The Bicycle Thief and Ivan, Part I
At the Telepix
It's reading period, the weather is foul and the trip into Boston and back will use up another half-hour of your time, but don't let all this bother you. Rationalize it away, put on your galoshes and go to the Telepix to see the best double bill of the season.
Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thief (1949) typifies the post-war Italian film of realism; it shows simple, poor people enmeshed in an uncomplicated but terrifying trap. Unemployment, hunger and injustice close in on Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani); he commits an unsuccessful robbery and the film ends on a note of despair.
It is very easy to let social pathos of this kind slip into the maudlin, nor is it difficult to err the other way and harden a story to the point where it no longer engages sympathy at all (for example, The Four Hundred Blows. De Sica chooses the middle way, recording scenes that smack so authentically of life that the viewer often feels as though he were intruding. The actors, who are really non-actors chosen because they had no previous experience, respond to each crisis with simplicity, and without stagy affection. They are what they are: normal, undevious people in a bad spot.
De Sica's camera moves everywhere unobtrusively, creating a documentary effect, never indulging in special, lush shots that would make the world of his film seem more ordered or more wonderful than the world of day-to-day experience. But the "real" world suffices well enough indeed as a backdrop of malignity, Screaming traffic, hostile crowds and dark, spectral buildings frame this drama of the streets which is not just a slice of life, but seems to have been wrenched whole-cloth from it.
What greater contrast could there be to Bicycle Thief than Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Part I? Semi mythical, heavily "artistic," and at several steps removed from experience, Ivan (1945) appeals to the eye almost exclusively. The most useful analogy for describing this film is that of grand opera. Just as opera subordinates everything to music, Eisenstein suspends verisimilitude and dramatic intensity to give full play to the carefully arranged, visual sequences of this opera of design.
The movie opens with a perfectly framed view of Ivan's crown. The camera lingers on this rich still-life and then retreats to take in another balanced, framed shot of the cathedral of Moscow. Later on, at a wedding banquet, Eisenstein sights down the table as the whole party toasts Ivan. With Rockette-like precision all the goblets rise and stop for a moment, just long enough so that we see all twenty of them lined up evenly in two rows.
Sequence after sequence can only be discussed in terms of painterly composition. There is constant visual counterpoint between the lines of the palace walls and the positions of the actors' bodies; Nikolai Cherkassov (Ivan) moves elegantly and always in such a studied way that the complements the total geometry of the scene. Standing on the ramparts of a fortress he gestures formally to the double, symmetrically snaking line of Muscovites in the distance. His hand, directly in the foreground and at right angles to the leaders of the crowd, effects a marvelously heightened feeling of perspective which, in turn, enhances the majesty of the Czar towering above his people.
There is no denying that each frame of Ivan results from a true genius for design, but that is the trouble. The beauty of each individual shot tends to make the motion picture as a whole somewhat static. Eisenstein hovers ponderously over each of his symmetrical arrangements and seems to say in a very obtrusive voice: "See what a thing of loveliness I have constructed."
Gone are the days of Potemkin when crowds swirled down the Odessa steps in a millrace of fluidity. Like Rembrandt, Eisenstein ended his career in a vein of classicism, but unlike Rembrandt, he worked in a medium that does not prosper when it gives up movement for stasis and symmetry--even when that symmetry ascends to such sublime heights as Ivan the Terrible, Part I.
All things considered, though, there could hardly have been a more stimulating double bill, and this was the sort of programme the Telepix has been serving up all fall. Our own Brattle has fallen on evil days. Glutted with ten-month old "revivals" like Our Man in Havana and larded at either end with saponaceous strains of Muzak, our once beloved theatre sounds like the Waldorf until the lights go off, and from there on out there's little to do but yawn and beat it as the projectionist trots out either second-rate foreign films like Rosemary or recently produced box-office certainties like Orfeu Negro.
If the Brattle has any serious thoughts of remaining a quality theatre, it will have to begin showing the best of first-run films and reviving movies that are old enough to deserve resuscitation. Its schedule this reading period underline the problem. The Apu trilogy goes on next week. Pather Panchali, the earliest of the three, appeared here within the last two years and The World of Apu was released only last spring. As if this were not enough effrontery, the Brattle management has also planned to exhibit John Cassavetes' Shadows, which is a truly fine film, certainly, but the Telepix had it just two months ago. And, lowest blow of all, there will be no Bogart festival this reading period, so that hundreds of members of the Class of 1965 will go through their first exams in Cambridge without seeing Casablanca. Yes, freshmen, there was a Bogey, but he is dead.