Bicycle Thieves is the key film of the Italian Neorealism movement. An emotionally wrenching experience, it embodies the movement's basic tenets. Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini's style no longer seems as revolutionary as it did in 1948 but few pictures have approached its purity of expression. Zavattini's stylistic purpose was to strip away the artificiality of conventional filmmaking to show life as it really is. In some ways, the film succeeds in doing just that.
Bicycle Thieves is one of those pictures that, once seen, cannot be forgotten. Like some neorealist movies, it apparently didn't do well on its Italian commercial release. The screenwriter has a memory of one booking being replaced after only one week by the enormously popular Duel in the Sun. It won numerous international awards and is now one of the most famous movies ever made.
A year later De Sica's picture became a special art-house hit in America, and earned an honorary Oscar as the best foreign language film. Bicycle Thieves presents a sobering picture of how people were getting on in a country that had been a prime WW2 battlefield. Antonio Ricci is only one of tens of thousands of unemployed laborers on the dole. Not having worked since the war, his family is barely subsisting. Americans had rarely seen movies about poverty this close-up and on this scale; in most films of the Great Depression the Hollywood treatment made even the poor seem glamorous and placed a silver lining in every cloud.
The Italian economy is an inversion of the American standard. Our homes are filled with consumer goods bought on credit, i.e., still technically owned by banks but being used and enjoyed. A huge pawnshop - warehouse dominates Ricci's neighborhood; it houses practically everything of value, awaiting redemption. The people have nothing. Americans may think of a bicycle as a toy for a child. For Antonio it makes the difference between a job and nothing, between pride and shame. His family could fall apart for want of something a simple as a bicycle.
The makers of Bicycle Thieves wanted to portray the world as it is, avoiding theatrical conventions. Describers of Italian Neorealism usually define the style in terms of what it avoids: Complex plotting, star names, psychological complexity. The bicycle is stolen and most of the rest of the film relates Antonio and Bruno's efforts to get it back. We don't see flashbacks showing the troubled childhood of the bicycle thief, 'explaining' why he was driven to steal. Nobody makes speeches about the state of the world or the future they desire. And more importantly, there are no official 'author's messages' or uplifting morals. There is nothing specific to be learned. Antonio knows how slim his chances will be to retrieve his bicycle, and that's that.
Lovers of Neorealism often point to the 'reality' of the characters, who do not seem to be acting. It's as if De Sica had simply found Antonio and Bruno on the street and somehow put a camera into their lives without their knowing it. De Sica's smartest move was accomplished before filming in his choice of actors. Both Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola were non-actors almost as eager for the work as the characters they play. De Sica chose them because they had the right look and were receptive to direction. De Sica could say, "Be who you are but do exactly what I do." Then, like Charlie Chaplin he'd mime the appropriate actions for them.
It's important to remember that the Neorealist style in Bicycle Thieves was also a practical compromise that offered advantages to the impoverished Italian filmmaker. The inexpensive non-actors didn't need to be humored with fancy accommodations, wardrobe or publicity needs. They would be unlikely to impose demands or threaten to walk off the film. All of this meant greater control for the director, even with a smaller budget. Even better for De Sica, the result would be a director's film. He'd be the star at the film festivals, not some temperamental actor.
Bicycle Thieves works because our identification with Antonio and his boy is complete. They aren't given witty dialogue or speeches expressing their inner conflicts. We learn about them by watching their behavior; they are what we see. Antonio's family is not sentimentalized. We tend to gravitate toward the endearing Bruno, whose huge eyes express all the concerns of a child. Bruno observes everything and obviously idolizes his father. The search is all the more painful because Bruno must watch his father under great stress. He even endures moments of emotional rejection. Antonio strikes out at Bruno in frustration. The acting-directing miracle of Bicycle Thieves is that we see Bruno bounce right back, stronger and more faithful than ever. Bruno's more than a trouper or a helper, he's an indispensable asset.
We also understand how the pressure of responsibility weighs on Antonio. His life is crumbling and he's grasping for straws. Antonio is strong, able and resolute but the weight of failure is crushing him. Bruno looks up to him, expects him to solve all problems and offers his unconditional support. Antonio feels as if he's let his family down. He can hardly look his own son in the eye. In America, sacrificing for children usually comes down to doing without another luxury or perhaps swallowing a bit of one's pride ... drive the old car another year. The essentially honest Antonio is compelled to himself become a thief.
The unbearable comes true for Antonio when, by a near miracle, he finds the needle in the haystack and corners the man who stole his bicycle. But it does him no good. The thief is among his friends and neighbors, who all but attack Antonio for accusing him. The indifferent crowds on the street are now openly hostile. This injustice triggers Antonio to try for a bicycle by stealing one. De Sica and Zavattini could easily have twisted this into a cheap justification for crime among the poor: If life is so unfair, it's every man for himself.
That we aren't sold that bleak message is high praise for Bicycle Thieves -- too many pictures opt for easy expressions of the defeat of human values. De Sica instead chooses to end his picture unresolved but with hope. The sentimental finish is perhaps a refinement of the end of King Vidor's silent The Crowd, in which a boy stops his father from committing suicide. Bruno in a way saves Antonio and becomes his protector, holding his hand as they walk away. It's like a Charlie Chaplin ending without the extra sentiment, pulled down into the realm of real experience. We don't know what will happen to the Ricci family, but their bond looks unbreakable.
Criterion's DVD of Bicycle Thieves lifts away 50 years of wear and tear. We're used to seeing De Sica's picture in 5th-generation 16mm film school prints. The grain, contrast and murky sound carried over to a 1998 DVD release. It's much easier to appreciate the film's visual artistry when we can see the contrast between the overcast scenes in the rain and the slightly overexposed material filmed in the bright Roman daylight. With the hiss removed, we can also appreciate the fine dubbing --- especially Bruno's outburst Mi sono cascato! (I fell down!). The crude English dub track is included as well. Bicycle Thieves isn't a crude film ... De Sica frequently moves his camera and the interior lighting is done with great care.
The double-disc set has two lengthy new documentaries. A piece on Neorealism illustrates a thorough but repetitive lecture by scholar Mark Schiel; it's authoritative, but overlong. Likewise, a docu called Working with De Sica gathers screenwriter Suso Cecchi d'Amico, actor Enzo Staiola ('Bruno') and scholar Callisto Cosulich. These prime-source interviews are the backbone of Criterion's extras philosophy. A shorter featurette docu on screenwriter Cesare Zavattini was filmed in 2003.
A 75-page booklet includes essays and remembrances by Godfrey Cheshire and Charles Burnett, and key writings by De Sica, Zavattini and Andrél Bazin. Even Sergio Leone gets into the act; he was an assistant director and played a bit as a student priest. The disc producer for Criterion is Johanna Schiller.
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Bicycle Thieves rates:
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