Arts & Events
Some films carry with them the burden of their own achievements, their reputations so ingrained in the public consciousness that often those who have never seem them convince themselves they have. And when they finally do see those films the expectations can be almost insurmountable, rendering the experience underwhelming. Try explaining to the uninitiated the allure of Casablanca, or the innovation and genius of Citizen Kane. For many younger viewers these films are merely overhyped relics from a pitiful, technologically challenged era.
Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is one of those films. Those seeing it for the first time, stripped of its historical and political context, may be slightly baffled, and not by its slice-of-life documentary approach, its focus on the everyday lives of common people and ultimate lack of closure. Instead, the problem stems from the fact that these techniques have become commonplace and too often employed in lesser films that only aspire to the humanity and depth of a film like Bicycle Thieves, one of the classics of Italy’s vaunted neo-realist movement.
Criterion has released the film in a new DVD edition that features a pristine transfer as well as extra features that help locate this enduring masterpiece in the cinematic pantheon.
The plot is simple: In Rome, during the aftermath of World War II, when out-of-work men roam the city like dogs, Antonio Ricci gets hired to put up posters around the city. The only requirement is that he own a bicycle. Things are looking up for him and his family for about a day or so, until his bicycle is stolen. The rest of the film largely consists of Antonio and his young son desperately scouring the city for the stolen bike.
De Sica did not embrace the neo-realist label, though this and several other of his works have come to define it. The movement began as a reaction to the rather staid environment in Italian filmmaking at the time. It was a complacent industry, modeled to an extant after the American film industry, manufacturing light escapist fantasy for the masses. The Italian film industry had been built up in the years before World War II by Mussolini as a method of shoring up the fascist narrative, but the machinery he put in place would, once the war was over, serve as a powerful means of documenting the tragic effects of that narrative.
The neo-realists’ idea was to take this unique medium and turn its gaze on the real world, to eschew manufactured sets, tidy plotlines, ornate photography and camera movements and instead simply confront everyday life. The conceit even extended to the casting, as it did in Bicycle Thieves, with De Sica hiring non-professional actors for the lead roles.
Simple touches are sprinkled throughout the film, details which may not seem especially subtle today but certainly were by the standards of most Hollywood fare of the time: The posters Antonio must plaster along the backalleys of Rome feature glamorous images of Rita Hayworth in luxuriant repose, in stark contrast to the run-down environs and egos of the main characters; and when Antonio lifts his wife to a window to peer into the headquarters of his new employer and admire the building’s relative opulence, the window is abruptly closed from within. Thus the message is clearly and effectively conveyed that the finer things in life are not to be had by these down-and-out folks, though optimism and ambition still glitter in their eyes.
Bicycle Thieves presents a moving and compassionate portrait of the working class struggling in the face of deprivation and poverty, and though the film’s reputation may precede it, at times to the point of distraction, the film’s techniques are ultimately as poignant and as timeless as its content.
BICYCLE THIEVES (1948)
Directed by Vittorio De Sica. 89 minutes. In Italian with English subtitles. Criterion Collection. $39.95. www.criterionco.com.