Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Dir. Vittorio De Sica
Scr. De Sica, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Gerardo Guerrieri, Cesare Zavattini
Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell,
Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci, Giulio Chiari
Review By Greg Klymkiw
The sheer weight of a great film's importance can often be incalculable and this is certainly the case with Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, a movie that never ceases to render its emotional wallops with the force of a battering ram no matter how many times one sees the picture. It is the quintessential drama about poverty and easily the preeminent work of neorealism from post-war Italian Cinema.
The picture is untouchable.
Like the best neorealism, De Sica uses a cast of real people instead of professional actors (not a single person in the film seems out of place, delivering performances that are nothing less than pitch-perfect) and he shoots the film in locations where the story is actually set; so real and immediate to the period that we can still see the rubble of bombed-out buildings from WWII. There are moments when (and again, no matter how many times one sees it), that it's impossible to feel like you're watching anything other than the real thing, a story with the force of a cinéma vérité documentary; its drama so cleverly, brilliantly constructed that one does not see a single seam, not even a stitch.
First and foremost, De Sica and his clutch of writers trust in the simplicity of great stories. Bicycle Thieves, on its surface can't be more simple.
Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), his family living in the dank, paint-peeling impoverishment of a slum walk-up, finally gets a job in the utter destitution plaguing post-war Italy. The job requires him to have a bicycle. His loving wife Maria (Lianella Carell) sells all the sheets from their beds to pay for a pawn ticket to get hubby's bike out of hock. On his first day of work, Antonio's bicycle is stolen.
No bike. No job.
He has a day and a half to find his stolen bike before his next shift. With the help of son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) and best friend Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda) a long, desperate and frustrating search leads to bupkis. Not even finding the thief (Vittorio Antonucci) yields fruit. Fraught with anguish, Antonio appears to have only one choice, a choice that will lead to salvation or (especially given the relatively recent and proper translation of the film's title from "The" Bicycle Thief to Bicycle "Thieves") even more pain and humiliation.
Of course, there's so much more. Great storytellers realize that a clear, simple narrative is what's required to render a film that yields complexities extending well beyond the simplicity of the story itself. It's the springboard by which the film keeps us glued to the screen and then keeps us thinking about what we've seen (and often weeping) long after the word "FIN" hits the final title card.
From the beginning to the devastating end, De Sica places us deep in the heart of a world where the divides between rich and poor are so glaring, one feels just how prescient the film is (in spite of being set in Italy over 50 years ago). The divides we witness are not unlike those facing the world even now.
The film is populated with a multitude of the poor, yet there is one shot after another wherein someone of considerable privilege enters the frame, strutting through without a care in the world; a primly-dressed young fop blowing bubbles in the blazing sun, a vile upper-crust pedophile attempting to lure Bruno with the promise of a bicycle bell, a wealthy family dining in a restaurant with such manners and delicacy that Bruno is almost ashamed to eat his fried mozzarella sandwich with his hands, and most notable are the bureaucratic clerks behind windows to disdainfully serve the great unwashed.
There's even a strange sense that anyone with a job is endowed with a certain degree of entitlement, though wisely, the picture also includes those workers who display a near-resigned (though genuine) commitment to helping those in need. When Maria attempts to hock the family sheets, the pawn clerk argues that her sheets are used, but the look of desperation in Maria's face when she explains that three of the sheets are brand new and Antonio's noble discomfort when he asks for a bit more money are enough to change the clerk's mind and he generously offers extra cash he really shouldn't.
A glimpse into the hock shop's storage room is another exceptional example of De Sica's use of real locations. From Antonio's POV we see a huge wall piled high with bedsheets and, one of the many times during the picture in which we're reduced to tears, is when we (and Antonio) realize that the sheets indeed garnered a fair price as a worker climbs a heaven-touching ladder to deposit them near the top with all the other sheets of "lesser" value.
