The Bicycle Thief
Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) is a 1948 film directed by Vittorio De Sica.
Sometimes called The Bicycle Thief in English, it has been a hallowed piece of cinema since its release in the 1950s, receiving an Academy Honorary award in 1950 and deemed the greatest film of all time in 1952. The title often pops up on most listicles of ‘Films to see Before You Die’, and Top 100 Films of All Time.
The film was on my radar, and I finally watched it using Amazon’s Mubi subscription this week.
I have never felt so immediately charmed and enthralled by a film before, it is just so immediately beautiful and likable that you can’t help but find yourself charmed by the beauty of the cinematography and the humanity of the story.
Set in Val Melaina, a social housing project on the outer edge of Rome, the film follow Antonio Ricci as he searches for work. He is offered a job hanging posters, but he needs a bicycle to take on the position. He goes to his wife Maria and tells her he cannot take the job because they pawned his bicycle to pay the bills. She promptly strips the sheets off the families beds-they were her family dowry, prized possessions- and brings them to the pawn shop where get enough money to redeem Antonio’s bicycle. The long queue at the pawnshop, the hundreds of bicycles hanging dormant in the shop communicate the harsh realities of hand to mouth living for many Italians following WWII.
During his first day on the job, as Antonio hangs a poster of Rita Hayworth, his bike is stolen. The remainder of the film depicts his quest to recover the bicycle, bringing the viewer to the police station, the Piazza Vittorio markets, a church, a brothel, a restaurant, and a few other neighborhoods of Rome.
The film is neo-realist, one of the first films I’ve seen from this era which strives to present a realistic portrait of everyday lives and circumstances. In contrast to the glossy, hyper-colorised American films from the 1950s, this film features worn clothes, small apartments, and paper-wrapped sandwiches. The hardship is never sensationalized or glorified, it is merely a fact of life.
De Sica’s commitment to realism resulted in an unconventional approach for the time, De Sica shot only on location and his cast used only untrained actors. (Lamberto Maggiorani, the film’s main protangonist, for example, was a factory worker.) That some actors’ roles paralleled their lives off screen added realism to the film. De Sica cast Maggiorani when he had brought his young son to an audition for the film. He later cast the 8-year-old Enzo Staiola when he noticed the young boy watching the film’s production on a street while helping his father sell flowers. Enzo is one of the best child characters I have ever seen, his gait, his hair, his eyes are all communicative and tender. The emotion of this film is so present, in every scene humanity is writ large.
I won’t spoil the story by revealing too much more of the plot. It is a simple enough story, but the detail, the rich beauty, the pain of fatherly devotion and thwarted aspirations make this an unmissable piece. The pain of the final scene is so heart-wrenching, and the plot remains open ended to a degree, making the meaning and significance of the story even more human.
This is a film I will watch over and over. The cinematic beauty is a balm for the hyper-fast highly coloured images we see in the course of our 21st century existence. The story is about family, about fathers and sons, and the impact of poverty on masculine confidence. It is about the care of a neighborhood, about a community that is both helpful and threatening, where some will steal from you and others will try and help you. The close-knit quality of neighborhood life is even more resonant given the context of post-facist Italy, where getting along with neighbors was quite literally a kind of life-saving force against the tyranny of totalitarian rule.
The scenery is so alive, the set pieces so real, that it feels like you are simultaneously watching a historical documentary and a film.
Absolutely watch this film, I cannot recommend it more highly.