As any University student studying film will tell you, The Bicycle Thief is the most famous of the Italian neo-realist movement after World War II. The movement remained relevant for a decade between 1943 and 1953, but its influence continues to this very day, notably Chris Weitz’s (The Twilight Saga: New Moon) A Better Life, which is a modern-day homage to The Bicycle Thief. Released in July 2011, A Better Life was disappointing at the box office, making only $1.7m, however it has since been critically acclaimed with lead actor Demian Bichir being nominated for a Best Actor Oscar at the 84th Academy Awards.
Carlos (Bichir) is an undocumented Mexican immigrant in LA who works as a gardener. Living in a tiny house with his 15-year-old son Luis (JosÃ© JuliÃ¡n), he uses the small garden he has to raise plants for his various wealthy employers. The pair find their relationship strained by living hand-to-mouth, with Luis slowly heading toward joining a local gang. Carlos, desperate to instill some of his traditional values in his son, takes on a van with a view to driving around LA and making enough money to get out of the life they’re both stuck in.
To understand everything that is good about A Simple Life, you have to understand the neo-realist movement in Italy in the 1940s and 50s. Having lost the majority of film studios to bombings and without Government funding the Italian film industry set about creating a new vision for cinema. This new movement, called neo-realism focused on local, small-scale dramas using non-professional actors that were filmed in the actual location that the narrative is set. This was all done to increase the levels of realism in drama. Weitz follows this mantra by setting A Better Life in Los Angeles’ Hispanic community, exclusively casting Hispanics for all roles in the film.
Being compared to a film such as The Bicycle Thief is tough, and with even the best intentions a director could find himself falling foul of melodrama and other non-realistic cinema tropes. Luckily Weitz proves a capable hand at the camera and A Simple Life forgoes glamourising LA and the Hispanic community, preferring to present his environment and characters in a wholly truthful way. At the centre of the film is a fantastic performance by Demian Bichir as the father desperately trying to keep his son away from the gang culture.
Sadly, the films adherence to realism is sometimes detrimental to the overall quality. Films have the ability to transport us to anywhere and any-when, that time spent focused on a low-key drama sometimes needs a little kick to avoid slipping into documentary territory. Unfortunately, A Better Life sometimes veers into an almost workman-like drama that does not engage us much as it alienates.