Bicycle Thieves (1948) - A man and his son search for a stolen bicycle which is vital for his job.
Reviewed by Thomas Priday. Please check out his blog:
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Top 250 #86
Year of Release: 1948
Director: Vittorio De Sica
After the literal wreckage of the Second World War, which culminated with the Paris Peace Treaties, and whose litany of the deprived stretched from Venice to Sicily, Italian cinema was stultified. Yet the Neorealist movement—created by the writers of Cinema Magazine—was an exercise in Italian stoicism, and the wryness and proficiency with which its characters responded to chaos remains a defensible hallmark in the recent history. In the wake of our economic hardships, amid the finger–pointing, lay a scorning thought: if only we knew of the true human hardships.
The most authentic snapshot of everyday life in post–war Italy came from Fascist–era matinee Vittorio De Sica, who had already created a handful of films, including the significant drama “Shoeshine” (1946). De Sica and veteran screenwriter Cesare Zavattini expressed the desire to make a film that would do no more than follow a man through the city for 90 minutes, and, in some ways, ”The Bicycle Thieves” is that film. André Bazin, who would be neorealism’s key celebrant, praised ”The Bicycle Thieves’” premise as “truly insignificant… A workman spends a whole day looking in vain in the streets of Rome for the bicycle someone has stolen from him.”
If ”The Bicycle Thieves” understood neorealism as a style, Bazin appreciated it as “pure cinema… No more actors, no more story, no more sets… the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality.” In fact, De Sica created a neorealist superspectacle. Six writers worked on the script; at one point, the project was even pitched to Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, who proposed Cary Grant to play Ricci, the unemployed protagonist given a job putting up posters. De Sica countered by requesting Henry Fonda, a star with a marked resemblance to the eventual lead, steelworker Lamberto Maggiorani.
Although the three leads were all nonactors, “The Bicycle Thieves’” modest $133,000 budget was far larger than those of previous neorealism films, including De Sica’s own “Shoeshine.” De Sica used many more locations and extras—40 market vendors hired for a single scene—and even effects (fire hoses employed to simulate rain–soaked streets). The production was deliberate. The crowds were rehearsed and the camera moves choreographed. Editing took two months.
Maggiorani plays Antonio Ricci, an Italian archetype that queues every morning looking for work. He’s one step up the social ladder from Chaplin’s Little Tramp in that he has a wife and a child. One day there is a job—for a man with a bicycle. “I have a bicycle!” Ricci cries out, but he does not, for it has been pawned. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) strips the sheets from their bed, and he is able to pawn them to redeem his bicycle; as he glances through a window at the pawn shop, we see a man take the bundle of linen and climb up a ladder to a towering wall of shelves stuffed with other people’s sheets.
The bicycle allows Ricci to go to work as a poster–hanger. (Rita Hayworth, stunning as ever, is the cherry popper.) Whilst he is away, busy at work, his wife visits the Wise Woman who predicted that Ricci would get a job. Ricci, waiting for her impatiently, finally leaves his bicycle at the door while he climbs upstairs to see what’s keeping her; De Sica’s mise–en–scène teases us with the prospect that his bicycle will be stolen, though Ricci returns and it’s still there.
Eventually, the unlocked machine is stolen and Ricci drops everything to go on a desperate odyssey through the streets of Rome with his little boy Bruno (Enzo Staiola) to get his bike back, pleading and accusing and uncovering scenes of poverty similar to theirs wherever they go. They create uproar in classic crowd moments: in the streets, in a market, in a church mass. Faces always gather avidly around the pair, all commenting, complaining and generally magnifying the father and son’s distress and mortification.
After the streets, the market, the church, Ricci takes his son to a restaurant where their troubles are momentarily forgotten. Their meal, tasty as it may seem, is just a fantasy—it can never last. The two sit awkwardly in a place where they do not belong, with the polished faces of the rich looking back at them in disgust. That’s the Italy De Sica saw as a child. That’s neorealism.
Less characteristic of a neorealism film, though, is the emptiness its main character boasts. Ricci, driven by class and economic need, doesn’t come alive until he is near enough dead. This ultimately means the driving force of the film is his son, who has gone down as one of the greatest kids in the history of cinema. He grows, Ricci deflates, Rome becomes a parallel universe.
Although not a comedy, ”The Bicycle Thieves” was inevitably compared to Chaplin in its content, its structure, its pathos, and its universality. (The mournful music and circular narrative predict the post–neorealist mannerism of Federico Fellini.)
Translated correctly from the Italian, the title should really be the more provocatively totalising ”Bicycle Thieves,” which the Americans still haven’t fully grasped. This plural, although meaningless in most cases, is of such vitality here; it turns out that there are two thieves: one at the movie’s beginning, another at its end. As the picture moves into its final phase, we understand what Ricci must do and, rather than subjecting his son to the crime he is about to commit, Ricci sends him away. The end, matching the pageantry of the earlier crowd scenes, is at once moving and degrading. It’s a piece of art.
by Thomas Priday.