Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Better Life

Once again, a new movie (released last year) that relies on the short memory of filmgoers. The title, A Better Life is unintentionally ironic - the best kind of irony.(1) The plot is, for me at least, all-too familiar: Carlos, a gardener who lives alone with his teen-aged son, gets a chance to improve his meager circumstances when the man who employs him offers to sell him his gardening business, including his truck. He persuades his sister to loan him $12,000 with which he buys the gardening business. On his first day in business for himself, he hires an older man, Santiago, whom he had met days earlier to help him on a job that involves scaling tall palm trees. On reaching the top of one palm tree, Carlos looks down to see Santiago stealing his truck. By the time he gets down from the tree, the truck is gone. With his son, Carlos looks for Santiago. He finds him, only to learn that he has sold the truck and sent the money home to his family. When they finally find the truck in a chop shop junk yard, Carlos uses his spare key and drives it through the fence gate. On the way home with his son, Carlos is pulled over by a cop. Since he is an illegal Mexican immigrant in California, his lack of a driver's license gets him arrested and deported back to Mexico.

If this plot sounds familiar to some of you, you belong to a quickly diminishing minority. It certainly didn't sound familiar to most of the critics.(2) It is virtually identical to the plot of Vittorio De Sica's masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves (1948). Set in postwar Italy, it concerns Antonio's efforts to find a job. He is offered the job of paper-hanger but he needs a bicycle or the job will go to someone else. He and his wife agree to sell their nuptial linens for enough money to buy a bicycle, but on his first day, hanging posters of the Rita Hayworth movie Gilda, Antonio's bicycle is stolen. He spends the rest of the film searching for it with his young son, Bruno.

As soon as I heard about A Better Life, I was heartened. There is no better way, I thought, to reinvigorate the legacy of an "old" film like Bicycle Thieves than to make the claim that the dilemmas it illustrated so powerfully more than sixty years ago are still with us. But the differences between the two films are more telling than their similarities. For one thing, the hero of A Better Life, Carlos, is not an average working man pitted against the world. He is an illegal Mexican immigrant in California, most of whose misfortunes are the result of his immigration status. To a great extent, his ambitions for a better life, i.e., coming to America, bring all his misfortunes down on his own head. The tacit point, which most critics overlooked or were loath to make, is that Carlos's first mistake was wanting a better life in the first place, and not accepting the severe limitations of his life in a poor country that cannot manage - or doesn't care - to look after its own people.

The film's point is confused. Instead of a story about Everyman struggling against life's injustices, the struggle of people against the catastrophe of being poor, we have an insufficiently personalized story about the plight of illegal immigrants in California.

The political intent of Bicycle Thieves is made clear by its very title, which American distributors - and uninformed reviewers - tried to distort with their adjusted title The Bicycle Thief. I wrote about this issue before in a post about "spoilers". Perhaps the distributors didn't know the difference between the Italian words "ladro" and "ladri". Or else they didn't see De Sica's point. Or else, as I suspect, they didn't care for De Sica's point: how crippling economic conditions can make a bicycle thief of just about anyone. What Antonio was struggling against were the obstacles in his way to a decent life with his young family, the same obstacles confronting most Italians right after the war. It was what impelled a handful of courageous Italian filmmakers to take their cameras into the streets and rediscover the true ingredients of cinematic art - unvarnished truth. Carlos, in A Better Life, is also fighting poverty, but it is the poverty of Latino immigrants - many of them illegal - in an otherwise prosperous America. (And even an economic slump hasn't changed the overwhelming comparable prosperity of America - a fact that politicians never mention.)

Another irony about A Better Life: on winning the Golden Lion at Venice in 1951 for his film Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa wished the award had gone to a Japanese film that showed conditions in contemporary Japan, like De Sica's Bicycle Thieves. And the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray was inspired by Bicycle Thieves to make his first film, Pather Panchali. Chris Weitz, director of A Better Life, must have seen the De Sica film, but whatever inspiration it gave him got muddled in the making. A Better Life's atypical story is quite typically told.

(1) The original title was The Gardener.
(2) In his favorable review of A Better Life, Roger Ebert saw the parallel, but made the common mistake of misnaming De Sica's film as The Bicycle Thief.

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