When “Bicycle Thieves” was released in 1948 in post-World War II Italy, the film humanized the struggle for a working class man to make a living for himself and his family in a world depleted of hope and money. The film is now widely considered one of the greatest movies of all time, helping cement the genres of neorealism and the social realist drama and influencing countless films domestically and internationally.
“The Measure of a Man” is one of these films. It is a low-key social realist drama that takes place right after the global recession. The film focuses squarely on the shoulders of one man, literally, as the film is composed almost entirely of close-ups and medium shots of Thierry, played with quiet determination and bent up frustration by the excellent, acclaim-worthy Vincent Lindon. In fact, at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and the Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Academy Awards) last year, Lindon ran away with Best Actor for his understated and incredibly affecting work. And if the Oscars weren’t so anti-foreign cinema for major awards, Lindon would probably run away with Best Actor this year too, once the general public and Oscar award voters get to see this relevant, intimate portrait of working-class verisimilitude.
Thierry has recently been laid off from his longtime construction job and with no source of income. We see Thierry desperately search for a job and do everything he can financially to help keep his family afloat. And to make matters harder, his teenage son has a severe physical disability that requires him to have an insurance plan to help with his special needs.
It’s through this heart-rending story that director Stephane Brize decides to focus on smaller day-to-day activities for Thierry, rather than overstating anything or even attempting to raise the stakes with unforced drama and conflict. “The Measure of a Man” is simply about Thierry’s search for a job and the social tussles he faces along the way.
We see Thierry beaten down in squirm-inducing, painful-to-watch scenes one by one.
One includes him being ridiculed by a potential employer over his poorly written resume — in which he is told he has a slim chance of being hired despite holding a higher-ranked and higher-paying job within the industry before the recession. Another being when he is scathingly critiqued for his somber disposition by peers in a class to improve their job interview skills.
Thierry tries to stay determined through it all. But this isn’t to say we don’t see the toll these harsh times and even harsher words take on him.
Through a seemingly hopeful left turn, once he gets work as a supermarket security guard, the film questions how willing he is to subject himself to being a person who may end up getting his equally under-compensated co-workers fired over petty things. Can Thierry live with himself if his job entitles ending the livelihood of co-workers over little things such as them using their “loyalty cards” on customers’ orders? That central question then makes the title of the film: how does Thierry measure his own ethics versus the necessity of economics?
With Lindon’s performance and Brize’s focus on close-ups right on Lindon’s wrinkled and aged face, the audience sees the haggard Thierry as a stand-in for all those who felt the stress of being laid off or the extra financial burden of being undervalued after the economy tanked.
The film does feel overwhelmingly authentic, especially with the smart choice to use only diegetic music. But the ending feels less like a statement on the situation or even a reasonable conclusion to what has come before. It seems predictable and forced, not rewarding and organic. The audience learns what Thierry measures more, but it’s not nearly as deep as classic social realist films have done before. Much like “Bicycle Thieves” or the films of the Dardenne brothers, they tend to end ambiguously, with the journey being more of the point than the destination.
But thankfully, with a masterful performance by Lindon and smart cinematic technique to further the standout sensibilities of the role, “The Measure of a Man” cements its own place within the storied lineage of social realist films. Where “Bicycle Thieves” humanized the universal struggle in 1948, “The Measure of a Man” succeeds at doing the same for 2016. And thus, “The Measure of the Man” is a film we may look upon in 60 years and see how it honestly portrayed our troubled socio-economic climate.
Levi Hill covers film. Contact him at [email protected].