Notes on “The Devil’s Playground”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:Though it’s little known even among aficionados, I’d rank Fred Schepisi’s 1976 “The Devil’s Playground” among the great directorial debuts. Few films are so achingly corporeal. Schepisi, who also wrote the picture, keeps us tuned in to flesh, bodily needs, fluids — and yet it’s never crass or vulgar. There’s a profound sympathy for the movie’s young men, trainees for the priesthood, and the Catholic brothers who are their teachers and models. The latter are more adapted versions of their wards, so accustomed to sensual deprivation that circumventing Catholic restriction has become second nature (they freely acknowledge how this has distorted them). Though the movie focuses on one boy, Tom Allen, a serial bed wetter, it has a decentralized feel, and Schepisi’s attention to marginal details gives it the texture of a documentary; it often made me think of the work of Frederick Wiseman. Visually, it’s muted and melancholy; even the grandiose images, like a brother’s revery of swimming nudes — a weightless tangle redolent of the paintings of Luis Ricardo Falero — seem hazed over, as though they’re registering in a rarely used corner of your mind. “The Devil’s Playground” can be taken as a critique of Catholicism, but it’s too sympathetic a work to read as condemnatory; Schepisi is using the Catholic milieu to amplify and examine, in a highly personal way (the movie is largely autobiographical), a universal theme: our often fraught relationship with our bodies.

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Quiz o’ th’ Day

Fenster writes:

John Holdren was Obama’s Science Czar, In 1977 he, along with Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, authored a textbook on population and the environment. In it they address options for involuntary fertility control. Most of these are methods that would address the issue one person at a time: forced sterilizations, capsules under the skin, etc.

The attention turns to involuntary methods that would work on a mass scale.

Here is a passage:

What is the blacked out word?

  1. Moral
  2. Religious
  3. Ethical
  4. Technical

As I would often tell my students if you don’t know the answer to a multiple choice question you can often reason it through via context and the nature of the wrong answers. This one should be obvious.

Answer in comments section.

BONUS QUESTION for extra credit.

True or false:

The recent protesters are whiter than the cops out on the street trying to manage the disorder.

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People in a Room

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

This scene, from THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, is one of the most famous speeches in recent movies:

What if — and I know it’s absolutely insane to even suggest such a thing, but bear with me — but what if this applies not just to the color of your sweater, but what you’re allowed to think? What if your ideas on politics, religion, art, history, and anything else of consequence are being decided by people in a room somewhere?

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A Tale of Two Facebook Groups

Fenster writes:

My newfound interest in nature has been spurred by retirement, with a side interest in foraging spurred by my concern over the coming End Times.

I am consequently a member of a number of Facebook groups devoted to tree and plant identification. These are particularly helpful if considering foraging, since it pays to double and triple check anything you plan to ingest before doing so. Facebook groups have some downsides in this vein, as you always run the risk of an instant expert assuring you that that poisonous mushroom you found is perfectly edible. But in a more comprehensive program including books, online resources and locals with expertise Facebook groups can perform a valuable service.

This is especially so when, as with some of the groups I am a member of, moderators are present who actually do possess expertise. They can tell you that your photo is not clear enough or that they are not quite sure what it is you have found. They can also step in an authoritatively settle debates that would otherwise rage between amateurs.

Some of these groups are quite large and extensively moderated. Until its recent closing Plant Identification and Discussion had over 328,000 members. The mushroom Identification Group has around 186,000 worldwide, with almost 50 moderators (a good idea given that mushroom toxicity is a larger risk than plant toxicity).

In the past month or two both groups were faced with what in some ways appeared to be an invasive species: wokeism. Each group was faced with the issue of posts declaring support for Black Lives Matter, this under the pure woke notion that anything not explicitly anti-racist is racist, and everything everywhere has an obligation to declare anti-racism.

The members of the Plant Identification Group were able to articulate objections to this kind of takeover. The comments section became a kind of brawl, with the plant people arguing the group should be about plants and the political people calling them racists, and demanding that the group declare itself loud and proud.

There were many, many comments in this brawl, and I think I read all of them. Suffice to say that despite the claims of the BLM supporters that the air was thick with disgusting racism the only objections I found were what a clear-headed normal person might expect. “Hey, I might even agree with you but let’s keep this about plants.”

