The Real Rome: De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief”

April 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

A few weeks ago, I screened The Bicycle Thief for my History of Modern Italy class. None of the students had ever seen the film but they had heard of it. I was impressed by their generally positive response to the movie and not surprised when they agreed that such a movie wouldn’t fly in theaters today. Not only did the film have no discernable plot–beyond one man’s odyssey to find his stolen bicycle–but justice was not served at the end. The thief was not brought to justice even though Antonio Ricci (the main character and victim of the theft) had found him and had an opportunity to press charges. In a powerful scene, the young man is confronted by Ricci in a rundown Roman street. When the police arrive, Ricci and the policeman conduct a search of the thief’s apartment which is nothing more than a derelict one-room flat where he lives with his mother and sister. When he sees this, Ricci concludes that the thief is a victim much like himself. That Ricci would react this way is no surprise. At the beginning of the film, he told his wife: “I was cursed from the day I was born.” Such a sentiment clearly cuts against the grain of today’s popular culture with its accent on robust individualism and self-affirmation.

Then there is the depiction of Italy—il bel paese—and the Eternal City. The Italy portrayed in this film is different from the one traditionally presented in Hollywood film from Roman Holiday to The Talented Mr. Ripley. Directed by Vittorio De Sica, a onetime actor turned director, the Bicycle Thief was shot in a Rome that had not yet recovered from the ravages of the Second World War. Ricci, an unskilled manual laborer, father of two children, and unemployed for two years is desperate for work—any kind of work. His six-year-old son, Bruno, works in a gas station to help the family out. When the opportunity comes for a job hanging up advertising posters for the city government, Ricci is eager to take it. The problem is he needs a bicycle which he had just pawned off to raise money. Despondent, Ricci returns home to his wife Maria in a rundown Val Maleina housing complex in Rome’s north end. Taking the situation in hand, Maria decides to pawn the family linen—a dowry from her family—so that Ricci can purchase a bicycle.

In his first day on the job, while hanging up a poster of Rita Hayworth in the center of Rome, Ricci’s bicycle is stolen by a gang of thieves led by a young man with a “German cap”. The next day, a Sunday, Ricci takes his young son and goes looking for his bicycle. Enlisting the help of some friends who work for the sanitation department, Ricci goes to the popular markets in the Piazza Vittorio and the Porta Portese in vain. Only as he is about to give up, during a sudden downpour, does he spot the thief riding his bicycle but is unable to give chase.

The bulk of the film follows Antonio and Bruno through the semi-deserted streets of Rome. Millicent Marcus, in her excellent study of Italian Neorealism noted that the city and its institutions remain indifferent and even hostile to father and son.1 Ricci goes to the police, to the trade union, and even to a seer to get help but they are of little help. Ricci has to find the bicycle for himself on a day when most Romans are preoccupied with the soccer game at the Stadio Flaminio (where the final scene takes place) or attending church. After seeing the thief speaking to a homeless man in the market, Ricci chases the old man into a church. The man goes there to avail himself of the soup kitchen in a mission run by well-to-do Romans. Oblivious to the Mass which is taking place, Ricci bullies the man to tell him where the thief lives. Ricci and his son are told to leave and father and son follow the old man out of the church through a back room filled with religious relics. The storage room shot is a commentary on the place of the Church in modern Rome. What might have been considered works of art are now piled haphazardly and forgotten. Ricci and Bruno barely glance at them in their pursuit of the homeless man.

This is not the Rome of the Romantics or of the guide books. At no time are any of the historic monuments shown especially those familiar to American moviegoers like the Coliseum, the Spanish steps, or the Trevi Fountain.2 Apart from the medieval section of the city where the thief lives, we see mostly the modern residential part of Rome in and around the Quartiere Flaminio constructed during the fascist era. Ricci’s housing complex was started by the fascist regime but unfinished and is already looking tawdry. This is a Rome of the periphery where, during the fascist years, thousands of working class Romans were moved to live in new hastily built housing complexes far from the historic center of the city where they had once lived. This not only allowed the regime to reveal the Roman ruins for its propaganda value, but also to get a potentially troublesome class of Romans out of the way. Most of the displaced Romans lived in shanty towns (borgate) while the new apartment complexes were slowly constructed. Ricci’s return to the center is nothing but tragic. At one point, wrapped up in his own troubles he loses his son near the Duca d’Aosta Bridge (also constructed by the fascist regime) over the Tiber River. Only when he hears cries that a boy has fallen off the bridge does he snap out of his reverie and think about the welfare of his son.

Many Italians, eager to watch more hopeful films about a country trying to recover from the nightmare of war and occupation, were uncomfortable with the film when it was released in 1948. It was frowned upon by Italian film critics who generally rejected the growing number of Neorealist films produced in this era. The Bicycle Thief displayed that genre’s characteristic features from the use of non-actors, location filming, and trenchant social commentary. There is no glamour here, and it is ironic that at the moment Ricci’s life changes, when his bike is stolen, he is putting up a poster of Rita Hayworth—the symbol of Hollywood glamour in the 1940s. The bleak and ultimately futile search for the bicycle which leads to Ricci stealing one in front of the shocked eyes of his son also did not sit well with those Italians seeking a more positive message for a rebuilding nation.

Yet, for all the squalor and futility there is a profound sense of humanity which elevates The Bicycle Thief to something more than a bleak depiction of postwar Rome. Herbert L. Jackson, in a contemporary review of the film published in the Hollywood Quarterly, identified the quality of Italian Neorealism that distinguished it from similar genres in France and Russia, namely “that broad humanitarian sympathy combined with gentle cynicism.”3 It is that humanitarianism that prevented Ricci from pressing formal charges against the thief, and the same spirit that spared him after he was caught stealing a bicycle. After seeing Ricci’s son in tears, the victim understood Ricci’s wretched condition and let him go.

