As a film tutor, the question I am always asked as soon as people discover what I do for a living is, ‘what’s your favourite film?’ Surprisingly, it’s not the easiest question to answer and I often try to negotiate a top five or ten, rather than having to commit to a single one.
However, if absolutely pushed, I almost always nominate Ladri di biciclette or Bicycle Thieves, as it is known in English. It was made in 1948 in Italy and directed by Vittorio de Sica, an ex-screenstar. The film forms part of what is called Italian Neorealism and paints a picture of post-war Italy as it emerges from the aftermath of World War Two. Everyday life in Italy remains visibly very difficult in the film and it charts the challenges facing a working-class man, Antonio Ricci, and his family, as they struggle to survive. Antonio’s bicycle, essential for his newly acquired job, is stolen early on in the film and for the rest of its ninety minutes we follow him and his son, Bruno, as they search to recover it.
To watch a film is to engage in a process of interpretation and analysis, an activity that not only enhances our critical faculties but one that is intensely powerful and pleasurable too.
For me, it is one the simplest and most beautiful of films, made all the more poignant by the recollections of my Italian mother-in-law who watched the film as a young girl in Northern Italy when it was first released.
As part of a group of films that sought to find new ways to represent reality, the lived experience of ordinary Italians, it was to prove hugely influential well beyond Italy and well beyond the late 1940s. Italian Neorealism inspired filmmakers in India, Africa and Japan as well as directors in other European nations. The French in particular owed a significant debt to Neorealism and its influence on the directors who went on to become synonymous with the French New Wave or nouvelle vague has been written about extensively.
The other question that I am often asked is what the point of studying film is, the intimation being that perhaps it isn’t the most overtly valuable subject to devote attention to.
I always reply by noting that the study of film involves so much more than simply watching films – of course it does! It comprises the exploration of history, politics and culture, the consideration (and appreciation) of visual style and performance. To watch a film is to engage in a process of interpretation and analysis, an activity that not only enhances our critical faculties but one that is intensely powerful and pleasurable too.
To understand a film is to understand something about the story it tells and the culture that it comes from.
To watch a film is to immerse oneself in a visual language that can be poetic in its beauty and profound in its expression.
The act of viewing can challenge us and can make us think in new ways about novel ideas, places, and experiences.
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There are plenty of other exciting film courses available at City Lit, ranging from explorations of silent cinema, 1950s science fiction movies, women filmmakers, 1940s British melodrama, the American western, the history of British television, and films of the 1980s, to name just a few.
Dr. Paul Sutton is an independent film scholar who has taught Film Studies in UK higher education for over 25 years. His research covers psychoanalytic and film theory as well as Italian and French cinema and critical theory.