April 22, 2010

Fabiola, or, The Church of the Catacombs

1854 novel
written by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman

(my review of the 1949 film adaptation)

Propaganda novels are always tricky to review. Written to boost up the morale of an already faithful legion, they have a hard time clicking with those outside the chosen flock, sometimes even becoming loathed objects of scorn that end up doing their cause much more damage than intended. Take this book for example. In the London of the mid 1800's, Catholicism was still looked upon with much scorn and ridicule by the Protestant majority, having only become a fully legalized religious practice within decades of this novel's publication. Cardinal Wiseman thus felt the best way to boost up his minority flock, to give them hope and redemption in their suffering, was too pen a book which equated their experience with that of the early Christians in Rome. This is for them. This is their book.

I'm an atheist. This book is not meant for me.

That's not to say that this piece of literature wouldn't be perfectly at home on the shelves of a True Believer. I, not being one, kept butting heads with its philosophies. But this isn't really meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I'll try not to go there.

So lets look at it as a propaganda piece. At its heart, there's an intriguing tale about a young religion being brutally hunted by the broader populace, practicing secret masses in catacombs filled with their fallen comrades and swelling with pride before roaring beasts or an executioner's blade in the arena. There is a good story there, a good thriller about persecution and fighting for what you believe in. But there's no fight. Every time someone announces their religion, they just calmly let themselves be led off to death. Why? Martyrdom. Instead of organizing and arming and fighting for themselves, their families, and their beliefs, they are not only happy, they're fucking thrilled at the prospect of being caught just so they can suffer and die and be one with Jesus. To some, this is admirable. To me, it's a representation of the problems inherent in a belief that the afterlife is better than the one we have here: it makes people eager to die. Suicide is, of course, fully frowned up, but the way these people willingly let their secrets slip out of the closet is largely tantamount to the same thing.

But this isn't meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I won't go there.

Let's look at the characters. As with any propaganda piece, we have the "thems" - all the vile, shifty-eyed, pagan worshippers who kill off the Christians because they feel impotent and jealous in the face of abject faith - and then there's the "usses" - the True Believers, who are all clean and beautiful and work in a blessed union to further conversions to the faith (conversions likely necessary to sustain the church because everyone aspires to die a virgin). We know from historical record that this was a turbulent time where Christians most certainly did not all agree on how best to follow and spread the message, so them being painted as a perfectly harmonious group, free of any doubt or animosity, is complete bullshit. No, it's the typical old "we're good, they're bad" philosophy. And even when Wiseman sets up an interesting character, he tends to bungle it in the execution.

Take Sebastian, the classic hero type. He's a soldier, a high-ranking officer and trusted advisor of Co-Emperor Maximian, and secretly supports and organizes the functions of his hidden faith. Now, here, there could have been a fascinating study of a man hiding himself in plain sight, but they never make it hard, they never show him struggling to keep things hidden or even, really, show him saving the flock in any way except when he converts some prisoners through a completely random healing through the laying on of hands. Why? Because he wants to be martyred. Of course.

Much more successful is Torquatus. Though his bumbling is written off as him being new to the flock and not fully educated, here is the one man experiencing a crisis of faith. He has his beliefs, he feels saved, but then he gets drunk and gambles and finds himself indebted to people who want to use his information to wipe out a branch of the church. This is a memorable character, someone for whom it's not so much God that plays on his conscience, but the consequences of his own actions. It culminates in a truly gripping sequence where, getting separated from everyone during a raid he helped instigate, he finds himself lost in the catacombs, with neither food nor water and a rapidly dwindling source of light. Now, does Wiseman let this be the typical death one suffers to pay for their mistakes, as is so often the case in fiction? No, he gives us the one scene I'd accept would lead to his renewed conversion. Torquatus comes across a small funeral party laying to rest a woman killed in the raid. That right there, making him see the blood on his hands, brings about a change in the man and shows that the Cardinal was capable of penning a good morality tale.