The moderators were in a pickle. They could see that the invasives were a minority (though of course they were almost uniformly white). But if they stepped in to manage the discussion it would only add fuel to the fire, with the racist moderators becoming the target of the woke crowd. They urged people to step back from engaging in the political fray on the grounds that no good would come of constant bickering. Just stick to the plants!

But there is a deep logic to Alinsky tactics. The invasives were obnoxious for a reason. You felt you wanted to jump into the fray and pop that kid in the snoot, and many did. The battle raged on.

The moderators said they would retreat from the battle but that they would attempt to review the proceedings, and would drop any from the group who acted provocatively or outside the rules set up for decent discourse. That net might have caught a few angry “racists” but for the most part you could tell it was intended for the real provocateurs, the woke crowd.

So all is well in Plant Identification and Discussion? Not really.

It appears the moderators gave up. The group has been archived.

That’s one way to win, Alinsky-style. Try to beat them into submission but if you fail make life miserable so that you kill of the object of your infection.

Now on to the Mushroom Identification Group.

One of the moderators started the to-do, posting Black Lives Matter material and declaring on behalf of the group’s 186,000 members worldwide that the group stood in solidarity.

Here, though, for a reason I am not clear on, things evolved differently. Many hundreds of comments ensued. But unlike the Plant Identification group very few took issue with the moderator’s game. Those that did stated their objections in a normal, placid fashion. “Hey, this is a mushroom group.” But these comments were immediately savaged in what seemed like unrelenting swarms.

To a seemingly innocent question like this–“why are we seeing this in a group specific to mushrooms?” — all hell breaks loose.

“Kelly why are you so upset about it? Are you racist?”

“What does this have to do wi…. Shut up. If you don’t support shut the hell up or leave. End of story. We don’t want racists here.”

“This is fantastic!!! More and more are showing support. Abolish racism!!!”

“If our black brothers and sisters can be arrested while mushroom hunting and providing important genetic material for study, then this is our problem too.”

“can we turn comments back on? 🥺 It makes it so much easier to delete & clown racists when they can out themselves lol”

“throw out the garbage!”

“no need–it’s taking itself out”.

“The people complaining about this post should be booted from the group and can attempt to ID their own mushrooms. What a shame it would be if they poisoned their racist asses!”

“I had no idea how many confederate flag toting racists there were in this group. It’s sad really. I’m glad 2020 is exposing the filth.”


What is going on here?

For one, while it is tempting to think this was a sudden takeover by Antifa outsiders, new “members” with no interest in mushrooms, that does not seem to be the case. I checked a few of the nastiest commenters and they had a history with the group and an interest in mushrooms. So some of the lunacy seems to be organic, growing from the fertile soil of interest in mushrooms.

On the other hand that brief survey of commenters revealed that most all were young and white. Privileged, even, if I had to take a guess.

So here the activists won but in a different way. With Plant Identification they lost the battle but won the war. Here they won the battle–but what war did they win?

There is, sad to say, no deep connection between the identification of mushrooms and radical politics in Trump’s America. So having hoist the Jolly Roger the group is back to its usual thing: posting pictures of mushrooms and asking for advice. If I had to guess I would say that the vast majority of the 186,000 members around the world either missed the controversy or sat back to wait for it to blow over.

But in symbolic terms the activists have won this one as decisively as the last. For the foreseeable future the Mushroom Identification Group is down with the Revolution.

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Double Feature: Modus and The Wailing

Fenster writes:

It’s double feature time again.

Some double features here are naturals: two films written by Hanif Kureishi separated by decades that reveal how authorial obsessions change as the author ages. Others are linked by chance: I happened to pick up Cool Hand Luke and The Paperboy at the library on the same visit and found that they had a lot in common. With yet others the kinship is not so apparent but it is in there. I didn’t expect the low budget horror comedy Escape from Tomorrow would share elements with a late Rohmer film but you can find them if you squint hard enough.

Today’s double feature pairs Modus, a Nordic Noir mini-series from Sweden with The Wailing, a mixed genre comedy-horror-crime-supernatural Korean film.

