The Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

05Jul11

Lamberto Maggiorani (Antonio Ricci), Enzo Staiola (Bruno Ricci). Screenplay by Cesare Zavattini et al. Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Rating: U. Running time: 93 minutes.

I get the impression The Bicycle Thieves is one of those films everybody has heard of but few have seen. It’s evidently revered amongst those oh-so important film circles, but despite its name having lingered in my mind for an eternity, I’ve never met anyone that has volunteered it in conversation. To finally see it, then, feels like fulfilling a long lasting obligation, and now I can enforce it on others as the consensus rightly has it that I should.

The Bicycle Thieves is my first piece of Italian Neorealism, and if it’s representative of that period then I can already see just how important it must have been. Not, I promise, in a pretentious way. There’s no art house tricks readily available here. It’s pure storytelling, but it’s revolutionary all the same. All the actors here are non-professional, and the sets are minimalist to say the least. Clearly it was shot with whatever locations and whichever actors De Sica could get for peanuts, and the message is thus an historically crucial one: you don’t need a Hollywood budget to make a good movie. Truffaut and Godard would surely have never initiated the French New Wave if it weren’t for having seen here first such flourishing filmmaking in spite of grave financial deficiencies.

But lack of money isn’t a theme reserved for making the film’s production unique; it also provides the content for the film’s narrative. You would never get a film made like this in America. Perhaps Grapes of Wrath is the only exception, and even that took a Steinbeck novel to get its motivation rather than the will of Hollywood. For some reason Americans have always seemed obsessed with inhuman characters, cold in their stoicism about crime and not concerned with everyday matters of life, as witnessed by the countless number of noirs made throughout the forties and fifties dominated by aloof and unrealistic protagonists. This Italian project, then, of filming amongst the poor and about the poor, was undoubtedly unprecedented, and the result is inevitably depressing, but infinitely more touching than anything produced on the other side of the Atlantic. They dared to make films about real people and problems. They made cinema a form of social commentary and an art packed with emotion, rather than an escapist adventure and bout of entertainment.

The deal is that jobs are near impossible to find, but when a husband and father gets the chance to earn money pasting billboards, with the one proviso that he has a bike to get around, he trades in his family’s bed linen to acquire the bicycle, and begins work accordingly. Soon enough, however, the bike is stolen, and the film turns into a wild goose chase through the city, a desperate search for the strangest of items essential to a man’s life. What makes it so difficult to watch is the presence of the man’s son, who witnesses his father’s financial frailty, and ultimately his fall from grace: incapable of allowing such an event to secure his family’s decline into poverty, the father attempts but fails to steal a bicycle himself, his son standing in the background, witnessing the public humiliation.

There won’t be any tears flowing from your eyes as you watch this. The filmmaking isn’t demanding any extravagant responses. You’ll be able to observe it at a decently removed distance, but I think that makes one’s reaction a more profound one. Instead of tears, you’ll have thoughts, and thinking with the film’s characters rather than crying at them is the better aim for a film to have. The Bicycle Thieves effortlessly achieves it, and, a lot like Cephalus in Plato’s Republic, we’re left happy that we’re rich and thus don’t have to steal to stay alive. That way, our commitment to our moral principles isn’t put to the test. We can say we wouldn’t resort to such means, safe in the knowledge the question will remain an academic one. For Lamberto Maggiorani, it was unfortunately all too real.

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