Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette)
Italy (1948) Dir. Vittorio De Sica
Following a two year run without a job Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) finally gets some work putting up bill posters, but is told a bicycle is essential for the job. However Antonio has already pawned the bike for food so his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) pawns their sheets to buy the bike back. Unfortunately on his first shift the bike is stolen and the police won’t do anything to help, leaving Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) to scour the vast streets of Rome to find the bike otherwise he’ll lose the job.
Directed by Vittorio De Sica this is a highly regarded example of Italian Neo-realism cinema which regularly scores highly in polls by film critics and cineastes alike. After finally viewing it I can see why. It’s a simple story with a simple concept, played out in fairly straightforward style, free from the “heaviness” of the symbolism of German cinema or the philosophical musings of Bergman or Dryer. Yet it contains hidden depths to convey the gravity of Antonio’s plight and the increasing weight of his burden as the search becomes more and more fruitless.
The Neo-realisitc style was based around highlighting the social divide between the rich and poor in post WWII Italy which De Sica addresses here in an even handed, non-didactic manner, yet at its heart it is a basic tale of desperation. Rome may be the capital of Italy and usually seen as one of the more glamorous and thriving metropolises of Europe but here it was just as much a home to poverty as affluence. Punctuated throughout the film are moments to reflect this, the most striking seeing father and son being frowned upon by a rich family in a restaurant whilst eating the same food and drinking the same wine. At first there is a sense of victory until Antonio starts to work out how much money they stand to lose without the job, bringing mood back to miserable reality.
Things come to a head in a heartbreaking moment when Antonio’s desperation reaches breaking point and his actions lead to he is humiliated in front of Bruno. In Hollywood’s hands this would have been an over saturated piece of mawkish melodrama with overacting and a thunderously gut wrenching accompanying soundtrack; De Sica simply lets the acting and facial expressions of his non-professional cast do all the work and it is all the more powerful and emotional for it. In fact this sums up the modus operandi of the entire film – the cast literally tell the story and display the emotions of their characters without having to overdo anything (hence the “realism” moniker) and frankly do a much better job than most pros would have.
Watching this on BluRay the transfer is stunning with a nice clear picture belying the 1948 date of its making, taking nothing away from its portrayal of the financial struggle of the lower classes in Rome back then. As a piece of cinema, art or whatever you want to call it, this is a film which deserves to be seen for how to tell a simple story in which the characters go on a huge emotional and physical journey in a touching and authentic manner, with a touch of social commentary and even rom for some humour to boot. Being Italian is not an issue, its message and themes are universal, much like its reputation as a classic film.
Simply put, this is cinema as it should be.