But then there's Fulvius. Again, there's an interesting setup. On the surface, he's a comfortable, easy-going if pompous member of the higher society, but he secretly earns his fortune by hunting down Christians, turning them over to authorities and being rewarded with a chunk of their estate. Over the course of things, he falls in love with a young woman, the beautiful Agnes (she's twelve!), only to discover that she's deeply involved in the Christian movement. She's part of something he hates, and repeatedly rejects him in favor of that very something he hates, which makes for great motivation as our embittered antagonist triggers some massive destruction. Hell, there's a scene where he confronts the title character (we'll get to Fabiola in a minute), that is genuinely tense as his anger builds and builds to a point where we know somebody is about to wind up dead ... but then Wiseman pulls a hidden family connection completely out of left field, leading to convolutions upon convolutions, and it all unravels. But more on that is coming.

So. Fabiola. She's the title character (duh) and, if you strip all of the social aspects away, this is largely the story of her conversion. It's not this arc I have a problem with (does make for a good story), it's some of the philosophies behind it. As the story starts, she is described as a philosopher, somebody who reads and experiences a broad range of thought and learning. This is something I find admirable, but not Wiseman. No, all philosophers of that time are written off as heathens and such concepts like looking at something before passing judgment on it are seen as the very trouble that caused the pagans to become such brutes. They're over-exposed and skeptical, they require more than just "honestly spoken" words and some faith before they believe in something, and this makes them bad, bad people. And how does Wiseman counter this philosophy, through the mouth of the True Believing slave Miriam? By pointing out to Fabiola that there are gaps in knowledge, questions that can't be answered. Surely these must be proof of the existence of the divine. And, of course, Fabiola just buys it. Bullshit.

But this isn't meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I won't go there.

But why Fabiola? In the beginning, she's shown in a fury, slashing her servants with a razor. She is every bit the pompous Roman that Wiseman paints as pagan persecutors. And, yet, she has a nagging doubt in the back of her mind, something nobody else among her status experiences. It's this nagging voice that makes her special and leads her down the road to conversion. And where does this voice come from? Her late Christian mother, of course. You see, while they were primarily raised by pagan father figures, and do often share in such "heathenous frivolity", both Fabiola and Fulvius had Christian mothers whom they lost early in life. Why is this important? Well, because in Wiseman's world, nobody can have any regret or compassion or goodness of character unless they already have a little Christian in them to begin with. Because we all know that to be Christian is to be above sins like genocide or torture or raping little boys. Only they can be good, and everyone else is the enemy.

But this isn't meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I won't go there.

I will give Wiseman this, he's not a bad writer. In fact, his flowing, whispering text is quite accessible and does a wonderful job of painting the image of daily Roman life. Hell, I almost wish this were approached as a work of non-fiction as opposed to a novel, because he goes off on these wonderful little tangents describing the architecture, the make of the city, the customs of rituals, generic terminology and slang of the time, all while citing what were then cutting-edge archaeological discoveries. It really is some fascinating stuff, but, as with many a History Channel documentary, in comes the dramatized reenactment, and it's full of lousy stagings of unbelievable characterizations that spout off nonsensically with flowery dialogue that would make a supermarket romance novel roll its eyes.

And, once again, that reliance upon history is highly selective. It ignores the divide between Christian sects at the time. It ignores the atrocities Christianity wishes it didn't represent. It ignores the fact that Constantine wasn't a great divine ruler. It ignores that Mary Magdalen wasn't a whore. It compares Africans to the animals of their country as they concoct nefarious voodoo potions. It flat out states that Jews are the enemies of Christ.

But this isn't meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I won't ...

... Oh, wait, I did.


