Perhaps you have the day free to attend to your (own) daily items. Perhaps not. Regardless, my fellow compatriots, it is Columbus Day. We turn our attention to the story of one character, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (you’ve heard of him?), who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and in 1492 landed in the Bahamas. He, to put it simply, ventured off into uncharted territories and thus opened the door for exploration in the Americas. In fact, Columbus actually subsequently ventured off into South America and never landed on present-day America. But, that’s neither here nor there. What is here is a quest of our own.
Film is a journey unto itself – rooted in reality or far from it. Indeed, the purpose of this is to honor the ‘quest’ through which the artistic medium of film takes us. Having said that, we’ll proceed in setting sail, spotlighting, for your existential pleasure, four films that span Italian Neorealism, ’70s Modernist Hollywood, and the subject matter of ‘exploration’ itself.
Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1949): Besides being one of the earliest films that spurned the Italian Neorealist movement after World War II, Bicycle Thieves attempts and succeeds at telling a story of simplistic yet complex proportions. After an impoverished yet eager Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), gets his hands on a bicycle in order to be hired for work, it is immediately stolen by an unknown hoodlum. In solely visual terms, the film follows the quest Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) embark on to retrieve the bicycle.
Yet, the piece is much more than that. It’s a blatant rejection of the mainstream ‘white telephone’ films in Italy that only depicted the bourgeois lifestyle of the upper class. As the team of father and son hauntingly circle the streets in search of the bicycle, they are more figuratively in search of hope in an otherwise hopeless society. There are elements of lighthearted comedy, but also penetrating disillusionment, societal cynicism and skepticism, and tragic irony. As the seeker finds himself in the midst failure, he too falls into the trap.
As it was in the beginning, forever shall it be in the end.
Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957): It would suffice it to note that Fellini’s Cabiria marks a significant shift in Italian Neorealism. It falls into what today is known as the Post Italian Neorealist period. Rather than blatantly explore and comment on the circumstances in which lower class Italians found themselves after World War II, Nights of Cabiria and other films made around the same time took on the challenge of depicting reality through arbitrariness and fantastical illusions.
The quest we follow is that of Chaplin-esque prostitute Cabiria (Giuletta Masina) who has been dumped by one too many boyfriends for her money. Yet the film is not an exploration of a “day in the life,” rather it’s a visual realization of her journey toward her own social and individual identity. When she follows a man through the vast and dark deserted landscape, he turns around and asks, do you live in the caves too? She almost doesn’t know how to respond. Had she been in the caves and simply unaware? These are the questions the film presses onto the viewer as well.
Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973): Mean Streets surfaces from the dust of revolution and reaction that climaxed in the late 1960s. Italian-American filmmaker Martin Scorsese had brought to the forefront a wave of authenticity in film; he set out to depict the Italian-American experience. The urban, working-class Italian-American experience. In it, Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is attempting to move up in his local mafia gang but is held back by his responsibility to his reckless and unpredictable friend Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro).
While it would seem that his journey is toward fulfillment, it ultimately takes a darker turn. Indeed, Mean Streets questions the morality of man, places it within the context of religion and finds that the characters exist in a space where there is not only familial comfort, but also entrapment in the urban jungle. They traverse the mean streets of New York’s Little Italy, but are they themselves mean? The quest takes place in the streets and whether they find something advantageous to their identity, their being, is relative.
The Road to El Dorado (Bilbo Bergeron, Will Finn, Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Silverman, Don Paul, 2000): In the interest of portraying a less glib look at exploration, in contrast perhaps to those depicted above, let’s meet half way and say I’m taking only a 90-degree turn by including the animated film The Road to El Dorado, released in 2000 by Dreamworks Animation.
Two con-men, Miguel and Tulio (Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline) win a map to El Dorado, the city of Gold. In an effort to flee the grip of angry locals and later Hernan Cortes, they leave Spain and are determined to land in El Dorado itself. The film lacks perhaps historical accuracy and other such things, but to be honest, it’s simply an amusing and entertaining film that is greatly supported by a strong voice cast and a score by Elton John and Hans Zimmer (along with John Powell and Tim Rice).
Now off you all go, to venture off into your own journeys!
Quick Take: Honorable mentions include Columbus Day (fit for the occasion), Il Posto, Apocalypse Now, Rome, Open City, and Umberto D.