31 Days of Cinema, Days Seventeen and Eighteen: “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” | “Bicycle Thieves”

Where does power emerge from? From other people, of course. A leader of a nation is not so without the support and submission of his/her military, fellow politicians, and electorates—who are thus endowed with their own power. Which begs the question: if power is cyclical, does it have an origin? Well, perhaps it does, in a top-down environment where the strong holds total power over the weak—a situation that I find innately corrupt—but most political climates are more complex than that, I like to think. Power comes off as arbitrary and nebulous the more one contemplates it, the power of bureaucracy in particular. Who infuses all of these paper trails, historical traces, personal recollections and jurisprudential decisions with trust and influence? We do. But can we rely on them? What grants them significance? Better yet, can we be confident they have any significance at all? Werner Herzog’s film Aguirre, the Wrath of God takes these inquiries as its central theme. Based on the real-life accounts of the missionary Gaspar de Carvajal (here played by Del Negro), Aguirre tells of an offshoot of Pizarro’s army, in 1560s modern-day Peru, trekking through the Andean tropics in search of El Dorado, a city of gold that exists only in these guys’ imaginations. These Spaniards establish a dominion over the land—never mind the Incans prowling around them—and declare King Philip II overthrown. Yet, what power do they have over the king if he’s an ocean across from them? What power does the king have over them hence? What is the point of all these officious embellishments? Ego, I guess.

The main strength of Aguirre is its absurdist bent; a theme of performativity has been running throughout most if not all of the films I’ve watched this month, and here, it is especially prominent (and set perfectly to the music of Popol Vuh, the electronic band named for the Mexican epic). These wannabe conquistadores declare hegemony over the land as if they were walking into a bathroom. Laws are signed in; a trial results in a death sentence followed by a pardon; a civilization, albeit a short-lived and poorly run one, takes shape from this chaos. Inéz (Helena Rojo), the girlfriend of expedition head Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra), has her servants schlep her around in a litter—a clichéd symbol, but a valid one for demonstrating the isolated, oblivious, ideal Spanish sphere of influence that these nutcases wish to impose on the Andes. Power changes hands as cards in blackjack; the title character (Herzog’s muse, the tacitly wild Klaus Kinski) has a great speech in which he emphasizes that those who rebel against power—those who recognize power’s abstraction—are ultimately history’s biggest winners, and that’s the end of Ursúa. The barely seen Incans, meanwhile, seem to hold the most power, with their awareness of the landscape, its borderless quality, and its myriad opportunities for hiding. Characters are alive and kicking in one shot and dead with arrows sticking out of them the next. The futile hunt for El Dorado continues throughout—which Aguirre may not mind, as the pursuit is more vital than the destination. Yet, how does he allow himself to fall so hard for such a myth? How does he have such faith in his mortal civilization? How can we believe that power and its apparatuses are concrete when they really aren’t?

Grade: A-


A little part of me worries that I am not yet qualified to review Bicycle Thieves, because the version I watched (on Hulu) was dubbed into English. So allow me to take the chance to say: I despise dubbing. When I watch a film, I want the authentic aural experience as well as the visual one, and that means being able to hear the actors’ actual voices and judge their performances based on that. It does not mean having to listen to a bunch of fourth-rate radio actors try and fail to contort the actors’ mouths into English with stereotypical, insultingly bad accents. Subtitles or bust. (Curious, how Aguirre was filmed in English and dubbed in German—with actors pretending to be Spanish, no less.) That said, Bicycle Thieves was strong enough that I enjoyed it and got sucked into watching Hulu’s copy of it, even with the dubbing. If you know cinema, you know this film: it’s about a poor man named Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), who needs a bicycle for a job—and hence for social mobility, so to speak—and gets it, only to have it stolen from him, an event that leads him on an impossible citywide hunt to reclaim the bike. The film was directed by Vittorio de Sica and was the vanguard of Italian neorealism. I was worried it might be too simple, but it isn’t.

I admired the photography (by Carlo Montuori) and how it constantly frames its characters within the trappings of urbanity. Bicycles, windows, ladders, grilles, benches, buses, wheels, spokes, beds, posters—all of these seem to constrict on Antonio and his family (Lianella Carell as the wife, and young Enzo Staiola as the son) as their economic situation grows more dire by the second. Capitalism is presented as artificial, a two-dimensional construct, whereas nature is one-dimensional, linear, simple: the trees, the grass, the rain, the buildings and pathways, the people and the lines and crowds they form—they’re so straight, the city of Rome can’t seem to accommodate them all, and it can’t. There are only so many bicycles to give and so much money to get. The film also has a keen eye for the silent, unspoken social behaviors and codes of crowds, overseeing the rituals of everyday metropolitan life: queueing for bus rides and tarot readings, gathering for sport and meals and mass, protecting and defending those in their own economic class. There is a human fabric visible, a way of connecting while staying disconnected, of fulfilling the social contract amidst acidic class competition, and much of the conflict arises from Antonio disrupting this fabric with his insistence that his bike be returned and the thief brought to justice. The ending, what with its blunt cyclicality (pun intended), is predictable but moving, and it doesn’t cop out from the cruelty of Antonio’s predicament. You can feel his longing for his bike, his humble job, his family, for just a few hundred more lira, long after the credits have rolled.

Grade: A-

Tomorrow: God willing, I’ll get through Lore, Memories of Underdevelopment and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums.

31 Days of Cinema, Days Seventeen and Eighteen: “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” | “Bicycle Thieves”

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