SOLUTION: Bicycle Thieves & Pather Panchali Films Themes Discussion

SOLUTION: Bicycle Thieves & Pather Panchali Films Themes Discussion.

WHAT SEEMS to me most astonishing about the Italian cinema is that it
appears to feel it should escape from the aesthetic impasse to which neorealism is said to have led. The dazzling effects of 1946 and 1947 having
faded away, one could reasonably fear that this useful and intelligent reaction against the Italian aesthetic of the superspectacle and, for that
matter, more generally, against the technical aestheticism from which
cinema suffered all over the world, would never get beyond an interest
in a kind of superdocumentary, or romanticized reportage. One began
to realize that the success of Roma Citta Aperta, Paisd, or Sciuscia was
inseparable from a special conjunction of historical circumstances that
took its meaning from the Liberation, and that the technique of the films
was in some way magnified by the revolutionary value of the subject. Just
as some books by Malraux or Hemingway find in a crystallization of
journalistic style the best narrative form for a tragedy of current events,
so the films of Rossellini or De Sica owed the fact that they were major
works, masterpieces, simply to a fortuitous combination of form and
subject matter. But when the novelty and above all the flavor of their
technical crudity have exhausted their surprise effect, what remains of
Italian “neorealism” when by force of circumstances it must revert
to traditional subjects: crime stories, psychological dramas, social customs? The camera in the street we can still accept, but doesn’t that ad47
What Is Cinema?
mirable nonprofessional acting stand self-condemned in proportion as
its discoveries swell the ranks of international stars? And, by way of generalizing about this aesthetic pessimism: “realism” can only occupy in art
a dialectical position—it is more a reaction than a truth. It remains then
to make it part of the aesthetic it came into existence to verify. In any case,
the Italians were not the last to downgrade their “neorealism.” I think
there is not a single Italian director, including the most neorealist, who
does not insist that they must get away from it.
French critics too feel themselves a prey to scruples—especially since
this vaunted neorealism early showed signs of running out of steam. Comedies, agreeable enough in themselves, appeared on the scene to exploit
with visible ease the formula of Quattro passi ira le nuvole or Vivere in
Pace. But worst of all was the emergence of a neorealist superspectacle
in which the search for real settings, action taken from everyday life, portrayals of lower-class mileux, “social” backgrounds, became an academic
stereotype far more detestable than the elephants of Scipio Africanus. For
a neorealist film may have every defect except that of being academic.
Thus at Venice II Patto col diavolo by Luigi Chiarini, a somber melodrama of rural love, took visible pains to find a contemporary alibi in a
story of conflict between shepherds and woodsmen. Although well done
on some accounts, In name della legge, which the Italians tried to push to
the fore at Knokke-le-Zoute, cannot escape similar criticisms. One will
notice incidentally, from these two examples, that neorealism is now preoccupied with rural problems, perhaps prudently in view of the fate of urban neorealism. The closed-in countryside has replaced the open city.
However that may be, the hopes that we placed in the new Italian
school had started to turn into uneasiness, or even skepticism, all the more
since the aesthetic of neorealism forbids it to repeat itself or plagiarize
itself in the way that is possible and even normal in some traditional genres
(the crime film, the western, the atmospheric film, and so on). Already
we were beginning to look toward England whose recent cinematic rebirth
is likewise, in part, the fruit of realism: that of the school of documentarists who, before and during the war, had gone deeply into the resources
offered by social and technical realities. A film like Brief Encounter would
Bicycle Thief
probably have been impossible without the ten years of preparation by
Grierson, Cavalcanti, or Rotha. But the English, instead of breaking with
the technique and the history of European and American cinema, have
succeeded in combining a highly refined aestheticism with the advances
of a certain realism. Nothing could be more tightly structured, more carefully prepared, than Brief Encounter—nothing less conceivable without
the most up-to-date studio resources, without clever and established actors; yet can we imagine a more realistic portrait of English manners and
psychology? Certainly, David Lean has gained nothing by making over,
this year, a kind of second Brief Encounter: The Passionate Friends, presented at the Cannes festival. But it is against repetition of the subject
matter that one can reasonably protest, not against the repetition of the
techniques, which could be used over and over indefinitely.*
Have I played devil’s advocate long enough? For let me now make
a confession: my doubts about the Italian cinema have never gone so far,
but all the arguments I have invoked have been used by intelligent men—
especially in Italy—nor are they unfortunately without some semblance of
validity. They have also often troubled me, and I subscribe to some of
On the other hand there is a film called Ladri di Biciclette and two
other films that I hope we will soon get to know in France. With Ladri di
Biciclette De Sica has managed to escape from the impasse, to reaffirm
anew the entire aesthetic of neorealism.
