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Underneath the Veil of Truth in the Bicycle Thief & Rashomon

Updated on March 13, 2018

Neo-Realism verus Kurosawa

In modern American cinema, what is seen on the screen with all its CGI spectacles and strong narratives performed by some of the greatest actors and actresses in film captivate audiences in profound ways. In addition to strong narratives and performances, studios who distribute these films are gaining tremendous revenue and prestige. Within these films, not only in American cinema, but also in international cinema, we find concepts hidden in each film that brings to an audience’s mind whether what we see on screen can in fact be a true representation of our reality. The question we must ask is: Is this film real? In terms of human behavior and the relativity of truth that exist in all society, can international cinema express a true definition of realism in term of judging and analyzing what is right and what is wrong?

Not only is the concept of right and wrong a global concept to consider, this concept can be examined in both Vittorio DeSica’s The Bicycle Thief and Akira Kurosawa Rashomon. Each of these films presents in their narrative this question of the weakness of the human spirit. Vittorio DeSica’s The Bicycle Thief , Ricci, our main protagonist, is living a life of poverty due to post World War II conditions with the hopes of securing stability for himself and his young family. A simple yet powerful story, the movie follows the journey of an unemployed man in postwar Rome who finds a coveted job that requires a bicycle. However, when given the opportunity to work as a worker who posts poster advertisements all over the city, one important item which he needs to accomplish his duties is a bicycle. On his first day on the job, Ricci’s bicycle is immediately stolen setting off a narrative that is ultimately the search for his bicycle in desperation. The film was shot entirely within the confines of the city Rome in an neorealism perspective. DeSica offers various camera shots that allow his audiences to see the true nature of post-World War II Italy. In particular, his use of deep focus shots and long shots to focus on the open spaces and to show the vast amounts of people and those riding bicycles in Rome. An important shot to consider is a shot selection by DeSica whereas Ricci and his son Bruno are in pursuit of what Ricci believes to be the thief running through cobblestone streets & alleys in wide angle wide and lightening that shows both light and dark contrast. This cinematography presents a true neorealist view of society. DeSica lets his film audience see the distinction of dust, dirt and old rubble Italy. Also, he uses this lightening contrast as metaphor to distinguish the difference between good and bad & right and wrong.

Narratively, DeSica pushes Ricci into accusing a Nazi cap wearing youth of stealing his bicycle and he does so with no fear of the consequences. Ricci entered a secluded neighborhood where he is the outsider and rushes into accuse with no validation in the truth. Ricci is then mobbed by the locals and sent off into the depth of the city without anything but what is left of his dignity. Audiences also are shown the weakness and corruption of the human heart when Ricci decides to steal a lonely bicycle outside a non-populated area just outside a nearby football arena. In the shot that precedes Ricci’s thief of an unknown bicycle, DeSica use a simple long shot from the distance and shows a marking to indicate separation. This reference to separation is a light post between Ricci, who is nervously pacing the sidewalk not knowing whether to steal the bicycle or not, and the bicycle within feet of him. This indication draws to mind a cinematic view of truth and the separation within human beings to choose between doing what is right and ultimately what is the wrong unmoral action. Ricci then cross his boundaries and realizes that he must fight to preserve his dream of stability for his family and himself. In doing so, Ricci is spotted immediately in his efforts and almost raped by common arresting citizen who have just exited a football arena. In front of his son Bruno, Ricci is interrogated and released out of compassion. DeSica closes out his film in a state of sorrow. He lets the film audiences see that no matter what you do out of desperation, you find yourself in the exact same spot where you began. A harsh reality to overcome and realism that is not only characteristic of Italian cinema but also in the cinema of Japan.

Italian neorealism explores this notion of harsh, wounded reality of the working class whereas Japanese cinema, most notably, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon from 1950, beautifully interrogates the notion of truth as well. Kurosawa’s Rashomon established the story of an assault and a murder in feudal Japan is told from the points of view of four different persons (and ghosts), with startlingly different results, discussing the unreliability of memory and truth.