On the surface the two have obvious things in common. In each a community is wracked by a series of seemingly inexplicable murders, and the arc of the narrative not only involves finding the perpetrator in classic police procedural style but coming to grips with what the deaths may signify culturally.

Modus is burdened somewhat by the increasingly chiched form of Nordic Noir. The dark originality of The Killing and The Bridge and have given way to more formulaic exercises.

I think this is due to a number of factors. Genres naturally deplete over time. There’s also the baleful influence of international success. Brits in particular have gone gaga over the genre, with the result that odd hybrids like Fortitude appear, a little Scandinavian, a little British, even a little American. Netflix takes notice. Series increasingly take on predictable Law and Order elements. Indeed, while the first season of Modus, reviewed here, was produced back in 2015 the show’s second season gets pretty American, and features a hunt for a missing American president played by Kim Catrall.

But Nordic Noir does not require the corrupting influence of international renown to result in genre stress. There’s also the problem of making sure a genre that can get pretty dark about human nature observes all of the strict PC protocols that Scandinavia is justly known for.

To take just the most obvious example: Scandinavian cultures seem unable to deal with Muslim migration openly. In crime films like In the Order of Disappearance and the Easy Money series the problem of tough migrants and naive natives is tackled, but the bad guys tend to be Eastern European. Muslims seldom make it to the TV screen in Noir mini-series except (as in Modus) as good guy policemen, sometimes going as far (as in the Danish series Department Q) of rendering the Muslim policemen more Danish than the Danes, a Scandinavian version of the Magical Negro sent to cure fallen whites.

Now, Muslims commit an awful lot of crime in Scandinavia in comparison with the Nordic population. Somehow Nordic Noirs miss that. As with Law and Order Tom Wolfe’s Great White Defendant is somehow a lot easier to find on TV than in real life, and minority defendants are hard to come by.

Modus, like many Noirs, avoid the Muslim subject. But there is a lot more to PC doctrine than concern over Muslims. There’s gender and sexual preference in there. Religion, too. Modus does not skimp on those.

In Modus as the pieces come together the police come to realize that they are dealing with a killer or killers who are out to kill homosexuals. Prominent gays, too. Indeed the gays who are killed or who are under threat include the CEO of a major corporation, a well-known TV chef, a famous actress, a trendy artist and a bishop in the Church of Sweden. It is clear that the series acknowledges gays do not live lives of fear. This is Sweden! So we have a bit of a problem with a plot driver. Who would commit such fiendish acts in such a nice and progressive culture?

Americans, that’s who! And not just any Americans. Deplorable Americans.

It turns out that the conflicted guy doing the actual killing is an agent of a larger plot, one that is run out of a low rent Bible Belt church somewhere deep in Dixie, where the preacher man get into a lather speaking in deep Southern accents about Jee-zus and homo-sexiuals. It’s amazing what an internet connection and a couple of bucks in church donations can do. Every impoverished roadside church in the Deep South the potential locus of international intrigue and murder.

Obviously American evangelicals can be dangerous, especially when they stare into space like zombies and dress like Nazis who buy their clothes at Goodwill. But can you say the show is against religion?

No, not exactly. Heck, one of the victims, a lesbian, is a bishop.

But not so fast. The bishop has had to hide her sexual preference for the decades she has been married to a man, a highly conflicted guy who is himself a closeted gay. Thus while the Church of Sweden is way superior to its crazed, lowbrow American evangelical sibling its cultural fastidiousness has an oppressive aspect nonetheless. The Church is on the right side but hardly “with it.”

Yet for a show that intends to celebrate Sweden’s liberated ways one can discern a very strict and hierarchical set of values at work. In short, the show is an intersectional dream. Gay relationships are shown as universally healthy and loving. By comparison the two main characters, a male detective and a female psychologist working on the case, struggle and fail to develop a normal loving relationship. It’s just so hard between people so poorly matched for one another.

Then there’s the intersectional overlap between men and women. Intersectionality dictates that as gay trumps straight women trump men. Sure enough, while the gay males are portrayed sympathetically but as having some serious problems the gay women are unblemished. The gay male artist who is murdered is, like all men, a little too promiscuous for his own good. The gay husband of the lesbian bishop lets his denial get in the way of solving the case.