Perhaps it is this quality of mercy which allows thieves to get away with their crimes because they are considered victims of circumstance that makes the film difficult to swallow in today’s coarse and unforgiving culture. Such a film was necessary in an Italy that had just witnessed the brutality of a civil war between fascists and partisans and its patterns of murder and reprisals. This was an Italy in need of healing and compassion even at the cost of a perceived injustice. Healing would not come from the institutions of the country however; rather it would come from the man on the street, from the Riccis and all those beaten down by circumstances.

Neorealism’s moment did not last long. In the 1970s, the filmmaker, poet, novelist and cultural critic Pier Paolo Pasolini lamented the disappearance of the working-class Rome shown in De Sica’s film. Pasolini blamed this on the consumerist culture that had come to dominate Italy since the Economic Miracle in the late 1950s. The compassion and humanism of De Sica’s Rome had given way to greed and the desire for social mobility. Pasolini noted the cruelty and lack of pity he saw in the youth of Italy in the 1970s far removed from the hapless thief of the film. In our own culture–dominated by the manipulated confrontations of “reality TV”, a blogosphere which exalts anonymous attacks, fractious town hall meetings, and movies which depict hardened protagonists who shoot first, and ask questions later–a sense of pity and compassion is lacking. Perhaps this lack of mercy is what makes The Bicycle Thief such difficult viewing today.

Paul Baxa, Ph.D, is Assistant Professor of History. Dr. Baxa graduated with a B.A. Spec. Hon. from York University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto.  His most recent publication is Roads and Ruins: The Symbolic Landscape of Fascist Rome (University of Toronto Press, 2010).  Dr. Baxa is a specialist in fascist Italy with an emphasis on cultural history.  He is a member of the Society for Modern Italian Studies and the Canadian Historical Association.


1. Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (Princeton University Press, 1986), 64.

2. Marcus, 73-74.

3. Herbert L. Jacobson, “De Sica’s ‘Bicycle Thieves’ and Italian Humanism,” Hollywood Quarterly, Vol. 4, no. 1 (Autumn, 1949), 28: (Accessed April 6, 2011).


An Interview with Thomas Hibbs

April 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

This Wednesday, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Thomas Hibbs in preparation for his upcoming talk at Ave Maria on “The Films of the Coen Brothers” on Thursday April 7th. Dr. Hibbs is the Dean of the Honors College and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University. A philosopher who takes great interest in film, Dr. Hibbs is author of works including Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld and Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption.

(Please note that the written responses contain both paraphrase and direct quotation.)

Leslie: What led you to choose to speak on the Coen brothers’ work?

Dr. Hibbs: I think the Coen brothers are an interesting set of filmmakers in contemporary film. They’ve operated in various genres of film from Westerns to neo-noir to straight comedy. They make films that bridge the gap between independent and popular film. Often, they make movies based upon novels. For True Grit, they went back to the original book. Also, they have used Cormac McCarthy novels. The Coens operate in an interesting niche in film, between literary text and the visual genre that is film. They also raise interesting philosophical questions in many of their movies. As a philosopher who works on film, I find them interesting for that reason as well.

Leslie: I know that Blood Simple was the Coen brothers’ directorial debut and they came out with True Grit recently. How do you think the Coen brothers’ work has evolved over time?

Dr. Hibbs: I don’t see a clear line of development in the Coen films. They strike me as filmmakers who really search for interesting ideas. It is interesting to compare them to other contemporary filmmakers, including Shyamalan and Nolan. A development in philosophical ideas can be seen in Nolan’s films, for example in The Dark Knight and Momento. Shyamalan strikes on one or two big ideas but hasn’t found stories to sustain interesting movies. The Coen brothers are different. They have no clear philosophical development, but rather go in search of interesting ideas, giving their own twist and take to these stories.

Leslie: What are your thoughts on Blood Simple and what is its relationship to the rest of the Coen brothers’ work?

Dr. Hibbs: The Coen films are beholden to classical film noir; Fargo has elements of this. Also, in No Country for Old Men, they play off classic noir themes. Blood Simple does this probably more than any of the others. It is a crime film depicting a culture immersed in criminality, lust, greed and violence. It’s a culture where it is difficult to tell who’s good and who’s bad. The characters are trapped in worlds that they are trying to figure out. Within the Coen films are stylistic echoes of borrowing from classic noir.

In neo-noir, which emerged in the 1970s, filmmakers do something different. One real difference is that filmmakers in the ‘70s were more consciously imitating noir. Films were not really called noir until the 1940s. By the ‘70s and ‘80s, filmmakers were consciously making noir as we know it.

In Blood Simple there is a dark, even nihilistic comic element not as present in classic noir. Blood Simple raises philosophical questions including how comedy changes when noir is incorporated. Are we laughing at or with the characters in this film? Are there innocent human beings in the world? Is there a possibility of justice in this world?

Another theme in Blood Simple has to do with its title. The premise of the film is based upon a crime-sighting theory that no matter how callous a criminal is, in the moment of committing murder, the supposed criminal will lose control, go “blood simple” and make a mistake, betraying him or herself. The film calls into question whether characters can get away with criminality. There is a tendency in modern noir, say in Chinatown or in Body Heat, to depict characters that get away with crime. The Coen brothers huddle close to this camp.

Leslie: In your book Arts of Darkness, you discuss the redemptive quality of the noir genre. In what way does Blood Simple, as a neo-noir film, have a redemptive quality?

