Icicle Thieves

(Maurizio Nichetti, Italy, 1989)


In 1983, Italian critic and novelist Umberto Eco wrote a prophetic article announcing the arrival of Neo-Television (see The Essential Framework, ed. Paul Willemen, London: EpiGraph, 1998, pp. 130-136).

Surveying the first wave of bizarre cable programs flooding Europe, Eco noted some of the amazing changes that were taking place in TV – in particular, the breakdown of the distinction between supposedly real information and fantasy entertainment.

With the advent of comedic newsreaders, live phone-in auctions and programs that were openly cynical about the medium of TV itself, hyperreality (way beyond the first signs of poppy postmodernism) was obviously here to stay.

These days, Neo-TV rules – and Maurizio Nichetti’s Icicle Thieves is an erudite, energetic, hilarious essay on this all-pervasive phenomenon.

In a studio watching his latest, earnestly realistic film go to air, a director (Nichetti) is horror-struck as he gradually learns what the medium of TV does to movies. Insensitive ad breaks are only the beginning; soon the very plot of his film starts mutating as it interacts with the surrounding programs, and even with real-life viewers in their lounge rooms.

Icicle Thieves (sometimes erroneously referred to as The Icicle Thief, just like the film on whose title it puns, De Sica’s neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves [1947]) comically depicts a nightmare in which TV invades and alters every level of reality. Eventually it becomes a world unto itself – one into which Nichetti must dive in order to rescue his precious creation. But is there really a way out of TV’s omnivorously bizarre world?

The film raises serious questions about the triumph of this hyperreality, while joyously celebrating the surreal juxtapositions and inventive new forms that emerge.

Nichetti is a brilliant director and comedian, sadly little-known outside of Europe. Like Jacques Tati or Jerry Lewis, he aims not for the big slapstick belly laugh, but an accumulation of odd, infectious touches.

In this technically dazzling piece (mixing film and video, colour and black and white), Nichetti emerges as both a king of comedy and a canny cultural philosopher.

© Adrian Martin April 1991/January 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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