Ladri di Biciclette certainly is neorealist, by all the principles one can
deduce from the best Italian films since 1946. The story is from the lower
classes, almost populist: an incident in the daily life of a worker. But the
film shows no extraordinary events such as those which befall the fated
workers in Gabin films. There are no crimes of passion, none of those
* This paragraph, which redounds to the glory of the English cinema but not
that of the writer, has been retained to bear witness to critical illusions about
English cinema which I was not the only one to entertain. Brief Encounter made
almost as great an impression as Roma Cittd Aperta. Time has shown which of
the two had a real cinematic future. Besides, the Noel Coward-David Lean film
owed very little to the Grierson school of documentary. [Note by Bazin some
time after the article was written, probably in 1956.—TR.]
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grandiose coincidences common in detective stories which simply transfer to a realm of proletarian exoticism the great tragic debates once reserved for the dwellers on Olympus. Truly an insignificant, even a banal
incident: a workman spends a whole day looking in vain in the streets
of Rome for the bicycle someone has stolen from him. This bicycle has
been the tool of his trade, and if he doesn’t find it he will again be unemployed. Late in the day, after hours of fruitless wandering, he too tries to
steal a bicycle. Apprehended and then released, he is as poor as ever, but
now he feels the shame of having sunk to the level of the thief.
Plainly there is not enough material here even for a news item: the
whole story would not deserve two lines in a stray-dog column. One must
take care not to confuse it with realist tragedy in the Prevert or James
Cain manner, where the initial news item is a diabolic trap placed by the
gods amid the cobble stones of the street. In itself the event contains no
proper dramatic valence. It takes on meaning only because of the social
(and not psychological or aesthetic) position of the victim. Without the
haunting specter of unemployment, which places the event in the Italian
society of 1948, it would be an utterly banal misadventure. Likewise, the
choice of a bicycle as the key object in the drama is characteristic both of
Italian urban life and of a period when mechanical means of transportation were still rare and expensive. There is no need to insist on the hundreds of other meaningful details that multiply the vital links between
the scenario and actuality, situating the event in political and social history, in a given place at a given time.
The techniques employed in the mise en scene likewise meet the most
exacting specifications of Italian neorealism. Not one scene shot in a studio.
Everything wasfilmedin the streets. As for the actors, none had the slightest experience in theater or film. The workman came from the Breda factory, the child was found hanging around in the street, the wife was a
These then are the facts of the case. It is clear that they do not appear
to recall in any sense the neorealism of Quattro passi fra le nuvole, Vivere
in Pace, or Sciuscia. On the face of it then one should have special reasons
for being wary. The sordid side of the tale tends toward that most de50
Bicycle Thief
batable aspect of Italian stories: indulgence in the wretched, a systematic
search for squalid detail.
If Ladri di Biciclette is a true masterpiece, comparable in rigor to
Paisa, it is for certain precise reasons, none of which emerge either from
a simple outline of the scenario or from a superficial disquisition on the
technique of the mise en seine.
The scenario is diabolically clever in its construction; beginning with
the alibi of a current event it makes good use of a number of systems of
dramatic coordinates radiating in all directions. Ladri di Biciclette is certainly the only valid Communist film of the whole past decade precisely
because it still has meaning even when you have abstracted its social significance. Its social message is not detached, it remains immanent in the
event, but it is so clear that nobody can overlook it, still less take exception to it, since it is never made explicitly a message. The thesis implied
is wondrously and outrageously simple: in the world where this workman
lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive. But this
thesis is never stated as such, it is just that events are so linked together
that they have the appearance of a formal truth while retaining an anecdotal quality. Basically, the workman might have found his bicycle in the
middle of thefilm;only then there would have been no film. (Sorry to have
bothered you, the director might say; we really did think he would never
find it, but since he has, all is well, good for him, the performance is over,
you can turn up the lights.) In other words, a propaganda film would
try to prove that the workman could not find his bicycle, and that he is
inevitably trapped in the vicious circle of poverty. De Sica limits himself to
showing that the workman cannot find his bicycle and that as a result he
doubtless will be unemployed again. No one can fail to see that it is the
accidental nature of the script that gives the thesis its quality of necessity;
the slightest doubt cast on the necessity of the events in the scenario of a
propaganda film renders the argument hypothetical.