Dr. Hibbs: Blood Simple doesn’t have that quality. True Grit might be said have this. O Brother, Where Art Thou? may also offer a clear understanding of justice. Blood Simple is more problematic because it flirts with a kind of nihilism. Although, there may be some level of justice to be found in the film. In Arts of Darkness, I argue that there is a quest for redemption in classical noir. From the ‘70s onward there was a split in noir. Some films carry on the quest for redemption while others show a preponderance of nihilistic noir. Blood Simple is of the latter category.


Leslie Nagel is a regular contributor to AMU on Film as well as a sophomore literature major at Ave Maria University.

Rude Awakening

March 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

The month of August is a horrible month for cinema. The summer lineup of blockbusters is winding down, and only the most hopeless of the hopeless are banished by the studios to August, and the Fall/Winter lineup of dramatic and indie fare has not yet begun to make its way in. It is during this cinematic deadzone, in the year 2005, that talented director/writer/producer Judd Apatow released his first major, cinematic attempt at directing, a little film called The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Within a month, everyone, critic and layman alike, was talking about and quoting the film and it launched stars Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, and Paul Rudd into the comedic stratosphere. Lewd, crude, and suprinsingly heartfelt, Virgin made Apatow a household name and made him into a powerful force in Hollywood. He has been involved in more than a dozen films since his surprise blockbuster, as a writer and as a producer, but he’s only directed two major films since his first. It is these three films, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Funny People that I would like to look at in this piece, and Apatow’s underlying, subtle conservatism that he brings to these three films in particular.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin tells the story of Andy (Steve Carell) a man who has reached his fortieth birthday without ever experiencing sexual intercourse. Comedy gold is then made over the course of the film as Andy’s pals, themselves no strangers to the deed, attempt to utilize their prowess to help Andy “score.” These friends, played by Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, and Romany Malco, are hilariously crude and fairly accurate representations of what the modern man has been reduced to. They simply seek out sex for recreation and fun, with no real focus on their partners feelings or needs. Each of these friends has a sexual “problem” that makes them less than an ideal Virgil for Andy. Jay cannot be faithful to his girlfriend and is constantly straying; David is hung up on his ex-girlfriend who left him obsessing over her, and Cal who seems to have no other goal in life than to sleep with women. These are the representations of so-called “normality,” who initially believe that Andy must be a homosexual for not having slept with a woman before now. What this would seem to tell viewers is that a man is a sex-crazed animal, who can’t be faithful and is emotionally stunted. These are the men who task themselves with helping innocent, naïve Andy with making the biggest decision of his life. Darcy, they are not.

Andy: Yeah, well, virgin’s not a dirty word.

From bars to bookstores, Andy is dragged by his friends around to hunt down women and their exploits demonstrate the growing problem between how men and women relate. Men are shown as sex-starved, unfaithful, emotionally unstable children and women are insecure, controlling, or sexual deviants. Likewise, characters of both genders cannot seem to comprehend the gravity of choosing to have sex. It is only Andy, who tells his friends “I’m not like you! You know what? I respect women! I love women! I respect them so much that I completely stay away from them!”, who seems to get it. When Andy meets lovely, single mom, Tirsh (Catherine Keener), she is shocked but impressed by Andy’s lack of attempt to sleep with her. Trish also faces the problem of a teenage daughter, Marla, who is struggling with the sexual bombardment she undergoes every day. Both Andy and Marla are facing the same struggle: how does one know when they are ready to experience sex? Both them are struggling to make the right choice in a society of peers who scorn them for using caution regarding such a major decision. However, what the film comes to show is that it is Andy and Marla who are to be praised for the restraint they show. After he is stopped from making a bad impulsive decision with a woman, Andy’s friend tell him that he was right for waiting and that they now realize how sex has complicated their lives and is not something to take lightly. By the end of the film, Andy himself has realized something; as he tells Trish “For so long I thought that there was something wrong because it had never happened for me, but I realize now it was just because I was waiting for you.” Then, after a beautiful wedding, Andy and Trish finally consummate their union.

What Apatow does with Virgin, and what he comes to do in his later films, is subtly insert a morality into the raunchy comedy. He captures the sophomoric humor of films like American Pie and Porkys, but he elevates it above simple profane by making a real statement of morality. In 40-Year-Old Virgin that statement being that sex is not simply some recreational pastime, it is a serious act that has real repercussions for both engaging in it, and thus should be treated with the gravity and respect that it demands.

Alison: I’m Pregnant
Ben: Pregnant…with emotion?
Alison: Pregnant with a baby

Apatow brought this same mixture to his next film, Knocked Up. As the title crudely alludes to, the movie is about an attractive television anchor (Katherine Heigel) who, while celebrating a promotion at work, sleeps with a lazy man-child (played with great humor and wonderful sensitivity by Virgin supporting member, Seth Rogen). The movie then highlights both what it means to be pregnant in a world that seems to undervalue the family and how one copes with pregnancy in the modern world.

The movie follows a relatively simple premise: two people sleep together, and end up pregnant and tied together by the situation and most come to know each other after such a momentous event has occurred. Choosing to have a child is a life-changing event even under the best of circumstances but when neither party is prepared nor really equipped to handle the responsibility, it becomes even more of a source of worry. In the case of Alison and Ben in the movie, Alison has just received a promotion at work and Ben spends his days living the life of a college frat boy, despite being many years out of school. In these characters, Apatow highlights two prevailing modern visions of the sexes: the career woman and the man-child. For the career woman, as Alison highlights in the movie, the choice to have a child is so negatively viewed by those around her, that in one scene her bosses are truly shocked that people are now identifying with her on air. They are completely at a loss as to why women would feel an emotional attachment to pregnancy. As Alison’s female boss sneeringly comments after discovering Alison is pregnant, “I was grossed out.”  Ben faces the opposite problem, as his life has no responsibilities and he wants to keep it that way, initially. Upon telling his roommates of the pregnancy, one of them tells him to simply get an abortion; demonstrating just how simple and common place such an idea has become. Luckily, Ben is not so easily persuaded and after discussing things with Alison and seeing the sonogram of their child, the two decide to try to make things work for the sake of their child.

