“After the Wedding” and “Bicycle Thieves” ” –Films too important to overlook!

“After the Wedding” and “Bicycle Thieves” –Films too important to overlook!

As with many film critics, a “top ten list” of favorite films is prone to change over time. There was a period in my life, when “Shawshank Redemption” and “American Beauty” always managed to remain in my top 5 films. Those 2 particular films tend to routinely win over new converts or to divide viewers sharply between loving or hating them. But, since 2006, both films have lost favor to another special film, “After the Wedding,” directed by Susanne Bier. This Danish film has remained as my 2nd favorite film of all time consistently, as does the only film steadfastly ahead of it on the list, De Sica’s, “Bicycle Thieves.”

While widely praised during its initial release, it continually surprises me to find how many film lovers have still never heard of “After the Wedding.”  Realistically, most younger audiences today are unfamiliar with De Sica’s masterpiece as well, but both of these films share a unique quality in the way they affect the viewer, leaving one inspired to do “something” to make the world better, or, at least, leave the film feeling that the lives of others deserve more reflection than they did before experiencing the work.

The premise for both films seems simple. In “Bicycle Thieves,” a down-on-his luck father finds hope when finding employment in Post-War Italy, pasting posters within the city. When his bicycle is stolen, almost immediately upon starting his job, he begins a struggle that captures the attention of the audience that is not released until the film ends with his ultimate salvation.

In “After the Wedding,” Jacob, played by Mads Mikkelsen, runs an orphanage in India. Facing the regular threat of funds drying up to support it, his hopes are raised through the offer of a wealthy Danish sponsor. The only condition lies in the request for Jacob to come to Copenhagen to meet the sponsor in person and go through expected formalities to obtain the sizeable donation.

Upon arriving in Copenhagen, and receiving opulent accommodations, Jacob meets the sponsor, Jorgen. What Jacob expected to be an annoying triviality as a means to a better end, becomes even more frustrating when he’s told by Jorgen that any donation must wait, at least, until after his daughter’s wedding which is taking place that same weekend. Jorgen invites and insists that Jacob attend. At the wedding reception, one woman’s notice of Jacob stands apart from the rest. As the new bride makes a toast, she thanks and expresses her love for her mother and for Jorgen, whom she states  is not her father by birth, but is her true father all the same. While the daughter, Anna, speaks for seconds, glances between Jacob, Jorgen and Jorgen’s wife, Helene, are all that’s necessary for incredible drama and tension to arise. There is no doubt in these few moments that Jacob is Anna’s biologic father whom she’s never met, and Helene his former lover. What are Jorgen’s true motives for bringing Jacob? Was the crucial donation merely a ruse for some spiteful aim? These and many other provocative questions come to the surface and are answered while the viewer is taken in stunning, often moving directions, that never succumb to what could have easily turned into a melodramatic soap-opera, and is ultimately unforgettable.

The magic created by Bier lies in her reverence of the human condition, a term that has seldom been explored with the honesty and raw simplicity found in “After the Wedding.”   “Bicycle Thieves” is another rare and exceptional moment in film. While the characters in both of these films face uncomfortable, heart-wrenching drama, the viewer is truly brought into the drama as well, opening up their own view of the world, at the same time as the characters. In “Bicycle Thieves,” just when Ricci appears to have found the man responsible for having stolen his only means for livelihood, he realizes, as does the viewer, they both share the same sense of destitution and anguish. Similarly in “After the Wedding,” while Jacob is well aware of the destitution facing the world of the orphanage, which he longs to get back to, he also becomes aware, as does the audience of the destitution facing others. The wealth and picturesque life afforded to some, suffers from pains just as deep as those living in squalor. It’s only love and compassion that can serve as the one constant in addressing and healing others.

Bier reveals this truth by carefully revealing the complex layers of the film’s characters, allowing the viewer to become more understanding of their needs, predicaments and often beautiful, unanticipated decency. When Jacob is alone with his daughter, offering solace and a father’s love following a heart-breaking revelation, Bier’s use of imagery is innovative to the scene without ever feeling flashy. Unlike the camera work of fellow Danish Director Lar Von Triers, the hand-held camera conveys a sense of immediate intimacy rather than being a mere form of style.

“After the Wedding” offers the viewer the unique, intimate experience of film-going, that is all too rare, and viewers, in some way or other, will feel their lifetime of film-watching has been bettered for it.