Although on the basis of the workman’s misfortune we have no alternative but to condemn a certain kind of relation between a man and his
work, the film never makes the events or the people part of an economic
or political Manicheism. It takes care not to cheat on reality, not only by
What Is Cinema?
contriving to give the succession of events the appearance of an accidental
and as it were anecdotal chronology but in treating each of them according to its phenomenological integrity. In the middle of the chase the little
boy suddenly needs to piss. So he does. A downpour forces the lather and
son to shelter in a carriageway, so like them we have to forego the chase
and wait till the storm is over. The events are not necessarily signs of something, of a truth of which we are to be convinced, they all carry their own
weight, their complete uniqueness, that ambiguity that characterizes any
fact. So, if you do not have the eyes to see, you are free to attribute what
happens to bad luck or to chance. The same applies to the people in the
film. The worker is just as deprived and isolated among his fellow trade
unionists as he is walking along .the street or even in that ineffable scene of
the Catholic “Quakers” into whose company he will shortly stray, because
the trade union does not exist to find lost bikes but to transform a world
in which losing his bike condemns a man to poverty. Nor does the worker
come to lodge a complaint with the trade union but to find comrades who
will be able to help him discover the stolen object. So here you have a
collection of proletarian members of a union who behave no differently
from a group of paternalistic bourgeois toward an unfortunate workman.
In his private misfortune, the poster hanger is just as alone in his union
as in church (buddies apart that is—but then who your buddies are is your
own affair). But this parallel is extremely useful because it points up a
striking contrast. The indifference of the trade union is normal and justified because a trade union is striving for justice not for charity. But the
cumbersome paternalism of the Catholic “Quakers” is unbearable, because their eyes are closed to his personal tragedy while they in fact actually
do nothing to change the world that is the cause of it. On this score the
most successful scene is that in the storm under the porch when a flock of
Austrian seminarians crowd around the worker and his son. We have no
valid reason to blame them for chattering so much and still less for talking
German. But it would be difficult to create a more objectively anticlerical
Clearly, and I could find twenty more examples: events and people are
never introduced in support of a social thesis—but the thesis emerges fully
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armed and all the more irrefutable because it is presented to us as something thrown in into the bargain. It is our intelligence that discerns and
shapes it, not the film. De Sica wins every play on the board without ever
having made a bet.
This technique is not entirely new in Italian films and we have elsewhere stressed its value at length both apropos of Paisa and of Allemania
Anno Zero, but these two films were based on themes from either the
Resistance or the war. Ladri di Biciclette is thefirstdecisive example of the
possibility of the conversion of this kind of objectivity to other, similar
subjects. De Sica and Zavattini have transferred neorealism from the Resistance to the Revolution.
Thus the thesis of the film is hidden behind an objective social reality
which in turn moves into the background of the moral and psychological
drama which could of itself justify the film. The idea of the boy is a stroke
of genius, and one does not know definitely whether it came from the
script or in the process of directing, so little does this distinction mean
here any more. It is the child who gives to the workman’s adventure its
ethical dimension and fashions, from an individual moral standpoint, a
drama that might well have been only social. Remove the boy, and the
story remains much the same. The proof: a resume of it would not differ
in detail. In fact, the boy’s part is confined to trotting along beside his
father. But he is the intimate witness of the tragedy, its private chorus. It
is supremely clever to have virtually eliminated the role of the wife in
order to give flesh and blood to the private character of the tragedy in the
person of the child. The complicity between father and son is so subtle
that it reaches down to the foundations of the moral life. It is the admiration the child feels for his father and the father’s awareness of it which
gives its tragic stature to the ending. The public shame of the worker, exposed and clouted in the open street, is of little account compared with
the fact that his son witnessed it. When he feels tempted to steal the bike,
the silent presence of the little child, who guesses what his father is thinking, is cruel to the verge of obscenity. Trying to get rid of him by sending
him to take the streetcar is like telling a child in some cramped apartment
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to go and wait on the landing outside for an hour. Only in the best Chaplin
films are there situations of an equally overwhelming conciseness.
In this connection, the final gesture of the little boy in giving his hand
to his father has been frequently misinterpreted. It would be unworthy of
thefilmto see here a concession to the feelings of the audience. If De Sica
gives them this satisfaction it is because it is a logical part of the drama.