Pete: Marriage is like a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond, only it doesn’t last 22 minutes. It lasts forever.

Apatow however doesn’t end his film there. Rather, he demonstrates that there is yet another step to be faced: how one is to raise a family in a world of problems. Alison’s sister and her husband are set up as a kind of model for what the modern, two-parent family has been become. The couple (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) are doing their best to raise two beautiful little girls, while at the same time dealing with the difficulties of being married. As Pete, the male in the relationship, pithily remarks “everybody is really pissed off and tense,” in marriage. While perhaps a bit bleak in its sentiments, Pete’s comment does capture that marriage and raising a family is not all fun and games; it’s a struggle. Ben and Alison, by choosing to bring a baby into the world, now must face all of the responsibilities that come along with raising their child. It means sacrificing your own happiness for the good of the family as a whole. What Alison’s sister and her husband fail to grasp initially, is that in marriage no one can continue to be their former selves. We have to be better than we were before and show traits that we maybe didn’t possess (or didn’t know we possessed) before for the sake of the family.

Looking at the three films of Judd Apatow, we can begin to see a sort of progression, thematically, in his works. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the focus of the story is on how we come to forge lasting relationships with members of the opposite sex. Knocked Up then progresses forward to looking at, once these relationships are forged, how we set about raising a family. In Apatow’s latest directorial effort, 2009’s Funny People, he examines what the recognition of mortality does to a person and how that changes our perceptions and relationships when we realize that nothing is permanent.

Funny People is the story of comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler). George is a man who had it all, a popular comedy career and a loving fiancé, but through a series of bad choices is now living alone in his mansion, washed up and making horrible, unfunny movies simply for the paycheck. He gets his wake-up call when a trip to the doctor reveals that he has an incurable blood disorder that leaves him with less than a year to live. George then is faced with the task of getting all of his affairs in order and trying to make a lasting relationship before it is too late. Enter Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) a struggling, young stand-up comic who is the least successful of his three comedic roommates and works a day job at a deli as he struggles for his big breakthrough. A chance encounter leads George and Ira to strike up a friendship, as George hires Ira to write him jokes and the two end up becoming true friends. Complications then arise as George tries to make amends with his former fiancée (Leslie Mann), who has since married an Australian rugby player and has two little girls and a happy life in the suburbs. Ira is then pulled along after George learns that he in fact is not going to die, thanks to an experimental drug treatment, and decides to win back his former love.

George: George Simmons soon will be gone, and he’s not going to miss any of you people at all. We’ve always had a strained relationship. You always wanted too much from me, and I’m very mad at you.

The easiest way to look at Funny People is seeing the film as divided into two halves. The first half deals with George’s illness and how one deals with being faced with their own mortality. George was a man who had everything and threw it all away by his selfish choices and actions, and now must contend with death alone because he has never forged a meaningful relationship since destroying the one he had with his girlfriend. He sits in his gigantic house in Hollywood, surrounded by the memorabilia of his lavish lifestyle and horrible films, and realizes that his life has ultimately been meaningless because there is no one with him as he faces death.

George: You’re my best friend, and I don’t even like you.

For George, this is the greatest problem he faces. He searches for a feeling permanence and security that never comes. He threw away his earlier success as a comedian for the perceived security he received from doing trite, horrid comedies simply for a paycheck. He threw away his relationship with Laura because he didn’t think he could handle the responsibilities and settled for the security of sleeping with women who cared nothing for him as a person and were solely motivated by appreciation for his fame.  When he gets the horrible news that he doesn’t have much longer to live, it’s a wake-up call to how meaningless his life really is. Ira presents something new for George: a person who looks up to him and truly values him as a person. Though their friendship starts off as a simple business arrangement, it quickly grows into more as George opens up about his struggle with fame and illness to Ira. Like their namesakes the Gershwins, Ira and George become like brothers. George is able to provide the mentorship the Ira so desperately needs and Ira is able to love George as a person and not just as an abstraction or idea. The two become friends because they’re able to appreciate the other as a person. There is a touching montage in the movie of Ira caring for George as he battles the blood disorder, taking him to doctors offices, rubbing his back as he is sick, and helping him get in contact with the people that he has pushed away in one way or another.

Through Ira, George begins to reawaken his own humanity, so long closed off by the pressures of fame. He begins to understand just how tough it is to be alone, without love. He struggle for so long to be what the world wanted him to be that he didn’t ever truly figure who HE wanted himself to be. Because of this, he lost the things he really cared about and that mattered. When he is able to finally sit down with Laura and talk things over with her, he comes to realize just how badly he hurt her and how horrible the pain of losing her was. However, this is where the second half of Funny People takes up, as George receives news that his disease is in remission and he is out of danger. Armed with a new lease on life, George decides that the time has come to take back the love of his life, regardless of the fact that she is now married and has a family.

George: Am I not allowed to be happy or something? I’ve been living alone and alone and alone. That’s my life. This is the only girl I’ve ever loved and I’m not supposed to do anything about this? When am I supposed to be happy? Why does everyone else get to be happy?
Ira: Look, George, I’m just gonna tell you this, as a friend. From where I’m sitting it seems like your happiness might be coming at the cost of destroying this family.

George and Ira go to spend the weekend with her family and while there, George is determined to win her back from her husband, a loveable but flawed man (Eric Bana). He becomes determined to fix the mistakes of the past, but is blind to the fact that the past can never be recaptured. He fails to see that Laura has moved on. Laura herself also begins to wonder if she should be with George, because she is struggling in her marriage and feels a lack of fulfillment and appreciation from her husband. Only Ira seems to see that things are heading for disaster by George’s being there.

