Tuesday, October 17, 2017

1948 Winner, Monsieur Vincent

Monsieur Vincent

Director:  Maurice Cloche

Distributed by:  Lopert Pictures

Released:  December 1948 (in U.S.)

Country:  France

We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of Providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ.  –St. Vincent DePaul, 1648

St. Vincent DePaul is the Catholic patron saint of charitable institutions, and if you want to know why that is, this is the movie for you.  Monsieur Vincent is a straight-forward biopic, with none of the gloss or glamour that Hollywood gives to anything of a religious nature.  Vincent was a French-born, highly-educated man who had a calling greater than even the priesthood, though he didn’t know it at first.  Five years after his ordination in 1600, he was abducted by Barbary pirates and was sold into slavery, sold again twice, and remained a slave until he was given his freedom seven years later.  He then studied in Rome and after his return to Paris, was assigned to be the spiritual advisor of a wealthy family in nearby Clichy. 

Pierre Fresnay as Vincent DePaul
This is the point Monsieur Vincent starts its story.  Vincent arrives in the town looking for where he needs to be, but everyone appears to be hiding out in their homes.  A few take shots at him from their windows with rocks.  The village seems to have been plagued with a later edition of the Black Death, and Vincent to them appears to be someone who will do no good but to spread the disease around.  He finds a little girl living with her dying mother, whom no one is willing to risk helping.  But St. Vincent is.  He tends to the woman, allowing her to die with dignity, and eventually takes on the responsibility of the little girl.

When Vincent finds the mansion of the family to whom he is assigned to minister, they want him to stay with them and not venture out into what would be his probable death.  Vincent realizes this is not what God called him to do.  When things simmer down a bit and the folks come out to see who this crazy priest is, he challenges a crowd that has gathered.  He asks which family is at their limit, which family cannot possibly take on another mouth to feed—that is who he wants the little girl to go with.  A woman with a gaggle of kids around her steps forward—what’s one more?  Vincent is showing what charity is—not only for someone to being willing to give, but for someone else to ask the impossible of them.  This is the core of whom St. Vincent DePaul is.

"I'll be happy to give a few francs, as long as it's tax deductible."
The film continues on with Vincent’s life, with a stint aboard a ship powered by convicts, where he volunteers to roll up his sleeves and grab an oar.  Vincent rubs elbows with the rich and poor alike, asking more than all would like to give.  He tolerates the rich who give what they do to feel better about themselves, and challenges a rich woman, Louise de Marillac, to give more than what makes her feel comfortable.  Like the poor woman who took on the orphan girl, Louise rises to the occasion, co-founding the Daughters of Charity with Vincent, and eventually being canonized as a saint herself in 1934.

Monsieur Vincent is an inspirational movie about an inspirational character.  In watching the performance by Pierre Fresnay, I was reminded by Liam Neeson’s portrayal of Oskar Schindler in 1993’s Schindler’s List, when at the end he laments that, as much as he did, he could have done more, could have sold a car or a pin to save just a few more lives, but didn’t.  Vincent displays what charity is—giving and giving, but always being able to do more.  Like Schindler, who says, “I didn’t do enough,” Vincent always thinks he could have done more.

"This pin--two people."
The Title: I’m not sure why he is Mister Vincent, and not Father DePaul.  I come from a time when you called priests by their last name, and no one referred to Father Bill or Father Jason or whatever.

The culture:  Back in the Kingdom of France, in the early days of the Bourbons, you had the haves and the have-nots.  Vincent decided to provide for the latter by asking and asking of the former.

Brendan Gleeson as Fr. James, Calvary
Agenda danger:  It is always a pleasant surprise to see Catholic clergy in film treated with respect and reverence.  Vincent had his flaws, but like Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Boys Town (1938) or Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), he is portrayed as a regular guy who remembers what the calling of the priesthood is.  Though such portrayals may be rare these days, the few that exist are notable. 1972’s The Exorcist focuses on two priests, played by Jason Miller and frequent Best Foreign Film actor Max von Sydow, who make great sacrifice in defeating the Devil.  More recently, Brendan Gleeson’s Father James in 2014’s Calvary is the embodiment of sacrifice and forgiveness.  It’s no wonder the Vatican included Monsieur Vincent on its 1995 list of 45 great films, right up there with Schindler’s List and Best Foreign Films The Bicycle Thief (1949), La Strada (1954), (1963), Dersu Uzala (1975), and Babette’s Feast (1987).

Best Picture that year:  Hamlet.