This experience marks henceforth a definite stage in the relations between
father and son, rather like reaching puberty. Up to that moment the man
has been like a god to his son; their relations come under the heading of
admiration. By his action the father has now compromised them. The
tears they shed as they walk side by side, arms swinging, signify their
despair over a paradise lost. But the son returns to a father who has fallen
from grace. He will love him henceforth as a human being, shame and
all. The hand that slips into his is neither a symbol of forgiveness nor of a
childish act of consolation. It is rather the most solemn gesture that could
ever mark the relations between a father and his son: one that makes them
It would take too long to enumerate the multiple secondary functions
of the boy in the film, both as to the story structure and as to the mise en
scene itself. However, one should at least pay attention to the change of
tone (almost in the musical sense of the term) that his presence introduces into the middle of the film. As we slowly wander back and forth
between the little boy and the workman we are taken from the social and
economic plane to that of their private lives, and the supposed death by
drowning of the child, in making the father suddenly realize the relative
insignificance of his misfortune, creates a dramatic oasis (the restaurant
scene) at the heart of the story. It is, however, an illusory one, because
the reality of this intimate happiness in the long run depends on the precious
bike. Thus the child provides a dramatic reserve which, as the occasion
arises, serves as a counterpoint, as an accompaniment, or moves on the
contrary into the foreground of the melodic structure. This function in the
story is, furthermore, clearly observable in the orchestration of the steps
of the child and of the grownup. Before choosing this particular child,
De Sica did not ask him to perform, just to walk. He wanted to play off
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the striding gait of the man against the short trotting steps of the child, the
harmony of this discord being for him of capital importance for the
understanding of the film as a whole. It would be no exaggeration to say
that Ladri di Biciclette is the story of a walk through Rome by a father
and his son. Whether the child is ahead, behind, alongside—or when,
sulking after having had his ears boxed, he is dawdling behind in a gesture
of revenge—what he is doing is never without meaning. On the contrary,
it is the phenomenology of the script.
It is difficult, after the success of this pairing of a workman and his son,
to imagine De Sica having recourse to established actors. The absence of
professional actors is nothing new. But here again Ladri di Biciclette goes
further than previous films. Henceforth the cinematic purity of the actors
does not derive from skill, luck, or a happy combination of a subject, a
period, and a people. Probably too much importance has been attached
to the ethnic factor. Admittedly the Italians, like the Russians, are the most
naturally theatrical of people. In Italy any little street urchin is the equal
of a Jackie Coogan and life is a perpetual commedia dell’arte. However,
it seems to me unlikely that these acting talents are shared equally by the
Milanese, the Neapolitans, the peasants of the Po, or the fishermen of
Sicily. Racial difference apart, the contrasts in their history, language, and
economic and social condition would suffice to cast doubt on a thesis that
sought to attribute the natural acting ability of the Italian people simply
to an ethnic quality. It is inconceivable that films as different as Paisa,
Ladri di Biciclette, La Terra Trema, and even II Cielo sulla Palude could
share in common such a superbly high level of acting. One could conceive
that the urban Italian has a special gift for spontaneous histrionics, but the
peasants in Cielo sulla Palude are absolute cavemen beside the farmers of
Farrebique. Merely to recall Rouquier’s film in connection with Genina’s
is enough at least in this respect to relegate the experiment of the French
director to the level of a touchingly patronizing effort. Half the dialogue
in Farrebique is spoken off-stage because Rouquier could never get the
peasants not to laugh during a speech of any length. Genina in Cielo sulla
Palude, Visconti in La Terra Trema, both handling peasants or fishermen
by the dozen, gave them complicated roles and got them to recite long
What Is Cinema?
speeches in scenes in which the camera concentrated on their faces as
pitilessly as in an American studio. It is an understatement to say that
these temporary actors are good or even perfect. In these films the very
concept of actor, performance, character has no longer any meaning. An
actorless cinema? Undoubtedly. But the original meaning of the formula
is now outdated, and we should talk today of a cinema without acting, of
a cinema of which we no longer ask whether the character gives a good
performance or not, since here man and the character he portrays are so
completely one.
We have not strayed as far as it might seem from Ladri di Biciclette.
De Sica hunted for his cast for a long time and selected them for specific
characteristics. Natural nobility, that purity of countenance and bearing
that the common people have . . . He hesitated for months between this
person and that, took a hundred tests only to decide finally, in a flash and
by intuition on the basis of a silhouette suddenly come upon at the bend
of a road. But there is nothing miraculous about that. It is not the unique
excellence of this workman and this child that guarantees the quality of
their performance, but the whole aesthetic scheme into which they are
fitted. When De Sica was looking for a producer to finance his film, he
finally found one, but on condition that the workman was played by Cary
Grant. The mere statement of the problem in these terms shows the absurdity of it. Actually, Cary Grant plays this kind of part extremely well,
but it is obvious that the question here is not one of playing of a part but
of getting away from the very notion of doing any such thing. The worker
had to be at once as perfect and as anonymous and as objective as his
This concept of the actor is no less “artistic” than the other. The performance of this workman implies as many gifts of body and of mind and
as much capacity to take direction as any established actor has at his
command. Hitherto films that have been made either totally or in part
without actors, such as Tabu, Thunder over Mexico, Mother, have seemingly been successes that are either out of the ordinary or limited to a certain genre. There is nothing on the other hand, unless it be sound prudence,
to prevent De Sica from making fifty films like Ladri di Biciclette. From
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now on we know that the absence of professional actors in no way limits
the choice of subject. Thefilmwithout names hasfinallyestablished its own
aesthetic existence. This in no sense means that the cinema of the future
will no longer use actors: De Sica who is one of the world’s finest actors
would be thefirstto deny this. All it means is that some subjects handled
in a certain style can no longer be made with professional actors and that
the Italian cinema has definitely imposed these working conditions, just as
naturally as it imposed authentic settings. It is this transition from an
admirable tour de force, precarious as this may be, into an exact and infallible technique that marks a decisive stage in the growth of Italian neorealism.