When the real motives behind George’s visit are uncovered, both Laura and her husband realize that their marriage is in real trouble and decide to remain together and work through their problems. When put to the test, Laura realizes that her family and husband mean more than what she and George had all those years ago. This comes as a devastating revelation to George, who believed himself the better of the two men. To add further insult to injury, it’s revealed that Ira was behind the truth coming to light and George suddenly feels himself betrayed by his best friend. He remains completely oblivious to the selfishness of his desire, and that Ira was trying to think of the happiness of a family and not one man’s desires. George’s petty jealousy leads him to take out his frustration on Ira and accuse him of being a bad friend and firing him as his assistant. Ira sadly comments to George, “You are the only person I’ve ever heard of who learned nothing from a near death experience, George. You went backwards, you’re worse.” George mocks Ira’s sentimentality and tells him that he’s simply a “no-thought” and that he can get another assistant easily. What George still has not yet realized, even after his experience at Laura’s house, is that people and the relationships we forge with them are an integral part of our life and our experience on Earth. He has continued to take the people around him for granted and then, after finding himself alone, blaming them instead of himself. As Ira tells him before departing, “Unless you can get away from you, you’re always going to be miserable.” Luckily, Ira’s words and absence seem to have an effect on George and he begins to recognize the error of his ways. The movie ends with a touching scene of Ira and George sitting down and reviewing jokes for Ira’s act.

Underneath their crude humor, these three films present honest portrayals of what it means to be human and the experiences we have that matter to us. Intimacy, family, and our legacy are the subject of Apatow’s directorial efforts and they are the subject of our lives as humans. In his films, Apatow holds a mirror to our lives and shows us the human condition. It is no more than one can ask from our cinematic experiences.


Steffen Kellen is a Junior literature major at Ave Maria university with a minor in History. He hopes to continue his study of literature at the graduate level and when not watching and writing about film, he enjoys lively discussion about books, music, film, and all aspects of the human condition.

Film Review: “Rango”

March 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

The niche of cinema that is perhaps most starved for new and exciting images is animation. Every spring and summer, the same animation houses come out with the same offerings: crowd-pleasing, candy-colored, manufactured content whose scope of humor barely reaches outside the passing pop-culture reference and the cheap character stereotype. More foreboding than this, the growing frequency of sequels seems to betray animation’s increasingly money-driven role in Hollywood. Even the infallible, divine artists at Pixar are jumping on the sequel bus, albeit with more dignity and skill (I cannot blast Toy Story 3), but nevertheless with a eye towards milking their franchises (we’re worried about you, Cars 2). The false, fabricated popularity of 3D is also taking its toll on the quality of animated films by turning them into massive, 80-minute technical demonstrations rather than works of story-telling. These truths are almost self-evident to anybody who misses the meaning and power of Disney animations from the 90’s or the Don Bluth classics of the same generation. While computer-generated animation is extremely capable of producing such films, the overall visual style of CGI animation has become very banal and repetitive, and as a result, the stories seem to suffer a similar lack of freshness.

Imagine a film that takes computer animation and doesn’t use a single one of these tired conventions, and you have Rango, a humorous, heartfelt, honest, beautiful, and often surrealist story of a chameleon with an identity crisis who finds purpose in his life. Johnny Depp injects much of his signature eccentricity into Rango, a socially-dysfunctional chameleon who, as the film opens, is attempting to find solace in the detachment from reality offered by acting. It is a very humorous and offbeat moment, with Rango channeling a Hamletesque obsession with a “scene” he is both creating and participating in within his claustrophobic glass case. In the throes of contemplating the literary necessity for a narrative to establish conflict in order for a hero to emerge, Rango’s glass box is suddenly thrown from the station wagon in which he had been riding the whole time. Thus begins a fascinating, surreal journey of discovery, which soon puts Rango in a dingy little town of rough ridin’ desert creatures called “Dirt.” Rango, the chameleon, ironically fails to blend in, so to save himself from a city slicker’s fate, he puts on a massive act to convince the townspeople he is a legendary lawman from across the desert.

There is surprisingly deep commentary on how human nature takes much of its self-awareness from the awareness of others. For most of the film, Rango is acting, in an attempt to become somebody other than who he is, in hopes that through acting like a hero, he might actually become a hero and make something of his life. He attempts, in fact, to make use change the stamp of nature. This is territory which stereotypical animated antagonists rarely tread, and the film executes and resolves this aspect brilliantly, with a little help from imagination, dreams, and properly sublime imagery.

Now a word on the visual style: Rango is a truly beautiful film, yet not in the conventional sense. There is strangeness and definite grotesqueness to the characters and their surroundings. The inhabitants of Dirt fit the aesthetic of their town: they are grimy, dirty, hairy, coarse, uncivilized creatures, and the animators do not flinch in depicting the unsavory side of their species. A gila monster’s scales, shown in extremely close detail, are scaly and crusty. The film’s heroine, a desert iguana, has a disproportionate, bug-eyed face. Beady-eyed tarantulas haunt saloons in the shadowy background. There is something both off-putting and beautiful about these characters. Their appearances give them the motley assortment of imperfections that make up a true, individual character, as opposed to the clean, shiny, malleable faces of Dreamworks or Pixar characters that lend nothing to who they are.

