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Bicycle Thieves: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // March 29, 2016
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted March 22, 2016 | E-mail the Author

As one of the earliest and best examples of the Italian neo-realistic movement, Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) is frequently mentioned in the same league as classics like Citizen Kane and Casablanca. By definition, though, it's much more limited in scope than either of those two films, probably sharing more in common with Hoop Dreams through its thoughtful, layered examination of one fateful tragedy almost destroying a working-class family. The tragedy in question is, well, the theft of a bicycle belonging to Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), who had just started a new job; to make matters worse, Antonio had just bought it with his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) by pawning bed sheets from her dowry. His fleeting dreams of supporting Maria and their son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) are gone in a matter of seconds: the thief rides into the busy streets of Rome, and Antonio will surely lose his new job without it.

Like most other films cut from the same cloth, Bicycle Thieves relies on an accessible story, realistic characters, and natural environments instead of spectacle and showmanship; it's a fair trade and, though its political and social subtext have become much less obvious in the last 68 years, De Sica's film works perfectly well as a straightforward narrative. From the hopeful introduction of its characters, the theft itself, and Antonio and Bruno's subsequent search for his precious bicycle (spoiler alert: it's not in The Alamo's basement), this is a short but memorable journey from the perspective of a restless family man with almost nothing left to lose. It also reminds us that, for some desperate families, just one stroke of bad luck is all the separates a modest life from the threat of total poverty. Still, there's a glimmer of hope during the unforgettable climax of Bicycle Thieves: as Antonio wrestles with the thought of becoming the man who wronged him, a simple act of grace can turn things back around just as quickly.

Endlessly dissected since its 1948 release and held on a pedestal during the last several decades, Bicycle Thieves stands tall as gripping drama on a small, accessible scale. It's the kind of film that feels almost effortless: skillfully acted, expertly shot and edited, and dripping with a slightly unsettling post-WWII atmosphere, it speaks volumes about the condition of trod-upon families who almost live as strangers in their own city. Bicycle Thieves barely even warrants a mild complaint: aside from the "seer", who dupes her gullible customers only to steer Antonio in the all-too-convenient right direction late in the film, it's almost pitch-perfect from start to finish. Much like their own 2007 DVD, Criterion now offers the film in a sparkling new Blu-ray that recycles the DVD's key extras but shines from a technical standpoint. Without question, it's a "total package" release that belongs on the shelf of any classic film lover.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Criterion's 1080p transfer of Bicycle Thieves looks much stronger and more stable than their own 2007 DVD. A new 4K restoration was used for this release...and combined with the obvious benefits of high definition and better encoding, everything about these visuals is more impressive overall. Black levels are consistent, image detail and textures are strong, and the film's natural grain structure is represented very well from start to finish, which results in an extremely natural, clean, and crisp appearance. No obvious digital imperfections or heavy manipulation (compression artifacts, interlacing, excessive noise reduction, etc.) could be spotted along the way, either. I simply can't imagine Bicycle Thieves looking much better on Blu-ray than it does here, even though a handful of unavoidable source material flaws (mild flickering, occasional softness, a few missing frames) are still present at times. Overall, die-hard fans and newcomers alike should be pleased with Criterion's efforts.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures in this review are decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.

There's much less to say about Italian PCM 1.0 track (also available, much like the DVD, as an optional English dub), aside from that it's perfectly adequate and sounds a little better than expected for a film approaching its 70th birthday. Dialogue, sporadic music cues, and background effects sound relatively crisp and clear without fighting for attention, while the overall audio experience even manages to showcase a few modest moments of depth at times. Overall, this lossless mono presentation is true to the source material and purists will enjoy it. Optional English subtitles are included during the film...and it's also worth noting that these are proper subs, not "dubtitles".

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

As usual, Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate. This one-disc release is locked for Region A players; it's packaged in their typical "stocky" keepcase and includes artwork and design elements similar to the 2007 DVD release (it's no longer a digipak, obviously). The included Booklet is quite substantial and includes a reprinted essay by film critic Godfrey Cheshire, photos, other short essays, and technical specs about the recent restoration.

Bonus Features

Everything from Criterion's 2007 DVD; nothing more, nothing less. These recycled supplements lead off with the 23-minute featurette "Working With De Sica" featuring actor Enzo Staiola, scholar Callisto Cosulich, and co-screenwriter Suso Cecchi d'Amico. Also here is the 40-minute history lesson "Life as It Is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy" hosted by author and film scholar Mark Shiel, as well as a 56-minute, career-spanning biographical piece on main screenwriter Cesare Zavattini produced in 2003. All three of these bonus features are well worth watching...but most fans have likely seen them already, which makes the lack of new supplements all the more disappointing.

Final Thoughts

Bicycle Thieves is one of those classic foreign films that everyone ought to see at least once: perfectly accessible and universally moving, it's aged incredibly well during the last 68 years (!) and still tops countless "All-Time Best" lists. I hadn't seen it since my college days and, as a relatively new father, it hit me in a much different way this time around. Criterion's new Blu-ray edition easily trumps their 2007 DVD; the bonus features are completely recycled, but a new 4K restoration makes it worth an upgrade for long-time fans of the film. Highly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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