Open Cities
Joanne Kouyoumjian on Bicycle Thieves and its neorealist descendants in Tehran

Ever since the heyday of Italian neorealism—the post-facist, postwar films of the forties and fifties—nothing in European cinema has come close in depicting daily life and the struggles of those most abused and neglected by the larger society. The French had their Nouvelle Vague not long after, and though both movements were characterized by a certain rejection of classical narrative structure, the Italian films stand apart. Their adherence to the dominance of montage and framing over the subject and the idea of a strict narrative made these films somehow more organic, more effective in the way that direct cinema documentaries would become. These films had an ability to describe situations rather than create them, which had the effect of both engaging the audience in a new way while simultaneously being true to the experience of daily life.

Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, considered by many to be the definitive example of Italian neorealism, is on the surface a simple tale of a father and son’s journey toward a hopeless fate and a much more complex look at the structure of postwar Rome. Morality becomes a luxury, as those without means must find some way to survive. The story itself can be described in a few lines: a man, desperate for work, accepts a job that requires him to have a bicycle. Being very poor, he pawns his bed sheets to buy his bicycle back from the pawnshop but then has it stolen on his very first day of work. The rest of the film is spent searching for the bicycle with his young child. Most effective is Bicycle Thieves’ refusal of a traditional narrative resolution, as such it is able to describe so much more. The loose story of Bicycle Thieves, is above all else, just a device, a way to describe the desperation of a family, to humanize this suffering, and also a way to create a situation in which the city of Rome is the stage and the frame. From city markets where every kind of miniscule bicycle part is stripped and sold, to Catholic soup kitchens where terse nuns herd the starving people into service before they give them soup, to rough neighborhoods where Mafioso protect their own, De Sica surveys a city in turmoil. Rome is at once chaotic, large, labyrinthine, and also claustrophobic, the only momentary escape from the truth of poverty for the desperate man and his son is a brief moment of drunkenness and satiety. They know, as we do, that their search is never-ending- doomed to failure. The main concern here is the depiction of a people and a place, the ability of human beings to help each other and also the cruelty that results when morality and the ability to make ethical decisions are luxuries only afforded to those with the means to survive.

In Bicycle Thieves there is a stubborn attachment to reality and the social conditions of post WWII Italy. The country had just come out of a fascist regime that had lasted over two decades. Long before, Italy had been the birthplace of the Renaissance, but then slowly declined into a group of warring city-states, and was no longer taken seriously as an intellectual center in Europe. The filmmakers of post WWII Italy clearly wanted to create a new form, or rather, to revise the film art and emerge with a solution to the political and artistic problems of their time. While much of the new film art to emerge from postwar Europe attacked traditional modes of narrative, some, like the French, eventually emerged with a style that seemed more playful about artifice and the blending of genres, incorporating silent film era comedy, vaudeville, American musicals and westerns, and using montage as a radical weapon, creating a schism between audience and spectacle and using it as a critical tool. The Italian neorealists, however, took a stripped down approach, leaving the narrative subject to the roaming eye of the frame and the sequence of images. There is a certain airiness, an unsettling void in the gaze of this camera.

It was in this long overdue first viewing of Bicycle Thieves that I first recognized the often discussed link between Italian films of this era and contemporary Iranian films of today, and how such structural and thematic similarities in these films meld so seamlessly across what would appear to be such differing cultural divides. In watching Bicycle Thieves, for example, I noticed the sensitivity towards a child’s viewpoint, mirrored in many current Iranian films from Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon and The Mirror to Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House? to Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven. The setting of the film in the streets of Rome, was labyrinthine and chaotic, much like many depictions of Tehran today, making the connection between postwar Italy and contemporary Iran today more apparent than I had ever before realized.