Rating:  A inspiring film about a man who gives to God by helping the poor.  They don’t make films like this anymore.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

1949 Winner, The Bicycle Thief

 The Bicycle Thief

Director:  Vittorio de Sica

Distributed by:  Joseph Burstyn & Arthur Mayer

Released:  December 1949 (in U.S.)

Country:  Italy

One time in seventh grade, finished with basketball practice, I walked out of the gym to the bike rack and found that my Huffy ten-speed had been swiped.  The question I was asked repeatedly, by the cops and by my parents, was whether I had locked the bike.  “Of course!” I insisted, also repeatedly, though I was 99% certain that I hadn’t.  Had anyone pursued the line of questioning, they would have wondered why the bicycle thief had cut the chain, then stole the ruined lock along with the bike. Maybe everyone felt sorry enough for me to just let it go.  In any case, I would have to walk to practice for a while, but life went on, bicycle-less.  The police put the case on ice, and it remains unsolved to this very day.

Father and son during happy times
For Antonio Ricci, the loss of his mode of transportation would have much more dire consequences in 1950’s Best Foreign Film, The Bicycle Thief.  In post-war Italy, the unemployed men wait around for work, hoping to hear their name called by a foreman of some kind, a scene not unlike one that might be found in On the Waterfront or Season Two of The Wire.  Antonio hears his name and rushes to the front of the crowd—the man doling out the job says the gig is for putting up posters all over town.  The one thing you need, though, is a bicycle.  Antonio is in-between bikes at the present, but he can walk.  No bike, no job, barks the foreman. Like I said, Antonio retorts, my bike is in the shop so I’ll get it now.

Really, though, Antonio had hocked his bike to a pawn shop to feed his family.  What to do?  His wife comes up with an idea—we don’t need sheets to sleep on, and we have nice ones.  So they go down and sell the sheets in order to get the bike back.  “Our luck is changing, you’ll see,” assures Antonio.  One doesn’t get the impression that will be the case.

Hey, that's my bike!
So Antonio gets his bike and rides out to do his job.  As he puts up his first poster, a crook comes out of nowhere and rides away with his only mode of transportation and income.  Antonio fails to chase him down, and spends the rest of the movie trying to find the thief and get his bike back. 

Antonio takes his young son Bruno with him, and the two of them do their best so that Antonio can keep his job.  They have a few leads, and make some unfounded accusations, but nothing leads to the reunion with his bike.  In one heartbreaking scene, Antonio takes his frustrations out on Bruno, who seems to idolize his pop.  Antonio, as careless with his son as he was with the bike, will soon discover that the way he reacts to the theft, including how he treats his son, is what he should be worried about more than the theft itself.

Excuse me, sir, did you see my lost bicycle?
The Bicycle Thief is a very simple movie, with no plot twists or surprises.  It is about Man’s inhumanity to Man in times of crisis, but I think it is even more about forgiveness for that inhumanity.  De Sica used non-actors to play out the story, a staple of neorealism, but I don’t think professionals could have elicited more sympathy than Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio and Enzo Staiola as Bruno do.  There are multiple lessons to be learned: one, be careful who you accuse of wrongdoing; two, don’t let misfortune affect how you treat others; and three, spring for the $15 and invest in a decent bicycle lock—and then, use it!

The Title: Ladri di biciclette.  The Italian title is actually, “Bicycle Thieves,” which I think is the better title, since after the first theft, which is of Antonio’s bike by one goombah, you are left to wonder if there will be more larceny ahead.

The culture:  There are great films about the aftermath of war, including 1939’s Gone with the Wind; Carol Reed’s The Third Man (also from 1949), which shows a broken Vienna; and Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear, about the worry about another Big One being dropped on Japan.  But none is surpassed by The Bicycle Thief in terms of eliciting pathos for the characters and hoping for the best for them.

Agenda danger:  This film has been analyzed and championed by Marxists, capitalists, and the Vatican, with each finding content that supports their views.  What I took away from the movie is how Antonio is essentially a good man, prone to descending into despair, self-pity, and ruthlessness, but also needing to be graced with forgiveness for his own transgressions.    

Best Picture that year:  All The Kings’ Men

Rating:  A classic that should be seen by anyone who likes films.  But if you can’t sit through a foreign film, check out 1985’s Pee-wee's Big Adventure, which is (very) loosely based on The Bicycle Thief.  There’s not as much Italian neo-realism in that film, but on the other hand, it does feature Pee Wee Herman dancing to Tequila.