From the opening of the film, Kurosawa opens his environment in rain. The use of rain is a visual indication of despair and sorrow that will lead the audience to begin to ponder questions. We immediately are introduced to three man taking refuge in a temple during a rain storm; a commoner, a priest and a woodcutter. Kurosawa’s use of geometric arrangement of characters throughout this film is effective in understanding the pace of the film and allowing the characters to show their true individual personas. The commoner, in particular, is placed in the film to represent a sense of curiosity and interrogation. He questions the priest and the woodcutter to the events that have transpired and throughout his questionings among the two men he is also the voice of common sense. Visually, Kurosawa lines up the characters in his him film in a triangle arrangement. Most all of his frames, the audience will see at least three persons in the frame. This triangle composition of characters is a highly visual technique that Kurosawa uses to illustrate a feeling of reality or environment to bring forward this idea of truth. He uses this well in scenes dedicated to the stories told by the bandit as well as the court depositions. For example, in the forest, Kurosawa neatly lines up the bandit on the top portion of this visual triangle of alignment. Whoever is at the top of the triangle they are the point of reference in the frame and within the narrative. Kurosawa intermixes the bandit, the woman, the samurai as the point of reference in the narrative particularly in scenes in the forest as events are told by the bandit. Each time the story of event is relived the tone of the narrative is different. The difference in the narrative is from the retelling of events played out that brings a measure of suspension that tarnishes the truth. Is each of the characters telling a truthful account of events or do they come to the realization that the truth cannot be found in the fabric of the interaction of characters? Is the bandit providing a truthful story? Why is there doubtfulness in the woodcutter’s second version of his accounts of events? Stephen Lucas neatly points out that as the woodcutter begins his second version of his accounts he is turning “into a world where the human heart loses its way” (Lucas). Whatever the belief of truth was is now wiped away because of the confusion of what is real and why there must be a choice and consequences of right and wrong.

In the end of the film, the mystery of the dagger and the innocence that is captured with the baby found by the commoner only give the film a true sense of truth. The rain ceases and in those final moments, visually & narratively, the mood changes among the environment and the characters. A sense of resolution and affirmation prevails. The sun is out and the three men departed as if the film was an American western. However, the truth that was so yearned for by the film audience is left in question again. Are the characters in Rashomon noble, trustworthy and good? From his autobiography entitled Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa believes that “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves . . .” (Kurosawa). The human spirit fails itself in the woodcutter, the bandit and even the woman. There is no sense of belief in their account because they themselves have not reached the point of truth. Their own self-discovery within their own lives does not allow for truth to be discovered. In between their own so-called truths, the gaps are literally filled with lies.

In retrospect, there is this belief especially in Hollywood that an ending that is happy and everlasting will endure. Other films, particularly those in international cinema, do not end with such high emotional narrative content that brings proper resolution. These closings of film, or endings, ask audiences to explore and examine the many questions relative to the narrative of the film a sense of truth and realism or just an illusion and fantasy of what the filmmaker believes and wants to present based on a degree of themes and symbols based upon in social, ethical, political constraints of his or her countries. One of the most singular concepts in all cinema, most notably international cinema, is the examination of ethics and the difficulties of moral theory. What is real in terms of film presentation and narrative cinematography? How does a character choice between right and wrong? What is the truth? How the narrative of the film constructs a pattern from beginning to end and allows for truth to be understood? What does it mean to do right and wrong while faced with odds. The actions and decisions by characters in both Vittorio DeSica’s The Bicycle Thief and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon reflect the notion of the extremities of human behavior. However in the end of both films, truth is never seem or prevailed. The notion of right and wrong are still questioned. Only realism triumphs meaning anything can simply happen to anyone at any given moment. The protagonist Ricci from The Bicycle Thief clearly nails the point by uttering “You live and you suffer.”

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