A Better Life Review
When it comes to depictions of what it means to live in real poverty, there are few films that can match the power of Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves. There are certainly many other fine films and documentaries that show the extremes of poverty – a recent documentary Waste Land made about people making a living collecting discarded rubbish from a tip in Rio de Janeiro comes to mind – but De Sica’s post-war neo-realist classic still has an emotional power and a pure simplicity that gets beneath the surface trappings of misery directly to the human qualities that poverty and desperation bring out of people, and the dignity that it robs them of at the same time. It’s no surprise then that the film has been remade and referenced in many films all over the world – from the Chinese Beijing Bicycle, to the post-war Afghanistan setting of Stray Dogs – as the best means of exploring the impact of living in inhuman conditions that people are still subjected to in the world today. Unsurprisingly then, the film’s tense and involving treatment of its subject also proves to be the ideal framework Chris Weitz’s A Better Life, an involving drama that shows the challenges that are faced by the countless illegal Mexican immigrants struggling to make a living in the United States.
The only problem with following such a well-known framework, is that it does inevitably rob A Better Life of a great deal of the shock value of what is going to happen when Carlos (Demián Bichir), a Mexican labourer working as a gardener for the expensive properties around Los Angeles, is offered the opportunity of owning his own truck. Blasco (Joaquín Cosio), the friend he has been working for, has decided to give up the business and return to buy a ranch back home in Mexico, and for Carlos the choice is to join the ranks of the desperate standing on a street corner hoping to be picked up by passing traders looking for cheap temporary labour, or going into business for himself and indeed achieving the ambition that drove him north of the border in the first place – to make a better life for himself, and for his son, Luis (José Julián). There is one problem, and it’s a big one – how to come up with the money to buy the truck from Blasco. He calls in favours from relatives and indeed manages to borrow enough money from people who can ill afford it themselves, and proudly sets out with a renewed sense of hope. Everything he has however is tied up within the truck and the gardening equipment, but, without a driving licence, living and working illegally in LA, he’s still in a very precarious position and the truck – his livelihood – is something that he can ill afford to lose.
Foreknowledge might rob the film of some of its surprise, but the emotional impact is in no way lessened when the worst does indeed come to pass. While the search to recover the stolen truck, much like the stolen bike in De Sica’s film, is a tremendous dramatic driving force that propels the film forward in a linear fashion, the real impact of the film is in the dawning realisation of just how much indeed is wrapped up within the stolen vehicle. It’s much more than just a possession – it’s a sense of human pride and dignity. Much of what is lost is expressed within the father-son relationship, as it is in Bicycle Thieves, but Weitz’s film has a few culturally specific touches of its own, and it even successfully manages to extend the nature of the father-son relationship into a wider consideration of the social inequities and challenges that face large sections of the American immigrant community, not just the illegal Mexican workers. The choices, or the lack of choices, for anyone growing up in that environment are made perfectly clear in the grim, dangerous neighbourhoods and the gang culture of LA where Carlos and Luis have to venture in search of the truck and – as illegal aliens with no recourse to the law – in the tough pragmatic decisions and moral judgements they have to make, which are indeed life-or-death choices.
The challenges that a life living outside the boundaries of normal society impress on the youth of the next generation is powerful, and it is there to some extent in Bruno in Bicycle Thieves, if it’s not quite so explicitly stated. And, to be honest, the expansion of the dining scene here at a rodeo in A Better Life actually illuminated this aspect for me, since it is largely left unspoken in that key scene in De Sica’s masterpiece. In most other respects however, A Better Life unfortunately bears no real comparison with its source influence. It certainly makes neorealist use of ordinary people in the streets, but the performances from the non-professionals are stiff and painfully self-conscious. Weitz’s leaden direction is unable to make them come to life as real people with real issues, and in his rather prosaic treatment of the otherwise fine script he fails to find any means to inject any kind of spark of life into the two main characters. The film however ambitiously extends beyond the heart-wrenching climax of the original and introduces an element of hopeful optimism which feels just a little manufactured, but results in a satisfying film that manages to cover the issues it raises very well indeed.