Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)

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Neorealism, a movement in Italian filmmaking just after World War II, describes a ruthless documentarylike approach to cinematic narrative — a passage to depth by means of the famous “ring of truth,” in an unmistakably grim place where everything was irrevocably altered by recent events. Scenes extend beyond their ordinary dramatic limit, direction is sometimes harsh and deliberately unfocused, and characters are rarely certain of what to do next. In execution, however, neorealism often isn’t much more honest or much more a slice of real life than any other given style of narrative filmmaking. The intentions are pure, of course, but the chasm between real life and dramatic actions and dialogue is still oppressively huge. For this reason, the Italian neorealism as popularized by Roberto Rossellini was a short-lived phenomenon, but the best-known neorealist features remain among the most celebrated in world cinema.

As realism it fails, and it fails on other fronts as well, but Bicycle Thieves certainly has good points. The photography, for all the claims to a gritty absence of visual subjectivity, is beautiful. Something as simple as a shot of various people crossing a bridge becomes stunning, weighty. The acting is highly impressive, more so given that all of the performers were amateurs. And the recreation of a time and place is vivid, yet expertly subdued. By this I mean that while the movie is clearly designed as very much a comment on Italy in the late 1940s, it manages to be entirely universal, which is undoubtedly its chief virtue. The most overwhelmingly moving example of its patient, perceptive familiarity: After just an hour or so on the job, the protagonist Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) finds that his employment is basically doomed. The life falls from his face, he makes tentative movements in several directions, goes back to try and finish a bit more of his work, then finally gives up, breaks down, and wanders the streets. All I can say is that this is exactly the way I reacted to nearly the same situation (sans bike), which must mean that it is an exceptionally well-observed moment on the part of actor, writer, and director.

The story of Bicycle Thieves is simple, sounding almost banal when summarized: A man desperate for a job finally finds one but discovers that he needs a bicycle; his wife pawns off their bedsheets to get one. Almost immediately after getting started, the bike is stolen, and he and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) take to the streets of Rome to find it. The rest of the film is about the hot, frustrating, desperate day they spend attempting to find the bicycle. And of course, by the third act it is apparent that the title refers not just to the barely-seen villain but to the hapless Antonio himself. The final punch is similar to that of the Hollywood feature I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (“”How do you live?”” “”I steal!””), but instead of settling for irony, Vittorio De Sica’s film stretches over the line and becomes maudlin. Understanding himself the movie’s point that morals are not as cut-and-dried as we wish they were, the victim of our hero’s thievery forgives him after looking into the face of his son. The movie closes with the two of them walking anonymously in a large, intimidating group of people (a direct quote from King Vidor’s The Crowd). His pride wounded, Antonio gazes at Bruno and begins to cry, and that is the end.

There is something beautiful in that final scene, complicated emotions welling up between a devastated father and suddenly mature son — but its catharsis still feels too easy, unwarranted by anything that comes before. It seems to be emotion for the sake of emotion, in a film that has not suffered from a shortage of it (another way in which the “neorealism” label is inaccurate). We don’t need a reminder of the duplicity of human nature; we’ve had fifty of them in the film already. De Sica seems torn between a view of his characters as machinations and a more conventional portrayal of them as people with thoughts and feelings, but he cannot decide between the two opposites and as such is unable to sell the audience on either. We don’t truly know these people. All that this film really does is create a couple of ciphers and place them in a single awful situation so we can watch them flounder, thus it becomes misery porn. It oversells its own cause and provides comfort to the audience who are thus able to see in it whatever they wish; a look at the IMDB comments reveals a cross-section of people who see the film as an anti-capitalism parable, others who look upon it as an agonized protest against the prices of war. If the film had stronger characters instead of stereotypes, neither of those viewpoints would seem so cushy.

Antonio, who only feels like a full-bodied character in a lively sequence that has him splurging on lunch in a restaurant, amounts to a stereotype of a blue-collar capitalist worker: he turns in his dire straits to every false cause, every “quick fix” that is available, and is duped by every one of them. In the running time of the movie, he tries to benefit his situation by drinking away his problems, eating away his problems, visiting a psychic, hitting his child, picking fights with street hooligans, and stealing. If the film’s point is that people in rough situations are more vulnerable than others, it’s right, but the drama that results might be more believable if we could find any way to understand a character who’s incredibly inconsistent despite holding our sympathies, perhaps because he is mostly there to illustrate a point and not to live and breathe as a person. The film’s other major character, Bruno, feels even more like a symbol than the bicycle he’s trying to recover, providing mostly a downcast, disappointed glare when he isn’t doing something that vaguely smacks of Jackie Cooper-like cutesiness.

In the use of location and music, Bicycle Thieves anticipates and obviously influenced The 400 Blows, but cannot compare for a second to that wonderful, life-affirming, devastatingly beautiful movie. Bicycle Thieves tries for the same kind of connection and gets there in a certain technical fashion, but it’s just a cold, mawkish anecdote and a skeleton of a great movie. In the past when I’ve ventured to express how I felt about this movie I’ve been directly accused of having no heart, but I really don’t need a film to assure me of my compassion (especially when there are so many stronger ones I can point to — even De Sica’s own Umberto D, no less a narrative of suffering, has far more convincing characterization and really tugs at me). That said, this is certainly an astounding achievement in nearly every respect — acting, cinematography, on and on — except its unfortunately hollow story, which is all too straightfaced and determinedly sentimental to take real advantage of its ironies. This gives me the same empty feeling of simultaneous admiration and sickly manipulation as Federico Fellini’s La Strada. I find that I want to feel something, but I don’t.

[Shortened version of a review posted in 2006. Film was more famously known in the English-speaking world as The Bicycle Thief until a better re-translation became canonical in 2007.]

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