(Original title: Ladri di biciclette)
Bicycle Thieves encapsulates and epitomises Italian neorealism, perhaps standing as the movement’s magnum opus. Vittorio De Sica’s Antonio Ricci is the hero. But he stands to contrast everything that “hero” used to mean in Italian cinema. Ricci is the working man, and his world is working class, post-war Rome. In fact, the only hint of glamour and wealth is a large, strikingly out-of-place Rita Hayworth poster slapped onto the wall by Ricci himself. Other than this, the rich are those who can afford a large plate of food – in one scene, Ricci’s son, Bruno, finds himself humbled by a boy in a restaurant with clean clothes, carelessly slurping at his spaghetti.
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De Sica’s film is a piece of real life, made real by the war and a population downtrodden and debased. The story itself is fuelled by a stolen bike and the terror that it brings upon father and son. Ricci needs his bike for the job he was lucky enough to find – and another man’s decision to steal this bike brings panic, regret and desperation to a man who needs all the luck he can find.
Maybe the driving force behind Bicycle Thieves, if not Ricci’s blind determination to find his bicycle, is the very world that is opened up as his search continues. The streets and the people shown in De Sica’s tale tell the viewer a great deal about a time and a place that desperately needed to be exposed. And while the film as a portrait appalled the Italians – who were, perhaps, too used to a cinema culture over-glamorizing and fantastical — it was also received as a visionary work of art much-needed and inevitably, much-appreciated.
Another source of power found within the film comes from Bruno, whose unwavering admiration for his father turns him into the ultimate companion. Bruno’s love for Antonio is deep, but not without judgement – as his father’s highs and lows throughout the film bring sadness and bitter disappointment. And possibly the most jarring aspect of Bicycle Thieves is the director’s use of real, everyday people in the place of professional actors. At the time, this was quite revolutionary – and it worked in the best possible way… When watching De Sica’s characters they are filled with a beautiful, inevitably human essence that provides a doorway into the film’s heart. There is reality and truth in this portrait of Italy (and much of Europe as the 1950’s approached) that could not be found elsewhere in cinema. Sometimes, film as an escape serves only to blind.
These are all moments of subtlety. Ricci’s frustration, his awkward humanity can almost be touched. The scene where father and son walk through a market in Rome sparks moments of tragic hope and quiet despair. The restaurant scene is warm and innocently joyous. Ricci’s last-resort (failed) attempt to steal somebody else’s bicycle is tragically funny and just as hopeless. The end scene, as the two heroes are lost in the crowd, feels as empty as the look on Ricci’s face. The whole film moves along to the pace of a half-broken world and the heartbeat of a helplessly trying man.
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