Sight & Sound-Off: #10 – ‘8&1/2’ and ‘Bicycle Thieves’

The Second World War devastated Europe. All throughout the continent, the loss of lives and the upheaval of everyday life turned a once prosperous land into a series of sad struggles. The Axis powers, more specifically Germany and Italy, were left in literal ruins, forced into defeat by their leadership and misplaced sense of sovereign superiority. Out of this almost apocalyptic atmosphere came one of the most important innovations in the history of film: neo-realism. Begun in response to the lack of support from a spent Italian government, filmmaker vowed to make movies that approached their subjects with authenticity, truth, and above all, passion.

A few short years later, another approach would take over, attempting to bridge the gap between the documentary like aesthetic of neo-realism with the eccentricities of France’s New Wave. It wasn’t an attempt to return to the days of big budgets and even bigger cinematic dreams, but there was a sense that the everyman wasn’t necessarily interested in experiencing depressing stories about himself. Instead, the entire scope of the artform was open for reinterpretation and improvement, leading to an universal shift toward more serious, substantial subjects. By the time of the American’s contemplative post-modern phase, both conceits were absorbed into the medium, making their impact felt from arthouses all the way to the mainstream.A

So there’s a strange kind of celluloid synchronicity to the fact that the 2012 Sight & Sound Poll results for the Greatest Films of All Time house examples of both in the number ten slot (overall and directors). In this case, the filmmakers chose Vittorio De Sica’s heartbreaking post-War manifesto, Bicycle Thieves, while the main collective awarded the slot to Federico Fellini’s achingly autobiographical 8&1/2. The former is a somber story about a desperate man in desperate times. The latter also features someone at the end of their rope, though instead of poverty and punishment, our hero is an auteur dealing with the forces of fame, family, and females. De Sica exposed the rest of the world to Italy after Mussolini. Fellini found a way to showcase a similar meaningful chaos, though within a completely different and highly insular dynamic.

Today, Bicycles Thieves would probably be considered too maudlin and manipulative to warrant a regular audience attention span. De Sica’s skill at incorporating the truth about Italy’s status as a struggling ex-enemy is brilliantly underlined by the narrative’s simplicity. All Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) wants is a way to provide for his family. A bicycle appears to be the sound solution. When it is stolen, the film becomes one failed attempt at recovery after another, De Sica showcasing the growing issues facing the defeated nation. Juxtaposed against the always hopeful face of our hero’s buoyant son, Bicycle Thieves illustrates the best attributes of the neo-realism movement. It takes real life and turns it into something akin to art.

Fellini takes the opposite approach and yet achieves the same ends. His harried hero is a director named Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni). His problem is work as well, but in this case, it’s a bad case of “artist’s block” as he tries to finish a sci-fi film he is working on. A trip to a local resort appears to be the answer, though flashbacks, dreams, and surreal setpieces underline the man’s major issues. From a marriage in freefall to a mistress who wants all his time, Guido is given over to fits of forced self-examination. Perhaps his problem isn’t the press or the pressures of his position. Perhaps, the problem lies somewhere deep within. Of course, Fellini turns this test into a formidable flight of visual fancy.

8&1/2 is as far from neo-realism as said style was from the Hollywood fantasies that filled world theaters before the war. Yet both films share a similar sentiment. Each one provides a center where a single change could potentially prove uplifting. One merely wants a bike to make his living. The other wants to be inspired for a return back to his days of critical acceptance. Both are burdened and pray for the relief from same. Both also have outside influences and uncontrollable pitfalls in their path.

De Sica treats this as the tragedy it is. Fellini wants us to laugh at his jet setting celebrity, but there is a sadness in Guido as well. For all his wealth and notoriety has provided him, he’s inert. He’s stuck in a situation that he didn’t make so much as made itself around him. Similarly, Antonio is trying to find a way through a post-war maze of selfishness and despair. He’s willing. The rest of his community isn’t In the end, it’s not really a question of wanting. Both films are about need.

Individually, both films argue reasons for their S&S inclusion. De Sica’s slice of life feels as vibrant and alive as a documentary. It’s actually closer to stumbling upon some Italian home movies with a narrative attached. The acting is so natural and unforced (mostly by non-actors) that you can forgive any hint of blatant tear jerking. Fellini, on the other hand, has had eight previous stints behind the lens to legitimize his visual panache, and everything about 8&1/2 exemplifies this. It’s stunning and subversive, shocking and just a hair hackneyed. Granted, when the film was first released, few examples of the filmmaker in free fall subgenre existed. Today, it seems like every wannabe auteur has their own trip through the trials and tribulations of the industry to harp on.

Oddly both films also stand as time capsules, each on illustrating their era expertly. De Sica turns the late ’40s into a sea of desolation. Fellini finds mostly positives in his view of early ’60s Italian society. Everyone in Thieves is barely scrapping by. In 8&1/2, success has resulted in a nicer backdrop and greater possibilities, but the problems remain. No one’s life is immune from sorrow – not the rich and famous, not the truly down and out. For the characters in De Sica’s film, it’s more than that: it’s a matter of life and death. Guido may not be facing the same individual threats, but he’s just as joyless. While it’s hard to discern which approach is more appropriate, what we wind up with is a pair of motion pictures which surpass their premises to mean something more – much more. Perhaps that’s why they are so special. Clearly, it’s why they made the S&S Top 10.