The lesbians–paragons of virtue– have no such hang-ups. They are portrayed as being on top of male homosexuals (if I may use that phase in this context), at least as far as the intersectionality totem pole is concerned (if I may use that metaphor at all).

Straight men are doubly cursed by both gender and preference and are of course pretty far down the slippery . . . pole. The straight police detective has problems with women, and is a little too conventionally male to allow for a decent relationship. And of course the male evangelicals are beneath contempt, whether motivated by true anti-gay religious zeal or by their own conflicted sexuality.

So by contrast let’s now consider The Wailing. Intersectional concerns appear largely absent in the film. It is not so much that it is anti-PC. It just doesn’t force intersectionality concerns into the plot.

But there is the question of religion, and how The Wailing deals with it presents a nice contrast with Modus.

This Korean film was a big hit with the public and critics in its home country. It aims high–at over two and a half-hours it is filled with plot twists, ideas and ambitions.

A small rural village in Korea seems to be spinning out of control. People are being murdered in gruesome fashion, seemingly by family members who have run amok. Suspicion alights on the foreigner–the eccentric Japanese guy who has settled deep in the forest and keeps to himself. As the murders continue the main character, a bumbling policemen, has to struggle with his daughter’s apparent takeover by a demon, whom he assumes must be animated by the “Jap” in the hills.

If you have been weaned on media in the West in the last several decades you think you know how this will end. The despised “Jap” will be shown to be misunderstood and the villagers after him with pitchforks will be revealed as racist yahoos. Indeed, the film pulls you in this direction for the most part, leaving the question of the evil Japanese demon up in the air but hinting here and there that the villagers have it all wrong.

Through all of these we occasionally come across a young woman who crosses paths with the Japanese fellow and the policeman. But it is not clear who she is and what part she plays. By the climax the viewer is left hanging. Is the Japanese guy really the devil, as she says, or is she the bad actor?

In the final reel, just as it seems as though the Japanese guy will reveal himself as an unfairly maligned innocent he comes clean. He is a demon. And not just any demon. Despite the animistic emphasis placed on the demon by the villagers the demon reveals himself to be the Devil himself. Old Beelzebub. Christianity has made some side appearances in the film but by the end but you’d be forgiven, if you will, for not having noticed that the film is in the end a traditional Christian one, with a real God and a real Devil. When was the last time you saw that in a Swedish min-series?

In fact by the end we are led to believe that the mystery woman was a religious emissary of some sort, probably an angel sent to help the policeman. She urges him at the end to believe in what she tells him he must do — ah, but she only has a call to faith to persuade him. Either he trusts her on faith or he does not. What does he do?

I spoiled some of the wrap-up but it is a long movie and I will leave out the very ending,

Suffice it to say here that we are not in Uppsala any more Toto. The local yahoos said the Jap was the bad guy and guess what? He was. That is taboo-shattering right there.

And then there is the question of religion. The Swedes might find a watered-down version of Christianity tolerable as it is for the most party consistent with the real religion of Intersectionality. But there is no sympathy in Modus for a real God and a real Devil. You have to go to Korea for that.

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Racist Computer Passes Turing Test

What to make of these efforts that edge up to passing the Turing Test?

Here’s GPT-3 from Open AI.

GPT-3: OpenAI’s New Text Generating Neural Network is Here | Digital Trends

That got this Facebook AI guy all a-twitter over the need to button down such efforts in order to button up GPT-3’s lip.

“This is a bizarre anthropomorphic view that makes little sense. AIs are not people but algorithms created by humans making deliberate design choices (eg, model, objective, training data). When AIs make sexist or racist statements, these humans should be responsible for it. 12/13Paul Graham @paulgPeople get mad when AIs do or say politically incorrect things. What if it’s hard to prevent them from drawing such conclusions, and the easiest way to fix this is to teach them to hide what they think? That seems a scary skill to start teaching AIs.”

He should talk! By the looks of his photo he is himself a virtual creature. Does this guy look real or is he himself a deep fake?