While I still insist Rango stays away from conventions of animation by refraining from cheap pop culture references, the film admittedly functions as a loving homage to the 60’s/70’s spaghetti Western. The photo-realistic “photography,” advised by frequently-Oscared cinematographer Roger Deakins, paints widescreen vistas straight out of Sergio Leone. The dialogue, penned by Aviator and Gladiator screenwriter John Logan, is wonderfully witty in its poetic archaism that somehow manages to create current jokes while having fun with old Western lingo. Even The Man With No Name himself makes a brilliant cameo appearance that I dare not spoil. What makes Rango‘s cultural references unique is how it uses the Western genre not as a big, tongue-in-cheek joke, but as a way of putting the character in an environment where he will develop. The Western town, with its outlaws, lawmen, legends and myths, is a place that requires an intense exercise of one’s excellence if he is to flourish, let alone survive. Rango thus goes beyond mere reference and actually places itself in the Western genre, with a couple fun twists here and there.

Rango is a fantastic film that deserves to be enjoyed by both children and adults. It might not be entertaining for children that prefer the candy-colored slapstick that flies at them at a thousand jokes per second; nevertheless, it may be one of the few animated films this year targeted at children that is actually an all-around quality film.


Joe Donovan is a sophomore literature major at Ave Maria University.

Idealism and the Nature of Love in “Lars and the Real Girl”

March 10, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve decided to write about one of my favorite movies, Lars and the Real Girl. This film came out in 2007 with little notoriety other than the small fame it gained by starring the stellar Ryan Gosling of Notebook fame. If Ryan isn’t enough to catch your attention, the film is also a superb exploration of the themes of idealism, realism, and the true nature of love.

The plot of the film seems bizarre, but it points to a great piece of literature which I will later use to complete the analysis of the movie. Lars is a quirky character who lives alone in the garage of his brother and pregnant sister-in-law’s house. Lars is quiet, shy, and extremely uncomfortable with touch, and his brother and sister-in-law worry about Lars’ social well-being. One day, Lars announces that he will be bringing a female visitor to dinner. Much to everyone’s surprise, Lars’ guest is a plastic sex-doll (don’t worry, there is pretty much zero explicit content in this movie, besides Bianca’s genus) named Bianca. Lars speaks to Bianca, cuts her food, and even dances with her, and of course, this sends everyone in a panic. Lars’ brother contrives a way to get Lars to see a therapist regularly and he is diagnosed as delusional. Lars’ family is told to act along with Lars until he seems to come to his senses. However, as this acting game unfolds, hearts seem to change and a whole community comes together, supporting Lars and Bianca until Bianca’s tragic death.

Watching this film, I am reminded of Don Quixote, most especially in the idealism expressed by both main characters. In Don Quixote, Quixote goes mad and falls in love with Aldonza Lorenzo, a simple peasant who Don Quixote perceives to be at least a princess and names Lady Dulcinea. From the time Quixote sees Lady Dulcinea, he declares that all of his acts of chivalry will be for her. Although Lars begins the film as a melancholic mess, he quickly becomes the same type of idealist as Don Quixote. Lars forgoes the reality of Bianca and creates an ideal personality for her which he desires in a companion. Lars explains that Bianca is “a missionary” who “doesn’t really care about superficial things.” Bianca is a selfless woman who was “raised by nuns” and does not concern herself with societal demands, much like Lars himself. Lars creates Bianca as a perfect companion for him. Moreover, Bianca cannot die, which points to Lars’ deeper desire for a love with is withstanding and never ending. Much like Don Quixote, who transforms Lady Dulcinea from a peasant to a noble woman so that he might complete his own transformation from regular man to knight, Lars transforms Bianca from an object of lust to a wholesome companion so that he might learn the true nature of love and how to be a man.

A conversation between Lars and his brother shows that Lars has become delusional because he does not understand the reality of man-hood:

Lars : I was talking to Bianca, and she was saying that in her culture they have these rites of passages and rituals and ceremonies, and, just all kinds of things that, when you do them, go through them, let you know that you’re an adult? Doesn’t that sound great?
Gus: It does.
Lars : How’d you know?
Gus: How’d I know what?
Lars : That you were a man
Gus: Ahhh. I couldn’t tell ya.
Lars : Was it… okay, was it sex?
Gus: Um. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s uh, yeah, yeah it’s kind of – it’s uh – no. Well, it’s kind of sex but it’s not uh, you know? I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s – uh – good question, good question.
Lars: Yeah, but I have to know . . .
Gus: Okay, you know I can only give you my opinion.
Lars: That’s what we want
Gus: Well, it’s not like you’re one thing or the other, okay? There’s still a kid inside but you grow up when you decide to do right, okay, and not what’s right for you, what’s right for everybody, even when it hurts.
Lars: Okay, like what?
Gus: Like, you know, like, you don’t jerk people around, you know, and you don’t cheat on your woman, and you take care of your family, you know, and you admit when you’re wrong, or you try to, anyways. That’s all I can think of, you know – it sound like it’s easy and for some reason it’s not.

This conversation shows that Lars is searching for love, but also for self-assurance through his creation of an idealistic love. Lars must love Bianca selflessly because she cannot love him back in any way. However, Lars sees that he fails at this. As Bianca becomes more popular in the community he sees that his selfish desires conflict with Bianca’s activities. He wants a date-night, but she has a school-board meeting. These things are humorous but also extremely important for Lars’ final transformation. Through these instances of jealousy and anger, Lars comes to realize that he is only a human. He cannot love perfectly and will always have needs and wants in a relationship. But, he also becomes a real man through these things. He learns to admit his wrongs to Bianca and to take care of her. In this way, Lars begins to see that his idealistic ideas can happen in reality. He sees that love is possible, but also that he will never be perfect at showing his love. Lars eventually uses this harmonization between idealism and reality let go of his delusions.