With the disappearance of the concept of the actor into a transparency seemingly as natural as life itself, comes the disappearance of the
set. Let us understand one another, however. De Sica’s film took a long
time to prepare, and everything was as minutely planned as for a studio
superproduction, which as a matter of fact, allows for last-minute improvisations, but I cannot remember a single shot in which a dramatic
effect is born of the shooting script properly so called, which seems as
neutral as in a Chaplin film. All the same, the numbering and titling of
shots does not noticeably distinguish Ladri di Biciclette from any ordinary
film. But their selection has been made with a view to raising the limpidity
of the event to a maximu.ii, while keeping the index of refraction from
the style to a minimum.
This objectivity is rather different from Rossellini’s in Paisa but it
belongs to the same school of aesthetics. One may criticize it on the same
grounds that Gide and Martin du Garde criticized romantic prose—that
it must tend in the direction of the most neutral kind of transparency. Just
as the disappearance of the actor is the result of transcending a style of
performance, the disappearance of the mise en scene is likewise the fruit
of a dialectical progress in the style of the narrative. If the event is sufficient unto itself without the direction having to shed any further light on it
by means of camera angles, purposely chosen camera positions, it is because it has reached that stage of perfect luminosity which makes it pos57
What Is Cinema?
sible for an art to unmask a nature which in the end resembles it. That is
why the impression made on us by Ladri di Biciclette is unfailingly that
of truth.
If this supreme naturalness, the sense of events observed haphazardly
as the hours roll by, is the result of an ever-present although invisible system of aesthetics, it is definitely the prior conception of the scenario which
allows this to happen. Disappearance of the actor, disappearance of mise
en scene? Unquestionably, but because the very principle of Ladri di
Biciclette is the disappearance of a story.
The term is equivocal. I know of course that there is a story but of a
different kind from those we ordinarily see on the screen. This is even the
reason why De Sica could not find a producer to back him. When Roger
Leenhardt in a prophetic critical statement asked years ago “if the cinema
is a spectacle,” he was contrasting the dramatic cinema with the novel-like
structure of the cinematic narrative. The former borrows from the theater
its hidden springs. Its plot, conceived as it may be specifically for the
screen, is still the alibi for an action identical in essence with the action of
the classical theater. On this score the film is a spectacle like a play. But
on the other hand, because of its realism and the equal treatment it gives to
man and to nature the cinema is related, aesthetically speaking, to the
Without going too far into a theory of the novel—a debatable subject
—let us say that the narrative form of the novel or that which derives from
it differs by and large from the theater in the primacy given to events over
action, to succession over causality, to mind over will. The conjunction
belonging to the theater is “therefore,” the particle belonging to the novel
is “then.” This scandalously rough definition is correct to the extent that
it characterizes the two different movements of the mind in thinking,
namely that of the reader and that of the onlooker. Proust can lose us in
a madeleine, but a playwright fails in his task if every reply does not link
our interest to the reply that is to follow. That is why a novel may be laid
down and then picked up again. A play cannot be cut into pieces. The
total unity of a spectacle is of its essence. To the extent that it can realize
Bicycle Thief
the physical requirements of a spectacle, the cinema cannot apparently
escape the spectacle’s pyschological laws, but it has also at its disposal all
the resources of the novel. For that reason, doubtless, the cinema is congenitally a hybrid. It conceals a contradiction. Besides, clearly, the progression of the cinema is toward increasing its novel-like potential. Not that we
are againstfilmedtheater, but if the screen can in some conditions develop
and give a new dimension to the theater, it is of necessity at the expense of
certain scenic values—the first of which is the physical presence of the
actor. Contrariwise, the novel at least ideally need surrender nothing to
the cinema. One may think of the film as a supernovel of which the
written form is a feeble and provisional version.
This much briefly said, how much of it can be found in the present
condition of the cinematographic spectacle? It is impossible to overlook
the spectacular and theatrical needs demanded of the screen. What remains to be decided is how to reconcile the contradiction.
