April 9, 2010

Bicycle Thieves

1948 film
directed by Vittorio De Sica
written by Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, Gerardo Guerrieri
based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini

(my review of the 1946 novel from which this is based)

Right from the start, De Sica proves himself a clever filmmaker. The title tells us that thieves will steal a bicycle, so he teases us, building anticipation as one moment follows another where our lead character, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), is forced to leave his bike unattended while his attention is drawn or he's called aside for a minute. Every time he does, our eyes are on the vulnerable vehicle, until the actual act itself, where we see the thieves coming as they lay a trap and spring. It's marvelous, masterful filmmaking on display.

And unlike the book, we care about the bicycle's fate. There, it was one of several owned by a prissy playboy intellectual who cut everything around him down with cynicism. Here, Antonio is a married father of two who finally scores an all-too-rare job in the economic depression that is post-WWII Italy, and the bicycle is a necessary requirement of his job: going from corner to corner, pasting new posters over layers of old ones. He's a genuinely honest, genuinely good fellow, so we feel his anger, we feel his desperation, we feel the gears of right and wrong start grinding against one another when, at a point near the end, he notices a bicycle left unattended on an empty street and starts the inner debate.

But the film doesn't end there with improvements upon the literature. While the book was a wasteland of lies and greed, there is genuine hope here. People gather at churches and help feed, clothe, and shave one another. Antonio's wife (piercing Lianella Carell) doesn't give a second thought before bundling up the linens to pay off a family debt. His friends (led by Gino Saltamerenda) give up part of their working day to fruitlessly search amongst thousands of bikes and parts in the black market. And his young son (the simultaneously innocent and mature Enzo Staiola) constantly tags by his father's side; even when the two have a squabble and put a visible distance between themselves, young Bruno still keeps pace with his father, offering a held hand when needed. But, alas, hope never overcomes all, and there is a proper air of genuine crushing reality that always lingers before it pushes itself to the stage. And the director once again shows his skill when things that seem like obvious movie setups (the friends will keep looking, the boy points out a distinct dent in the frame) never get the chance to pay off, not because they're forgotten, but because reality just doesn't work that way.

This film is rightfully held up as a fine example of the neorealist movement that spread across Europe after the studios suffered greatly from the war and depression that followed. As with others of the style, it deals with quiet, human stories, filmed cheaply on location with casts primarily consisting of amateurs. The lead himself, Maggiorani, was a factory worker who stumbled into the film business when this production cost him his job. He perfectly fits the image of the everyday man of this era, with a gaunt, underfed frame, the strong hands of a laborer, and eyes that are intelligent and hopeful, yet shaded with bouts of desperation.

And it's all put together beautifully by actor-turned-director De Sica. He knows how to build a scene, fill it with distinct people, and fluidly work the camera and editing to tell it to near perfection. Just look at the moment where Antonio finally confronts the thief, who leads his pursuer to the steps of his own home where his neighbors slowly swarm around the accuser, shouting that they know the criminal is a good boy, and how dare Antonio say such slanderous things, and he should listen to the mother shouting from the upstairs window that her child's record is clean. De Sica keeps us right near the eye level of Antonio as all avenues of escape and victory are shut tight and the situation goes from annoying to overwhelming to frightening.

This truly is a masterpiece. Now, yes, there are a few tiny arguments one could make about convenient plot points that casually drop out of the sky (Antonio randomly stumbles across the thief not once, but twice), and there is the occasional moment where the actors betray their amateur origins, but I don't care, and I'm sure most would agree. It's a marvelous work, deep and personal, yet broadly accessible and appealing.


(internet movie database)

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