Lars eventually allows his idealism comes to terms with reality; this is also the diversion from Don Quixote which I find extremely interesting. In Don Quixote, the conflict between idealism and realism remains throughout the entire story. Quixote frees criminals, fights windmills, and treats prostitutes like noble women all because he lives in a world of ideal chivalry. However, the conflict is never really resolved in the text. Cervantes leaves open the question if it’s possible for idealism to survive in reality. Quixote eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is only Alonso Quixano, not a knight, and dies saddened by this reality. In some ways, Cervantes seems to be suggesting that idealism gives us hopes and dreams, but in some ways it seems that realism helps us to avoid disappointment. In relation to Quixote’s final melancholy, Lars and the Real Girl takes a completely different turn from Don Quixote. Lars ends up being completely supported by his family and friends (Bianca is even elected to the school-board). However, Lars tells everyone that Bianca is gravely ill. As the therapist explains, Lars chooses when Bianca leaves, and he is choosing to make her terminally ill. Although this seems a little harsh, it actually points to the greater lesson in the movie. Lars created Bianca to seek out true, eternal love and to discover what man-hood meant. But now, after having gained the support of his brother, after learning to interact and laugh with his co-workers, and after acquiring the ability to seek companionship with a girl who he was to shy to talk to in the beginning of the movie, Lars is able to leave Bianca behind and seek out the reality of love. Lars’ idealistic companionship with Bianca is no longer enough. Lars discovers in the movie that real love, which might hurt at times but can also be the greatest reward, is worth fighting for. In this way, Don Quixote and Lars and the Real Girl differ. Quixote clings to idealism, whereas Lars recognizes how his idealism has led him to great discoveries but living in pure idealism only leads to more and more delusions.

Overall, I think Lars and the Real Girl is a great way to spend an afternoon over spring-break. There may not be many laugh-out-loud funny parts, and the plot is a bit of a stretch, but I think that Lars and Bianca can teach us a lot.


My name is Mercedez Gonzales and I am a sophomore Literature major/ Latin minor at Ave Maria University. When I’m not reading or studying for class, I enjoy playing sports, listening to music, and watching movies. After I graduate, I hope to go on to complete my education and teach.

How Well do You Know Your Oscar Winners?

March 1, 2011 § 2 Comments

At last night’s Oscar Party we had a short, 20 question quiz of quotes from the past 20 Best Picture Winners (1990-2010). Below is the quotes from the movies and one special bonus quote from Last Night’s Best Picture Winner. Can you identify all 21 quotes? The answers are in the comments section:


Best Picture Winners:
90: Dances With Wolves
91: Silence of the Lambs
92: Unforgiven
93: Schindler’s List
94: Forest Gump
95: Braveheart
96: The English Patient
97: Titanic
98: Shakespeare in Love
99: American Beauty
00: Gladiator
01: A Beautiful Mind
02: Chicago
03: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
04: Million Dollar Baby
05: Crash
06: The Departed
07: No Country for Old Men
08: Slumdog Millionare
09: The Hurt Locker
10: The King’s Speech

1: “I was just thinking that of all the trails in this life there is one that matters most. It is the trail of a true human being. I think you are on this trail and it is good to see.”

2: “Before we let you leave, your commander must cross that field, present himself before this army, put his head between his legs, and kiss his own arse.”

3: “I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five years old. Hard to believe.”

4: “This trial… the whole world… it’s all… show business.”

5: “…I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them.”

6: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

7: “Dear God, make me a bird. So I could fly far. Far far away from here.”

8: “You don’t get to tell me what to do ever again.”

9: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”

10: “Rose, you’re no picnic, all right? You’re a spoiled little brat, even, but under that, you’re the most amazingly, astounding, wonderful girl, woman that I’ve ever known…”

11: “There has to be a mathematical explanation for how bad that tie is.”

12: “They had no honor in life. They have none now in death.”

13: “This is very cruel, Oskar. You’re giving them hope. You shouldn’t do that. *That’s* cruel!”

14: “Anybody can lose one fight, anybody can lose once, you’ll come back from this you’ll be champion of the world.”

15: “I once traveled with a guide who was taking me to Faya. He didn’t speak for nine hours. At the end of it he pointed at the horizon and said, “Faya!” That was a good day.”

16: “In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.”

17: “We all have it coming kid.”

18: “Christopher Marlowe, at your service.”

19: “What Freud said about the Irish is: We’re the only people who are impervious to psychoanalysis.”

20: “There’s enough bang in there to blow us all to Jesus. If I’m gonna die, I want to die comfortable.”

21: “If it wasn’t for Rama and Allah, I’d still have a mother.”


Congratulations to

for it’s big night and  4 wins


Why “The Social Network” Should Win Best Picture

February 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

There is an unmistakable trend  in recent Oscar history of nominating and awarding Best Picture to films that are far from the traditional, crowd-pleasing, sweeping, colorful melodramas commonly associated with the Academy’s highest honor. This new breed of Best Pictures, starting in the mid 2000s, have been predominantly social commentaries: dark, deconstructionist films that are far from optimistic about the human condition, and seem to have a distinct distaste and disregard for the artificial values and sheen of classic, traditional “Hollywood” idealism. It could be said this trend started with Clint Eastwood’s controversial film Million Dollar Baby in 2004, which garnered much media attention for being radically different, both commercially and thematically, than its predecessor, the fantasy colossus Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. The public crowning of a relatively little-known film which ended with euthanasia of a disabled woman by Clint Eastwood’s conflicted character raised eyebrows in the political media sphere, a realm which contemporary Hollywood had not proactively provoked to such a degree until then. Suddenly, the Oscars became a politically-charged, socially sensitive celebration of stark realism and controversial issues, abandoning its fancy for glitz and glamour in exchange for brains and a bleeding heart. The Academy seemed to confirm this shift in 2005, when among the nominees were such films as Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and Good Night and Good Luck, with the winner being Crash, a polarizing ensemble picture about racial tension in Los Angeles.