My thoughts:

Only an autist would buy the notion of the Turing Test in the first instance. The ability of a machine to carry on a conversation is not the same thing as having consciousness, being alive and having agency. I am not saying a machine can never have human qualities, or are conscious in some fashion, or that could transcend humans in new ways only indirectly related to concepts like “agency” and “consciousness.” But a simulated conversation with a human doth not a human make

A lot of the fear of “racist AI” does not relate to AI’s increasing ability to think, or appear to think, in fuzzy human ways. The panic is over AI’s traditional role as objective number cruncher and pattern recognizer. There is no room in the current orthodoxy for inconvenient truths so the bulk of the pushback from that crowd is effectively anti-science.

But the problem Pesenti is touching on is a deeper one. Actual people are not machines. They think in fuzzy ways. Memes spread among them in an almost organic fashion. Our Betters can do a good job of trying to herd opinions and manufacture consent but at base human intelligence is protean. So Pesenti & co. have a problem on their hands. Right now all well and good to call for algorithms that force AI conversation into predictable channels. That is a machine analogy to thought control, and I suppose if elites use thought control on people they will try it on machines as well. But if their true aim is the development of something deeply resembling human intelligence they won’t be able to stop AI from noticing things, and from talking about them.

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Notes on “Band of Outsiders”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

Three Parisian kids with vaguely American aspirations plan a vaguely American crime. That crime, a robbery, is mixed up with the seduction of Odile, the trio’s female constituent, who isn’t sure she wants either. You can’t blame her: These guys are as inept at love as they are at theft. In a sense, it’s a movie about ineptness. Like the hero of writer-director Jean-Luc Godard’s earlier “Breathless,” the kids are amalgamations of attitudes drawn from books and movies; though they run through the Louvre, stopping to look at nothing (we’re told it’s an American thing), they can do the Madison almost without thinking and have internalized the plots of Hollywood B movies. They aren’t malevolent like Cocteau’s “Enfants Terribles,” but like them they’re playing with half-understood archetypes — and with death. As in so much of Godard there’s a sense, both tragic and melancholy, of life and art being out of sync. Here, though, art is less an ideal than a posture, and there’s something touching about the trio’s failure to comprehend the absurdity of aspiring to a pose. The movie’s Paris is tenuous, a place of indefinite season, filled with bare trees and mud. We sense that spring, like the crime being planned, might not come off.  Like most of the great New Wave films, “Band of Outsiders” has an astonishing vividness. Ordinary subjects — Anna Karina as Odile riding a bike and pertly signaling a turn with her hand, the boys’ jalopy tearing around a puddled yard — have unaccountable poetic power. It’s as though Godard, through his manner of seeing, has allowed novelty to recolonize the mundane. (The cinematography is by Raoul Coutard.) When, near the end, the boys break into the house they’ve targeted, we recognize it as a kind of rape. They’ve used Odile to gain entry, and suddenly she’s a victim rather than a playmate. When they demand that she remove her stockings so that they can use them as masks, it’s too intimate to be erotic. One of them sniffs it as he puts it on. The other says, “Her thighs are so white.” The reply: “I saw.” When she encounters them again, their faces obscured by stocking, it’s as though they’re different people — fugitives from some other movie. 

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Notes on “The Story of Adele H.”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:


Victor Hugo’s daughter sails to Nova Scotia to stalk a man who doesn’t love her. When her marriage schemes fail, and she becomes desperate, she disconnects from external reality. Eventually she follows him to Barbados, where she drifts through the island’s cobblestone streets, lost in the wreck of her passion, a beautiful shade. Though “The Story of Adele H.” is one of the great Truffaut pictures, it’s infrequently discussed, possibly because the 21st-century audience doesn’t know how to take its focus on feminine hysteria. (The 21st-century audience favors different hysterias.) Perhaps more than any New Wave director, Truffaut understood Griffith; he especially understood his poetic power. There are moments in “Adele H.” that have Griffith’s unaccountably expressive simplicity. It’d be wrong to call that simplicity crude, because its effects are too delicate, too rich, but there’s a directness to it that brushes up against crudity — that transforms and elevates crudity. The frightfully young Isabelle Adjani (this is the performance that established her reputation), wandering into frame inside a bourgeois grocery store, her unhappy outline rebuking the orderliness of the establishment’s shelves, seems to have swallowed that expressive power and allowed it to pour out of her. It’s insane for an actress to “do Gish,” but Adjani does Gish, and she succeeds at it; there are moments where she’s so committed that we fear for her. We wonder: how will she pull herself back? Though Truffaut never sugarcoats Adele’s obsession, he treats it with extreme sympathy, even when highlighting its absurdity. To him, her commitment has artistic overtones. This is expressed most vividly in the weird moment when Adele slides off the side of her bed to protect her memoirs from the prying hand of a fellow tenement dweller (she does it with her whole body, like a mother protecting an infant). Did Truffaut identify with Adele? Famously, he used a neurotic investment in movies as a springboard to worldwide fame. Nestor Almendros gives the picture a look that’s beautiful and tender in unshowy ways; it envelopes without overpowering. It has the conceptual wholeness of a “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” or “Broken Blossoms”: to tease apart its meaning and its aesthetic is to break its spell.

