BICYCLE THIEVES (1948). More commonly known in the United States under the title The Bicycle Thief, the Italian import Ladri di Biciclette is a masterpiece by any name. It's not hyperbole to flatly state that this is one of the all-time greats in the annals of cinema; on my own list, only Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal ranks higher when it comes to foreign-language films. A key motion picture in the burgeoning of the Italian neorealist movement, this international award winner (including an honorary Best Foreign Film prize from the Academy) was an attractive enough property to catch the attention of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, who envisioned it as a project for Cary Grant. I'm sure that would have made a decent movie, but by electing instead to shoot their film in Italy with nonprofessional actors, director Vittorio De Sica and scripter Cesare Zavattini created a timeless classic and in the process helped with the maturation of world cinema. Lamberto Maggiorani, a real working-class joe, plays Antonio, whose job putting up posters around Rome depends on his bike. After the vehicle is stolen, he and his adoring son Bruno (Enzo Staiola, a natural in front of the camera) comb the back streets of the city in a frantic search for the thief. From its opening moments to the devastating finale (the most wrenching conclusion I've ever witnessed on screen), there isn't a false note in this important and highly influential landmark. Extras in the two-disc DVD set include a feature on the history of Italian neorealism, a documentary on Zavattini, interviews with those who worked with De Sica, and an 80-page booklet crammed with essays and articles by De Sica, Zavattini, Sergio Leone (an uncredited assistant on the film), Charles Burnett, and others.
PAUL ROBESON: PORTRAITS OF THE ARTIST (1925-1942). Long before Sidney Poitier, there was Paul Robeson, who emerged as a top-billed movie star during a period when this country wouldn't normally tolerate an African-American enjoying such a lofty status. But Robeson was a fascinating individual whose accomplishments could also be found outside movie theaters: a Hall of Fame football player in college, a stage actor in such hits as Show Boat (singing the definitive take on "Ol' Man River") and Othello (thus becoming the first black man to play this black character), a brilliant scholar and conversationalist (he spoke well over a dozen languages), and a social activist whose leftist leanings eventually overtook his film career. Arriving in the middle of Black History Month is this impressive box set from Criterion, and what's most notable about watching the seven films collected here is that Robeson was always better than his material -- combining the charisma of Denzel Washington, the authority of Ving Rhames, the playfulness of LL Cool J and the booming voice of James Earl Jones, Robeson had the chops to be an A-list Hollywood player had he been born a half-century later.
African-American director Oscar Micheaux directs Robeson in the silent film Body and Soul (1925), an obvious morality tale about a corrupt preacher. Borderline (1930) is an avant garde yarn crammed with often impenetrable yet intriguing ideas swirling around the tale of the tangled affairs between two couples, one white and one black. The Emperor Jones (1933), an adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill play, features Robeson in the role that made him a film star -- a porter who becomes the cruel ruler of a remote island society -- but the film hasn't aged as well as its star's performance. Sanders of the River (1935) is a fluffy piece of condescension about the British Empire's "heroic" struggles to rule Africa, but the joke is that Robeson's character (a tribal leader loyal to the Brits) appears far more magnetic and intelligent than the English lumps surrounding him.
Jericho (1937) is much more satisfying, with the actor playing a World War I soldier who, after being wrongly convicted of murder, escapes to the North African desert and starts a new life. Another British production, The Proud Valley (1940), is perhaps the best film in the set; it's about an American laborer who finds himself in a Welsh mining town, where he befriends the locals and faces everyday perils deep in the coal mines. For Native Land (1942), Robeson only functions as narrator, lending his weight behind a documentary-style drama that champions American democracy and the rights of workers while examining the evils of the Ku Klux Klan and other venal right-wing organizations (no surprise to learn that the film was barely released and that several cast and crew members were later blacklisted).
DVD extras in this box set include the Oscar-winning short documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist, audio commentaries by film historians, a 1958 radio interview with Robeson, a new interview with Paul Robeson Jr., and an 80-page booklet.
Movie Collection: ***
THE PRESTIGE (2006). In this twisty thriller about the rivalry between two tortured magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale), writer-director Christopher Nolan has crafted an exemplary drama that explores his usual recurrent themes while serving up a cracking good mystery yarn. In Memento and Batman Begins, Nolan took the time to painstakingly explore issues of identity; in this regard, he recalls David Cronenberg, who frequently returns to the topic of competing identities. Nolan is the more guardedly optimistic of the pair, believing that people have as much chance of improving themselves as they do debasing themselves. It's this moral uncertainty that provides The Prestige with most of its power, since it allows the characters to evolve in intriguing ways. The movie isn't simplistic enough to pit a "good" magician against an "evil" one; instead, it recognizes the duality of each man's nature, a theme that eventually expands to a startling degree. It can be argued that the story becomes too fantastical for its own good -- it's more compelling when it's rooted in reality rather than when it enters the realm of science fiction -- but the filmmakers at least take care to cover all their narrative bases with acceptable explanations and believable character arcs. DVD extras include a 20-minute making-of feature and photo galleries.