir Banerjee and Uma Dasgupta). It's amazing. As is the use of music. Limited ups and instruments, a few totally unrelated theme pieces. Just arbitrary compositions fitted in here and there that go absolutely perfectly with the situation in hand.

Not completely off the mark is also the way De Sica avoids making a point of contrasting poverty with the high society. In Bicycle Thief, the richer class is represented by the family, and the little boy eating spaghetti in the restaurant Ricci and Bruno 'mistake' for a pizzeria. The corresponding situation in Pather Panchali is of the rich relatives' house Sarbojaya and Durga visit, from where Durga steals the necklace. In Ray's case - probably in keeping with the reality of such differences - the relatives were shown to be a tad crass, loud, boastful. But it wasn't dealt with in any great detail. Ditto in De Sica's case. Though the little boy does turn around a couple of times to look at Bruno, there isn't a lot of time taken in establishing the difference.

Characters, places, situations, other little details - the similarities between the two are extraordinary.

Nothing else to say really. I wasn't going to review the film anyway, not even comment on it, seeing that it's made - down the years - all lists of great films, all discussions on great films, won all awards a film can and so on. But I wanted to just remark on these similarities, which I obviously missed when I saw it so many years back. When, of course, I also hadn't seen as many Ray films as I have since. And here it is...