Bicycle Thieves is a poignant neorealist work
The Bicycle Thieves (Ladri
Directed by Vittorio de Sica.
Written by Cesare Zavattini.
Starring Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola.
LSC Classics Friday.By Stephen Brophy
Have you ever watched people on the street and tried to decipher them from the clues your eyes gather, to make up life stories for them? At the beginning of The Bicycle Thieves a man emerges from a crowd of unemployed workers, and after we have contemplated his working-class tragedy, he blends back with the masses as the movie comes to its end.
Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is one man among thousands trying to find a way to survive with his young family in the chaos of post-war Rome. He is offered a job hanging posters as the movie begins, but to keep the job he will have to get his bicycle out of hock. To do this, his wife Maria - a fiercely protective proletarian madonna - offers to pawn some bed linens that comprise her dowry.
Their happiness and security don't last long. One day while Antonio is struggling to smooth out a poster of an impossibly nubile Rita Hayworth on a rough stone wall, a shifty-eyed passerby jumps on his bike and rides it away. Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzio Staiola) begin a desperate odyssey through the neighborhoods of Rome to find the bike, without which he will lose his job.
While his father is the protagonist of this story, Bruno serves as its moral center. At first he seems prone to be one of those insufferably perky little monsters who populated so many Hollywood movies of the 1930s and '40s. But Bruno endures a lot through the course of this film, and when Antonio has completed his descent into hell, it is Bruno who takes him by the hand and leads him back out.
The Bicycle Thieves is one of the crown jewels of neorealism, the post-war Italian philosophy of filmmaking that permanently reinvigorated our world of cinema. Rejecting the illusory glamour and set-bound artificiality of conventional filmmaking, neorealism took its stories from the struggles of the working class, went out into the streets to record them, and used non-professional actors to tell them. This style borne of scarcity is also typified by a grainy, almost documentary cinematography, and frequent use of hand-held camera.
Cesare Zavattini, the script writer for Bicycle Thieves, was the most important theoretician of neorealism. He wrote his screenplay in just four days after watching an attempted theft while sitting at an outdoor Roman cafe. "My fixed idea is to deromanticize the cinema," he said. "I want to teach people to see daily life with the same passion they experience in reading a book." A committed Marxist, he spread his ideas in polemical essays and critiques as well as in many screenplays and collaborations with Vittorio de Sica and other directors.
Vittorio de Sica, director of The Bicycle Thieves, was also an accomplished actor. The courtly graciousness and romantic tenderness of his characters in the films of other artists like Rossellini or Ophuls reveal both the strengths and the weaknesses of his style of filmmaking. At its best his work is suffused with a tender love for his characters, which overrides the melodrama to which he is a little too prone. He has also made too many films full of empty stylishness and very little else. The Bicycle Thieves holds a secure place among his finest accomplishments.
This movie was released in Italy with the title Ladri di Biciclette, which is a plural construction. For American release it was given the simplified singular title, The Bicycle Thief, which is the way most people in this country now know it. Recently there has been a movement among serious writers about film to use the more correct plural, a movement in which I am a participant.
Other LSC movies this weekend include: Six Degrees of Separation on Friday; Walt Disney's Aladdin on Saturday; and the beloved classic Casablanca on Sunday. A $3 Classics Double Bill ticket will get you into both The Bicycle Thieves and any other one of these excellent features.