Friday, January 27, 2012

A Better Life & The Bicycle Thief

You have probably never heard of Demian Bichir, but he has been placed in the company of George Clooney and Brad Pitt as a candidate to receive this year's Academy Award for Best Actor in a leading role for his performance in A Better Life directed by Chris Weitz. Mr. Bichir is absolutely fantastic in this role because you not only see his pain, but you see him trying to hide his pain, you see him want to get angry but choose not to for the sake of his son Luis (Jose Julian, who himself does a fabulous job, I would much rather see him up for Best Supporting Actor than Christopher Plummer in Beginners) who is in a fragile position as he makes decisions between LA gang life on the streets or a future working and earning an honest living. 
Demian Bichir as Carlos and Jose Julian as Luis in A Better Life.
A Better Life is closely based on the Italian Neo-Realism film from 1948 The Bicycle Thief/Bicycle Thieves which won an Honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and is usually in critics' top ten list of best films ever made. There are some important differences between the two films: The Bicycle Thief takes place in post-Fascist Italy, after the disastorous reign of Benito Mussolini who got Italy into World War II on the side of the Nazis. The Bicycle Thief is an incredible yet simple parable of how the "vehicle" of Italy getting back on its feet after the catastrophes of World War II were proving futile and hopeless. Likewise, A Better Life provides us with a view of the difficulties of making it in today's economy but also takes the time to show us how doing the right thing doesn't always pay off in monetary terms, but does pay off.
The Bicycle Thief, critically acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made.
You are bound to have an oppinion on the question of immigration by Mexicans into the United States, and A Better Life does show you what their life is like, but it is also full of valuable symbols that holds up a mirror to our country and shows us sides that perhaps we didn't know existed. One symbol is a constant in Catholic iconography (Carlos is Catholic, we know this by images hanging up within his home) and Carlos is a gardener, a lawn man. The spiritual significance is that our souls and their spiritual growth are often likened to a garden, as in the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Olives, and after Christ's Resurrection, Mary Magdalen mistakes Jesus for the gardener. In terms of the film, Carlos is capable of the hardships he is about to undergo because his garden/soul is well-tended and he knows who to grow "the flowers of virtue" instead of the weeds of sin and vice.
Carlos up in a palm tree as part of his job just as Santiago steals his truck from him. When Carlos has climbed to the top of the palm tree, he admires the beautiful view he sees, and then sees his truck stolen. The view symbolizes wisdom because wisdom can see far and wide compared to fools who can only see what is in front of them, and it is the wisdom that Carlos' hard life has taught him that aids him in getting through this trial. Being "up a tree" correlates to Christ hanging on the Tree of the Cross (Carlos is using a strap system to climb up it, literally hanging onto the tree) and also reminds us of Zacchaeus who climbed up the tree to see Christ passing.
The flowers of virtue within Carlos' soul are shown again and again throughout the film: one example is when he and Luis have finally found Santiago, the man who stole Carlos' truck, and Carlos discovers that Santiago sold the truck and sent the money back home to Mexico. Luis will not stop kicking and beating Santiago, on the parking lot ground, but Carlos realizes that is not the way to deal with him and makes Luis stop, although it appears that Santiago has ruined his life. The greatest moments of acting, however, come from the horrible moments he has with his son, desperately trying to both bond with his son and show him his love for Luis while still respecting the man he is becoming and yet chastizing him when he doesn't have the right morals and position on something.
There's a scene where Carlos and Luis have found the nightclub where Santiago washes dishes but it doesn't open until later, so they go to a nearby rodeo. In The Bicycle Thief, this corresponds to the part where father and son go to a restaurant and have a rarely enjoyed meal. While The Bicycle Thief compares the two classes, Carlos compares his son to the native Mexican heritage from which he came to the streets of LA; while The Bicycle Thief shows father and son eating, A Better Life shows father and son watching aspects of their homeland that they no longer have contact with and "eating that up," as a kind of spiritual nourishment for the tasks still ahead of them (granted, Carlos and Luis do have a mean while at the rodeo, however, the colors, language, music and activities are their main focus, not the food).
This is an apartment where Santiago was living when he stole Carlos' truck. When Luis and Carlos enter, there are people everywhere in the small place, sleeping and living in every inch. They are able to find it by Luis calling his dad's cell phone which was in the truck when Santiago stole it. The phone symbolizes "the calling" to which Carlos made an act of faith by buying the truck and going into business for himself and Santiago stealing the truck, the vehicle of making Carlos' dream come true, was also stealing Carlos' calling to be a gardener. This is repeated in the prison when a gang member walks by Carlos and steals his $5 "calling" card from him and Carlos, holding onto the man's arm, gets it back by an act of emotional strength over brute physical strength.
Towards the end, when Luis has come to see his father before Carlos is deported, Luis brings him a bag of "things" he will need but that is really symbolic (because Luis has displayed so much anger and disrespect towards his father throughout the film) of Luis giving his dad the spiritual and emotional things he will need to get through this journey; similarly, Carlos answers a question Luis put to him while they were at the rodeo: "Why do all these poor people have children? Why did you have me?"
But when Luis and Carlos go to the rodeo, it symbolizes how they are not only riding their own untamed fears over what will happen if they do not find the truck, but the gaps in their relationship with each other. I could be mistaken, however, I believe Luis has an image of the Virgin Mary on his T-shirt, which means that Mary is "on his heart," and protecting him from the rabid influences that are trying to work against him.
While he is in chains, in a prison, about to be deported, Carlos, who has had everything taken from him down to his bare skin, gives Luis the emotional and psychological things Luis will need to get through his journey he is to take. One of those things being the song that they had heard at the rodeo, and what it means. Luis figures out that it wasn't his mother who had sung it to him when he was a baby, as Carlos told him, but that Carlos himself had sung it to him. The song is about a man who wanted a pair of shoes with a duck's bill on the end of them, but the shoemaker cheated him and gave him plain shoes instead. The purpose of this is that the shoes symbolize Carlos' will, how he wanted one thing in life, a better material life for he and Luis, but God gave him a different life, that doesn't seem better, but when we see Luis at the end, we know that only because of the events that have taken place, Carlos' hopes for Luis to have a better life have come true.
With director Chris Weitz, the marks of a great director are all over this film.
In conclusion, we all say that we want a better life, but like the hip-hop song Luis listens to in the film, we generally think of that in terms of better material living, not better spiritual, psychological and emotional living, but A Better Life makes it clear that both Carlos and Luis have gotten a better life by receiving the fruits of the spirit, the gifts of faith, love and patience that we never want God to give us, but which He desires to give us abundantly, and which comes to us in the very moments when we believe we have lost our life, but He is giving us Life.