In the latter half of the 2000s, perhaps on account of the gradual waning of the Bush presidency, the political aspirations of the Oscars appeared to die down; yet the trend to recognize films that encapsulated a particular aspect or problem of the current zeitgeist remained. The best example of this was last year’s The Hurt Locker, a film widely considered to be the first Iraq War movie to “get it right,” a film that was soft in its political aspirations, yet unflinching in its objective depiction of arguably the most divisive event currently affecting our history. Even so, the film managed to tell a story of universal meaning on a very personal level, a quality to which much of the film’s success is attributed.

Despite the Academy’s notoriously arbitrary criteria for deciding Best Picture (Critic’s choice? People’s choice? The loser from last year that was robbed?), I would like to argue that the Academy’s logical progression of this trend for awarding films of current social significance should naturally lead it to award Best Picture to David Fincher’s masterpiece, The Social Network. No other nominee, if not no other film last year, has created such a perfect microcosm of a generation than the story of Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, and the other players in the drama of the founding of Facebook.


“We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!” -Sean Parker


The birth of the internet generation not only heralded a quantum leap in technology and communication, but it also inspired a whole new cultural, philosophical movement. With the advent of social media, a revolutionary way to communicate was discovered, a way which for the most part was free, uncensored, and anonymous. Generation Y could meet, interact, and organize over the internet, and it could be done under the radar of the “old folks” who, at the time, were nowhere close to understanding the power social media would have over society and culture. The controversies and watershed moments of the Bush presidency following 9/11 gave the internet generation a jump start at political debate, and enabled the youth to use the internet’s “underground” capabilities to complain about the establishment and wave the flag of social justice. Political blogs became replacements for print media, and broadcast news began a desperate attempt to integrate social media into its newsgathering procedures. The Obama campaign brilliantly used this new rebellious strain to garner votes by portraying Obama as sympathetic to Gen Y’s disgust for the Bush administration. Obama was a “cool” and refreshing solution to Republican smoke-and-mirrors and the administration’s paranoia over free information. The internet generation saw a kindred spirit in the Obama campaign: a largely idealistic, populist movement which was all about taking down the materialistic, corporate pragmatism of a Republican dynasty.

At the root of all this political and social change is an underlying philosophy that drives the internet generation’s sentiments against the social norms with which it feels at odds. At its most basic level, it can be traced back to simple rebellion of the young against the old. When the young have discovered something the old have not, and when that thing happens to be a way of changing the rules of the game, the young will inevitably gain a level of hubris over their superiors and elders that drives them to try to prove they are, in fact, smarter than their parents, their government, the rule-makers, etc. When authority goes so far as to break the rules it sets, this effect is magnified, and the young see and grab the opportunity to be the champions of justice when the world that surrounds them is corrupt. Their championing becomes an exercise in trying to outwit the establishment, trying to make themselves who were once considered weak and insignificant play a role in the big leagues.

This effect is brilliantly portrayed in The Social Network when it pinpoints the origin of Mark Zuckerberg’s grand idea. It could be argued that the entire motivation for developing Facebook came from a feeling of social and personal insignificance on the part of Zuckerberg, whose girlfriend breaks up with him at the beginning of the film for being “obsessed” with Harvard final clubs, and whose roommate Eduardo is soon after chosen for initiation by one of said clubs. Zuckerberg channels his pains of jealousy into his programming, in an angry attempt to “distinguish himself” in a world where “social structure is everything.” In the scene of the film where he is explaining to Eduardo his idea for Facebook, he reveals what makes the idea truly attractive: “Eduardo, it’s like a final club except we’re the president.” Zuckerberg is driven by a desire to make something “cooler” than the rest, to break the societal restraints that exclude him from what he views as success.

The plot of the film revolves around Zuckerberg’s constant clash with the world he wants to overturn and revolutionize. The Winklevoss twins are perfect representations of the elitist Harvard social tier that Zuckerberg had previously wanted to join; now, he is able to turn the tables and show them the fragility and worthlessness of their “exclusivity” when pitted against the rest of young society, who join Zuckerberg’s Facebook revolution in droves. Eduardo is a tragic figure of success in the old system, a young person that did not catch on to the rebellion of his generation, and tried to climb the ladder of life through traditional means of business, revenue and pragmatism. Sean Parker is the polar opposite of Eduardo: he embodies every ounce of the Gen Y revolutionary spirit. Zuckerberg is intensely fascinated with Sean Parker’s philosophy, and becomes entirely captivated by its promise of giving the proverbial finger to Madison Avenue, to Harvard, to all the structures of society that are “uncool” by his standards. This vague dichotomy between “cool” and “uncool” is what defines Zuckerberg’s philosophy throughout the film. He wants to be “cool.” He wants to reinvent what it means to be popular. Zuckerberg’s concern is not with money, a fact that frustrates Eduardo to no end. Zuckerberg doesn’t want Facebook to be lucrative, since that would simply make him one of the rest, a part of the system where only profit matters. His concern is with Facebook being “cool,” being different, and holding endless possibilities for upsetting the world of information.

The Social Network perfectly captures this conflict between the free-for-all, populist idealism of Gen Y and the shielded, conservative pragmatism of the old and archaic. It’s a brilliant film that, I believe, is worthy of being called the Citizen Kane of its time, and definitely the Best Picture of 2010. It is filled to the brim with universal themes of friendship, betrayal, human desire, and man’s hunger for power. At the same time, it shows the unique role social media plays in the world today, how it defined a generation, and how it is still speeding that generation towards an uncertain future.

-Joseph Donovan

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