April 9, 2010

Bicycle Thieves

1948 film
directed by Vittorio De Sica
written by Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, Gerardo Guerrieri
based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini

(my review of the 1946 novel from which this is based)

Right from the start, De Sica proves himself a clever filmmaker. The title tells us that thieves will steal a bicycle, so he teases us, building anticipation as one moment follows another where our lead character, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), is forced to leave his bike unattended while his attention is drawn or he's called aside for a minute. Every time he does, our eyes are on the vulnerable vehicle, until the actual act itself, where we see the thieves coming as they lay a trap and spring. It's marvelous, masterful filmmaking on display.

And unlike the book, we care about the bicycle's fate. There, it was one of several owned by a prissy playboy intellectual who cut everything around him down with cynicism. Here, Antonio is a married father of two who finally scores an all-too-rare job in the economic depression that is post-WWII Italy, and the bicycle is a necessary requirement of his job: going from corner to corner, pasting new posters over layers of old ones. He's a genuinely honest, genuinely good fellow, so we feel his anger, we feel his desperation, we feel the gears of right and wrong start grinding against one another when, at a point near the end, he notices a bicycle left unattended on an empty street and starts the inner debate.

But the film doesn't end there with improvements upon the literature. While the book was a wasteland of lies and greed, there is genuine hope here. People gather at churches and help feed, clothe, and shave one another. Antonio's wife (piercing Lianella Carell) doesn't give a second thought before bundling up the linens to pay off a family debt. His friends (led by Gino Saltamerenda) give up part of their working day to fruitlessly search amongst thousands of bikes and parts in the black market. And his young son (the simultaneously innocent and mature Enzo Staiola) constantly tags by his father's side; even when the two have a squabble and put a visible distance between themselves, young Bruno still keeps pace with his father, offering a held hand when needed. But, alas, hope never overcomes all, and there is a proper air of genuine crushing reality that always lingers before it pushes itself to the stage. And the director once again shows his skill when things that seem like obvious movie setups (the friends will keep looking, the boy points out a distinct dent in the frame) never get the chance to pay off, not because they're forgotten, but because reality just doesn't work that way.

This film is rightfully held up as a fine example of the neorealist movement that spread across Europe after the studios suffered greatly from the war and depression that followed. As with others of the style, it deals with quiet, human stories, filmed cheaply on location with casts primarily consisting of amateurs. The lead himself, Maggiorani, was a factory worker who stumbled into the film business when this production cost him his job. He perfectly fits the image of the everyday man of this era, with a gaunt, underfed frame, the strong hands of a laborer, and eyes that are intelligent and hopeful, yet shaded with bouts of desperation.

And it's all put together beautifully by actor-turned-director De Sica. He knows how to build a scene, fill it with distinct people, and fluidly work the camera and editing to tell it to near perfection. Just look at the moment where Antonio finally confronts the thief, who leads his pursuer to the steps of his own home where his neighbors slowly swarm around the accuser, shouting that they know the criminal is a good boy, and how dare Antonio say such slanderous things, and he should listen to the mother shouting from the upstairs window that her child's record is clean. De Sica keeps us right near the eye level of Antonio as all avenues of escape and victory are shut tight and the situation goes from annoying to overwhelming to frightening.

This truly is a masterpiece. Now, yes, there are a few tiny arguments one could make about convenient plot points that casually drop out of the sky (Antonio randomly stumbles across the thief not once, but twice), and there is the occasional moment where the actors betray their amateur origins, but I don't care, and I'm sure most would agree. It's a marvelous work, deep and personal, yet broadly accessible and appealing.


(internet movie database)

April 3, 2010

Bicycle Thieves

1946 novel
written by Luigi Bartolini

(my review of the 1948 film adaptation)


World War II still rages in Italy. The fascists are cornered in the north as a line of Allied troops steadily presses through, leaving in their wake a free Italy. Free in the sense of anarchy as the same corrupt politicians turn on their overlords with the hopes of staying in power, an over-tasked police force takes bribes and turn blind eyes so as to not be swallowed up in mobs that favor the criminals, and thievery becomes such a way of life that anyone who finds his property stolen is derided for not knowing well enough to hold onto it better.