The Italian cinema of today is thefirstanywhere in the world to have
enough courage to cast aside the imperatives of the spectacular. La Terra
Trema and Cielo sulla Palude arefilmswithout “action,” in the unfolding
of which, somewhat after the style of the epic novel, no concession is
made to dramatic tension. Things happen in them each at its appointed
hour, one after the other, but each carries an equal weight. If some are
fuller of meaning than others, it is only in retrospect. We are free to use
either “therefore” or “then.” La Terra Trema, especially, is afilmdestined
to be virtually a commercial failure, unexploitable without cuts that would
leave it unrecognizable.
That is the virtue of De Sica and Zavattini. Their Ladri di Biciclette is
solidly structured in the mold of a tragedy. There is not one frame that is
not charged with an intense dramatic power, yet there is not one either
which we cannot fail to find interesting, its dramatic continuity apart.
The film unfolds on the level of pure accident: the rain, the seminarians, the Catholic Quakers, the restaurant—all these are seemingly
interchangable, no one seems to have arranged them in order on a dramatic
spectrum. The scene in the thieves’ quarter is significant. We are not sure
What Is Cinema?
that the man who was chased by the workman is actually the bicycle thief,
and we shall never know if the epileptic fit was a pretense or genuine. As
an “action” this episode would be meaningless had not its novel-like interest, its value as a fact, given it a dramatic meaning to boot.
It is in fact on its reverse side, and by parallels, that the action is assembled—less in terms of “tension” than of a “summation” of the events.
Yes, it is a spectacle, and what a spectacle! Ladri di Biciclette, however,
does not depend on the mathematical elements of drama, the action does
not exist beforehand as if it were an “essence.” It follows from the preexistence of the narrative, it is the “integral” of reality. De Sica’s supreme
achievement, which others have so far only approached with a varying
degree of success or failure, is to have succeeded in discovering the cinematographic dialectic capable of transcending the contradiction between
the action of a “spectacle” and of an event. For this reason, Ladri di
Biciclette is one of thefirstexamples of pure cinema. No more actors, no
more story, no more sets, which is to say that in the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality there is no more cinema.
Ozu Yasujirô: the master of time
Ozu Yasujirô: the master of time
Thom Andersen Updated: 13 November 2019
13-17 minutes
I like to quote Wim Wenders’ statement at the beginning of TokyoGa:
“If in our century, something sacred still existed, if there were
something like a sacred treasure of the cinema, then for me that
would have to be the work of the Japanese director Yasujirô
Ozu… For me never before and never again since has the cinema
been so close to its essence and its purpose: to present an image
of man in our century, a usable, true and valid image in which he
not only recognises himself, but from which, above all, he may
learn about himself.”
What can I add? What seems like hyperbole is actually true.
Perhaps I can supply the arguments Wenders didn’t feel were
What everybody notices first in Ozu is the visual form. He
apparently decided at the very beginning of his filmmaking career
to adopt his own cinematic language, an idiolect that is both
conservative and radical.
It is conservative because the choices within his system are
severely limited and because in some respects it is just a
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Ozu Yasujirô: the master of time
purification of the standard continuity system. Each scene follows
the standard pattern: in, out, repeat if necessary. The scene begins
with a long shot that establishes the characters, then moves into
medium close-ups. If it is a lengthy scene, it will cut to the long
establishing shot again and then back to the close-ups. At the end,
it will return to the long shot.
The average shot length in his films adheres closely to the norms
that prevailed in Japan and Hollywood, and Ozu keeps the
duration of the shots within a film remarkably consistent: there are
no long takes and very few noticeably quick shots. Most of the cuts
are ‘return cuts’, to borrow Klaus Wyborny’s term – that is, they
return to a shot already shown.
It has been written that Ozu pared down this system further by
gradually eliminating camera movement, fades, and dissolves, but
these figures appeared only exceptionally even in his first films.
From this description an Ozu film might seem like a highly
conventionalised TV series, such as Dragnet.
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Ozu Yasujirô: the master of time
Ozu Yasujirô with the 1958 Sutherland Trophy for Tokyo Story
But he does everything wrong; he breaks every rule of
conventional cinematic grammar. He always puts the camera too
low, but he doesn’t angle it up, so the subject of the shot always
occupies the top of the frame. The eye-line matches are always
A fundamental rule of standard continuity requires that the camera
always stay on one side of an axis created by the actors’ gazes.
Thus the camera may not be moved 180 degrees from one set-up
to another; it must always stay within a semi-circle on one side of
the axis.
Ozu doesn’t simply violate this rule, he overturns it: every cut
crosses the axis of the gaze. Every cut is a multiple of 45 degrees,
most often 180 degrees (especially when he cuts on an action
match) or 90 degrees. The standard continuity system was
developed to make cuts invisible, to the conscious mind at least.