Another phenomenal use of locations is when Antonio visits a tiny vaudeville-styled theatre in which his friend Baiocco is directing an "unsophisticated" musical number and we're greeted with a faded backdrop on the stage, a handful of gaudily-attired performers, a few rows of decidedly uncomfortable seats and a group of poverty/labour activists (seemingly the real thing) demanding access to the theatre for their meeting. And, of course, the next day, we witness the kindness of Baiocco and his fellow water-truck labourers as they stop work on their paid jobs to help Antonio find the bicycle.
De Sica's overall direction is masterful. There are moments of dread and suspense which are so harrowing that I continue to be on the edge of my seat, each and every time I see the picture. After Antonio gets his bike back, there are a series of shots showing that Antonio's bicycle appears unattended as his attention is drawn to a few other matters. The first time I saw the film, these shots had me squirming. Given that I knew the title of the film and the manner in which the shots are framed, I still remember the dread I felt that the bicycle might be stolen here (it isn't, not yet).
Even more astounding is how I continued to feel queasy upon seeing the film just recently (and in spite of the fact that I've watched the movie once or twice a year over the course of forty years). One scene after another displays moments of situations similar to the aforementioned and my initial feelings from my very first viewing never dissipate. I think I get sick to my stomach even more. It's not unlike seeing superbly constructed set-pieces in a Hitchcock picture. I find myself thinking, "Oh God, no! Please, not that!"
And, you might ask, why is a bicycle so important to Antonio's new job? First and foremost, the job itself offers generous monthly wages (relatively), a monthly family bonus and other assorted benefits. This is because Antonio is working for a film exchange specializing in the shipping and distribution of Hollywood movies and P.R. materials. Antonio is armed with a clutch of posters, a brush, a bucket of glue and a ladder to tool all over a wide city route on his bicycle in order to put the glossy adverts up. It's not just a job, it's a great job.
And I reiterate: No bike. No job.
Though I don't think De Sica is overtly heavy-handed in doing so, it's clear that we're meant to think about the kinds of films being publicized; films representing the American dream factory, far removed from the kind of film De Sica himself has made and most of all, representing the kind of hopes and dreams the post-war poor can't even begin to imagine for themselves. Antonio is putting up a poster featuring the dazzling Rita Hayworth when his bicycle is stolen. Sadly, it's not gorgeous Rita who is literally distracting him, but his job. (Curiously, David O. Selznick even considered an American remake of Bicycle Thieves starring Gary Cooper which, thankfully, never saw the light of day. I'm sure it would have been a great Hollywood picture, but I can't imagine it would have represented the honest emotion De Sica is clearly going for.)
There are two sequences in two different public marketplaces that Antonio and Bruno find themselves in, desperately looking for the stolen bicycle. In the first, Antonio thinks he's found the frame of his bike at one of the stands and demands to see the serial number. The proprietors claim they run an honest business and insist they do not deal in stolen merchandise. We don't believe them for a second, but even though they do deal in stolen goods, De Sica shoots the entire series of shots comprising this that we understand why they would.
The second sequence involves Antonio and Bruno desperately searching the other market as rain pounds down torrentially. If it wasn't for the rain, we might even see tears and in one shot, Bruno's eyes appear moist beyond the mere rain pelting upon them with a gale force.
Herein and throughout, De Sica has us swimming in the turbulent sea of humanity.
And the humanity: Oh! The humanity, Oh! The humanity.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
The new Criterion Collection release of Bicycle Thieves comes replete with a new digital restoration (4K on the Blu-ray), with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray; Working with De Sica, a collection of interviews with screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, actor Enzo Staiola, and film scholar Callisto Cosulich; Life as It Is, a program on the history of Italian neorealism, featuring scholar Mark Shiel; a 2003 documentary from 2003 on screenwriter and longtime Vittorio De Sica collaborator Cesare Zavattini, directed by Carlo Lizzani; an optional English-dubbed soundtrack; and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Godfrey Cheshire and reminiscences by De Sica and his collaborators.