This is the world shown to us through our unnamed narrator (likely the author himself), an educated and eloquent man struggling to chip an honest living through articles and etchings. In this dark world where little things cost a fortune, his most treasured possession is his bicycle, which not only allows him to spread his freelance work to a broader range of publications, but covers the distance to the countryside which he escapes to each day just to clear his soul.

On the first page of the book, this bicycle is stolen, and our narrator plunges into the underworld he loathes with the hopes of recovering it.



Told in a chapterless, stream-of-conscious prose filled with digressions and sudden flashbacks, this very much feels like what it likely is: the author's own journals edited into something resembling a narrative. There's a personal intimacy this brings to the material as he questions things sweeping and profound - his view of Italy's historical connection with thievery; political systems that left the man in exile for years - and offers little details like the types of friends he looks for, why he hates movies, and why he thinks Italian women have ugly butts. It is a ramble of sort, but a very polished and thoughtful one that takes us deep into a man who loathes a society he can't escape from, and thus does his best to work around it.

And then there's the city itself, with its grimy, bombed-out alleys, peddlers living a symbiotic relationship with thieves who steal back what's sold, topless whores hanging out the windows of brothels the Allied occupation officially stamped out, and foreign soldiers that everyone buddies up to because only they can afford a round of the best drinks. This is a world where everybody steals, whether it's through physical theft, the hiking up of prices, the refusal to do anything without a cut, or the taking advantage of people for whom the label "friend" never really fits. And as everyone gets used to crime, so must people grow accustomed to looking out for themselves and their belongings. And woe on anybody who tries to publicly enforce the laws, for any accusation of "Thief!" brings out mobs that are likely to turn on the victim.

However ...

The big problem is the narrator. An honest man buried amidst deception makes for a good story, but we only know he's honest through his own admission. He makes a big show of how he always tries to help or knows just the right thing to say to diffuse a situation, but a lot of it feels like glorified bunk on Bartolini's part, as though he's defending himself with the same high-minded pride as the thieves.

And it's this perfect knowledge, the way he can disguise himself, pick locks, or work various connections, that takes a lot of the drama out of things. He almost comes off as a hard-boiled American detective hero at times, perfectly maintaining control as he takes on a gang of punks, works through a police station, or strikes up a deal with some prostitutes. This makes the odds all the less daunting, and thus all the less dramatic. Especially when we not only learn he has a second bicycle ready and waiting at home, but when he purchases yet another only 30 pages in. So what's the point?

Which brings us to his utter hypocrisy. He's got another bike, and goes out of his way to buy a new one, yet absolutely must track down the stolen model. He holds up his purity and degrades and denounces the vile society around him, but knows all of its inner workings to the point where he can perfectly blend in. He complains about not getting enough work done or longs for time to escape to the countryside, but fills his schedule with an admittedly meaningless quest to find a needle in a haystack. He goes on about how terrible and completely beneath him the local women are, all the while bedding models and neighbors and a man's handicapped wife. All of this would make for an interesting portrait, but it must be deciphered through his own biased voice. There's no irony, no moral, no lesson, just a bitter man rambling on without catching how many times he contradicts himself.

And ramble ramble ramble. There's a lot of interesting stuff about clouded morals and political breakdown, but a lot of it does get long-winded and repetitive, as numerous situations play out to the same conclusions. And then there's stuff like the last few pages suddenly putting a huge focus on the narrator's daughter whom we'd never heard about up till then, nor do we really know where she is or when he last saw her. The whole search for the bicycle just kind of fizzles out as she comes in and becomes a new symbol for hope and escape, yet it's so out-of-left-field that it feels hollow.


Frustrating and long-winded at times, this is nonetheless a fascinating, thoughtful, and piercing look at a country hopelessly trying to find its identity after a total and crushing defeat.