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Notes on “Secret Friends”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:


A middle-aged man has a breakdown while riding on a train, and his memories, fantasies, and perceptions blur, like the scenery glimpsed through the train’s windows. The late Dennis Potter had a gift for making movies that feel like paroxysms of consciousness. Images, sounds, and bits of staging repeat, rhyme, and play off one another. Popular songs trigger personal associations, thereby throwing our own mental processes into the mix. Without these elements we’d have little to orient ourselves; they’re like lifelines thrown to us from the shore of comprehension. Yet as quickly as Potter tosses one out he pulls it back, teasing us forward. His method relies on that teasing quality, on the goading of our desire for understanding; the more we try to keep up with him, the more we’re pulled in. When he’s on, his movies are frustrating in a way that’s engrossing. Here he’s only intermittently on, and the movie is frustrating in a more banal way — I walked away from it feeling a little annoyed. Potter seems to be trying to make a virtue out of irresolution. He introduces thriller elements and then doesn’t build on them, and his hero’s backstory becomes more rather than less muddled as the picture progresses. It’s likely that he intends to suggest the ingrownness of erotic identity: to demonstrate how our most personal desires, in being fulfilled, can become alienating. The suggestion is made and we register it; but the movie has a narrative dimension, and Potter’s technique doesn’t support it. 

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Notes on “Umberto D.”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

It’s interesting to compare Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 “Umberto D.” with his earlier “The Bicycle Thief.” The latter is very materialistic in outlook and simplified in message, like a propaganda film. Though there’s plenty of “humanity” in it, there’s not much human feeling. Absent his bicycle, the hero is nothing. That’s the movie’s core idea — that he needs his bicycle to be a man. Aside from a few scenes sacramentalizing everyday life (I admire a passage showing the bicycle seeker eating spaghetti with his kid) everything is intended to emphasize this idea. It’s a reductive idea. It’s fitted to the characters like a harness: they’re driven by it. “Umberto D.,” by contrast, is filled with emotional and behavioral complexity; it seems to expand as you watch it, to fill you up. The movie contains moments of cruelty that are so gracefully presented that we’re equally pained and charmed by them. It’s probably the most Chaplinesque movie that wasn’t made by Chaplin. Yet I think De Sica does Chaplin one better because “Umberto D.” has none of Chaplin’s emotional neediness. As the old pensioner whose main concerns in life are his comfort and his dog, Carlo Battisti manages to humanize Umberto’s selfishness. He and De Sica do this so fully that we come to recognize selfishness as an outgrowth of self-respect. If Umberto doesn’t care for his needs (and for his dog), who will? We sense this self-respect most powerfully when Umberto, at his wit’s end, sticks out his palm in anticipation of a handout. Upon being noticed by a passerby, he feels ashamed, and deftly makes as if he’s testing the air for rain. (Again, it’s impossible not to think of Chaplin.) There’s a quiet commentary here regarding the deleterious effect of modernity upon the family, and it’s given additional weight by the normally hyper-familial Italian context. Umberto has no children — and what are the old absent children? The scenes showing the maid of Umberto’s apartment building going about her daily routines are intensely beautiful. I think they exhibit more feeling for the lot of common people than anything in “The Bicycle Thief.”

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