While Italian films eventually were swallowed up by Hollywood, in Iran, the neorealist legacy lives on. This is not to say that Iranian filmmakers consciously transplanted the same methods as those of the Italian movement as a kind of homage to directors such as Rosellini and Visconti. Rather, the political situation in Iran as well as its recent history has led to an organic development of cinema traditions that at times have proven to be even more formally radical than the earlier Italian films. Much like Mussolini and the fascists, Iran’s vain, pre-revolution peacock dictator, installed by the West, who gave himself the title of Shah, or King, sought to revive the glory days of Persia, by appropriating imagery from Iran’s past empires and ancient history. The repressive conditions in Iran today were brought about by the Islamic revolution in 1979, which, at first, was a popular revolt that incorporated other political and intellectual elements that were not Islamic Fundamentalists but were united in their opposition to the Shah. Unfortunately, once the theocrats seized power, all hopes for a democratic Iran were dashed as the Imams, led by Ayatollah Khomeni instituted their own strict reading of Islamic law.

Our western notions of post-revolution Iran appear to blend seamlessly with our limited knowledge of the Middle East. Women shrouded in chadors or burqas, bearded men carrying grenade launchers, bombs and mosques—these are the images we receive from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan and almost everywhere in between. What makes these images of Iran so deceptive and reductive is that beneath the chadors and the rhetoric thrives a highly developed intellectual community. Despite the heavy hand of theocratic censorship, Iranian cinema has developed as a vibrant, modern-day descendant of neorealism, both cognizant of Western cinema, and deeply rooted in Iranian culture.

In Iran, the added obstruction of censorship has given forth a complex working of visual metaphor. Many filmmakers use a stripped down, documentary-like formalism to capture the essence of daily life under such a regime. Things that cannot be directly said or shown must be communicated through this visual language. Always, there is a sense of the city and the street, bustling and chaotic, but often claustrophobic—especially when seen through the eyes of a female character. Some of the most daring works are about women—for whom merely strolling unaccompanied by a male relative is a crime. In Jafar Panahi’s The Circle the stories of five women, on the run from the law for vague and unsubstantiated crimes, are woven together through encounters on the streets of Tehran. Each woman navigates through the city as through she were dodging a Minotaur. They duck behind car, and hide behind corners in desperate bids to find safety when their families and friends have deserted them for the dubious crime of “dishonor.” The crimes are never revealed and the back story of each character is somewhat irrelevant. What is being described here is the suffering of the human spirit when crushed by a repressive regime—no explanation is necessary when one regards the hopelessness and the disregard for human dignity that these women encounter. The camera wanders from one woman to the next, following her from one oppressive social architecture to another. The style is elegant, each frame is loaded with visual cues that signify that these women are never free from their cage, ending quite literally in a prison cell.

In Bicycle Thieves the roles of pursuit are reversed, and it is the main characters who are chasing after something that is hidden. While following father and son on their search for the missing bicycle, the viewer is made privy to many different kinds of public and private spaces in Rome, in which the drama of social life is revealed in multifaceted ways. All degrees of human suffering, and the hope of survival in the face of despair are unveiled, as no corner, alley, or marketplace is left unexplored. In each moment, the frame is filled with the same kind of visual realization of the social architecture of the time. The human desperation is immediate and visceral. One gets the sense of being tossed around amidst the throngs of people elbowing one another. Rome is crowded, intense—everyone is so entrenched in their own desperate struggle to survive, trapped in such close proximity, that they forget each other’s humanity. It is in these kinds of spaces that human beings can commit the gravest betrayals—it is here that moral choices are compromised.

Both Italian and Iranian neorealism are most essential in that they promote a genuine empathy for human suffering, ordinary desperation and the hopelessness of poverty and repression. There is a sense of wanting to record a human condition, to expose the truth about human suffering that is borne by a segment of society that has been chosen to bear the brunt. There is a slowness of time, a depiction of life in real time with an integrity that will not be compromised, that doesn’t require a pumping techno soundtrack or 100 cuts per second, as in Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s City of God. It is this trust in the gravity of human indignities that propels these films. Perhaps in these times, when we have seen real life turn into a terrifying disaster movie, we should bear this in mind. As Hollywood looks towards comic books for inspiration, and the indie world continues to go the way of Tarantino, the legacy of Bicycle Thieves continues to inform those works of art that take our social policies more seriously.