Ozu denaturalises the cuts, making them as noticeable as
Then there are the shots of ‘empty spaces’: still lifes, unpeopled
interiors, building facades and landscapes. They are Ozu’s
trademark, the one part of his system that has been adapted by
modern European and Asian filmmakers, and they have given his
interpreters a great deal of trouble when they try to assign them a
In his essential book on Ozu, David Bordwell calls these empty
spaces “intermediate” because these shots generally occur
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Ozu Yasujirô: the master of time
between scenes (although sometimes as cutaways within scenes).
But they are not establishing shots, although some shots in a
series may serve that function. They have an autonomy that led
Noël Burch to call them extradiegetic, that is “on another plane of
reality”, although they exist in the same space as the characters.
Perhaps it suffices to define them simply by the absence of the
characters and the suspension of the narrative.
Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari)
In his book on cinema, Gilles Deleuze claims these shots are
direct images of time, “the unchanging form of that which
changes.” They do give Ozu’s films a sense of durée (a word we
need in English since it is not synonymous with ‘duration’), that is,
lived time, “concrete time” (André Bazin), “dialectical time” (JeanPaul Sartre).
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Ozu Yasujirô: the master of time
This may seem paradoxical: ever since Bazin, everyone has
assumed that montage destroys the sense of temps durée, by
“cutting the world up into little fragments”, as he put it. But Bazin
never saw an Ozu film. By showing what endures, if only for a few
seconds, Ozu suggested another possibility: the cinema is closest
to its own natural movement when it doesn’t feel obligated to
record external movement.
Ozu’s system is remarkably coherent, as complete as the standard
continuity system it replaces, which was the collective work of
many filmmakers. I want to call it ‘serialist’ because of its precise,
nonhierarchical organisation. Bordwell prefers to call it
The film director Masahiro Shinoda, who worked as an assistant to
Ozu in the 1950s, suggested the purpose of this system in talking
about one of its aspects: “The reason [Ozu] placed the camera so
low was to prevent it from having a human viewpoint.” Shinoda is
precisely right. If the cinema as we know it is a continuation of the
novel by other means, that is, if it projects a world already
endowed with consciousness and meaning, a world seen from a
subjective perspective, then Ozu refused this cinema and
managed to create an alternative.
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Floating Weeds (Ukigusa)
For this purpose, Ozu also had to create a dramaturgy to
complement his visual system, to avoid the human viewpoint.
Although critics have neglected it, his dramaturgical system is
even more original and remarkable than his visual system. It’s like
Brecht’s epic theatre, but better: more rigorous, more radical.
Ozu never focalises a film through a single character. It seems to
go without saying that he never used flashbacks (except in his
first, now lost film, a period movie titled Sword of Penitence) or
voiceover narration, the means by which the cinema gives us a
privileged access to the consciousness of a character. There are
no subjective images of any kind, no images that purport to show
what a character is imagining or dreaming or remembering or
anticipating. In his early films, there are occasional images that
show what a character is seeing, but he soon rejected these pointof-view shots.
Of course, there are major characters and minor characters, but
he avoids the usual sense of subordination and creates a kind of
equality. In Floating Weeds (1959), the minor characters dominate
the first reel; two of the four major characters appear for the first
time only in the sixth scene. In any case, we don’t see the minor
characters from the viewpoint of the protagonist.
In his late films, co-written with Kogo Noda, there is a serialist
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Ozu Yasujirô: the master of time
patterning of encounters, most evident in Tokyo Story with its
symmetrical structure. In the first part of the film, he works through
the set of possible encounters among the characters, organising
them like a tone row in serial music, and inverts them in the
second half with variations to register the illness and death of
Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari)
Wenders says the body of Ozu’s work “depicts the transformation
of life in Japan. [They] deal with the slow deterioration of the
Japanese family and thereby with the deterioration of the national
identity.” I would say they depict the development of capitalism in
twentieth-century Japan or, more precisely, the disappearance of
the old petty bourgeoisie and its gradual proletarianisation under
the pressures of what we now call globalisation. These are big
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words, but no others will do.
This theme is evident enough in Ozu’s films of the 1930s. His first
films dramatise the plight of university graduates unable to find a
job (at the time, two-thirds of them could not find work). Those who
have a job must choose humiliation or dismissal. In Tokyo Chorus
(1931), Shinji gets fired when he protests the unjust firing of an
older worker. His next job will be passing out handbills for his exteacher’s curry rice shop. Women may choose a literal prostitution,
like Yasue in Walk Cheerfully (1930), Mitsuko in A Mother Should
Be Loved (1934), or Chikako in Woman of Tokyo (1933), who gets
in trouble with the police only because she is unlicensed and thus
evading taxes.
With Passing Fancy (1933) and An Inn in Tokyo (1935), Ozu
turned his attention to those already proletarianised, those for
whom unemployment brings destitution, but in his working-class
and lumpen-proletarian films, there is a sense of solidarity and
community lacking in his films about unemployed college
graduates. In both films, the illness of a child brings everyone
together, and they are willing to sacrifice anything to pay the
hospital bill.
And so is Ryosuke in The Only Son (1936), the first working-class
college graduate in Ozu’s films. Like the characters of Passing
Fancy and An Inn in Tokyo, he lives on the semi-rural industrial
margins of Tokyo, near the city’s garbage incinerator, and he ekes
out a living as a night-school mathematics instructor.
His sense of disappointment is particularly bitter because his
mother has sacrificed everything for his education – her home, her
land, her chance to retire from work in the silk mill (Ozu’s shots of
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the work process are a model of economy and clarity). Both he
and his mother must confront his situation when she comes to
Tokyo for a visit. Could there be any conclusion any resolution?
After she leaves, he vows to try harder, and she goes back to
scrubbing floors in the mill.
The Only Son (Hitori Musuko)
Another trip to Tokyo provides the basis for Tokyo Story, Ozu’s
most savage film and his most elegant: all the elements of his
system come together in a perfect equilibrium. A retired school
teacher Shukichi Hirayama and his wife Tomi come to Tokyo from
the provinces to visit their two grown children, Shige and Koichi,
and their daughter-in-law Noriko, whose husband is still missing
from the war.
They discover that their children aren’t doing as well as they had
thought: Koichi runs a small medical clinic in an industrial area,
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and Shige owns a small beauty salon in a poor neighbourhood.
For the children, their visit is a nuisance. Koichi is on call to visit
patients day and night, and Shige can’t escape her salon. Only the
childless, widowed Noriko, employed in an office, can take time to
host them properly.
Thus many viewers have come to regard Noriko as representing
good and Shige and Koichi as bad. But they misread the film.
Ozu’s films are not psychological nor are they judgmental. For
Ozu, what counts is the objective situation of his characters, the
material conditions in which they make their lives. Their precarious
economic situation does not allow Shige and Koichi to serve their
parents as they should.
In one scene, Shukichi goes out drinking and ends up passed out
in a chair in Shige’s salon. There is a parallel scene in Ozu’s last
film, An Autumn Afternoon (1962). Haruko Sugimora, who plays
Shige in Tokyo Story, again plays the daughter of a retired middleschool teacher. Like many retired teachers in Ozu films, he must
run a small business to survive. He and his daughter run a noodle
shop in a desolate, industrialised corner of Tokyo.
Some ex-students throw a party for him, and two of them bring him
back to the noodle shop after he has fallen into a drunken stupor.
The daughter reacts stoically at first, but after her father passes
out, she breaks into tears. She has given up the chance to get
married and have her own life in order to serve a broken,
hopelessly alcoholic father. She has become a “withered spinster”,
as one of the ex-students puts it. Perhaps Ozu included this
subplot to write an ending to Tokyo Story. He shows the fate Shige
has tried to avoid.
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Ozu Yasujirô: the master of time
Ohayo (Good Morning)
A new middle class does emerge in some of his 1950s films, the
‘salarymen’ who work for large unnamed corporations, free from
the immediate economic worries that plagued their predecessors
in the 1930s. But there is never enough money. In I Was Born,
But… (1932), the two boys go on a hunger strike to protest their
father’s subservience to his boss; in Good Morning (1959), they
strike to demand a TV set. The young couple Koichi and Akiko in
An Autumn Afternoon lack the money to buy a refrigerator, or even
a set of golf clubs.
Ozu’s critical treatment of capitalism has led some viewers and
critics to think he upholds feudal values. They have him mixed up
with a Kurosawa or a Capra, who do propose that a strong feudal
leader can overcome the evils of unbridled capitalism when he can
be persuaded to make the effort. Ozu simply shows the change
and doesn’t try to imagine the cure. He is as far from feudalism as
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he is from communism (although I am intrigued by the portrait of
Karl Marx that appears on the wall of the protagonist’s apartment
in The Lady and the Beard (1931) – I’ve only seen the still – and
by the claim of film historian Tadao Sato that in the original script
for Woman of Tokyo, Chikako gave some of her earnings as a
prostitute to the Communist Party as well as to her brother to pay
for his education).
I agree with Pedro Costa who said, “for me, the true Japanese
documentaries are by Ozu.” In the same talk, at the Film School of
Tokyo, he said, “the primary function of cinema is to make us feel
that something isn’t right.” That is, cinema can and should be
didactic. It is by becoming didactic that it shows us something we
know but makes it strange and new. It is in this sense that the
images created by Yasujirô Ozu are not only true and valid, but
useful. Is this why I can watch them over and over with
undiminished pleasure?
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