Director: Vittorio Di Sica
Stars: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staidla
It was as good and moving as I remembered it. As a young man, the twin themes of injustice and male pressure/alienation rang out to me, and they are still there. Now, though, I have the luxury of watching the details more closely; the lay of post-war Italy, the religious statements, the flow of daily life. I notice the music and the cinematography, and marvel even more at De Sica’s brave decision to use non-actors. Just four years after it came out, it was judged by its peers in Sight & Sound’s magazine poll to have been the greatest film ever made, and it continues to list regularly in very high places among critics’ lists of the best movies ever (in the 2002 poll for that same magazine, 50 years later, it placed 45th – meaning that in all that intervening time, only 44 other films have been made that are considered better).
The story it tells is a simple one: Ricci, a poor man with a wife and two children to feed, is desperate for work. When the employment pool finally lands him an offer, he mentions that if he doesn’t get it he’ll be “waiting another two years.” The catch: the job requires him to have transportation, which at that time for people of his status, meant a bicycle. He lies and says he has one to get the job, but actually hocked his some time back. Upon learning the news, his wife sells their bedsheets to pay back the pawn of the bicycle (a wonderful scene that reminds me so much of a similar moment in 1952’s Scrooge). It is at this moment that we first realise we are watching a classic, even if one is seeing it for the first time; the gritty realism of working-class life really hits home here, the pressure ordinary people are under in society from so many different directions, not to mention the foreshadowing of Ricci’s possible future if things don’t go well; his wife has literally bet their marriage on it. If you’ve ever had to put everything you own, every cent in your bank account, on the line in the hope of future reward, this scene will touch a nerve.
De Sica wasn’t the first to do neo-realist “kitchen sink” drama, but in this one and his later Umberto D. he may have surpassed even the inventor of the form, Roberto Rosselini. Everything comes together so well here — the plain-faced working man (Lamberto Maggiorani, an actual factory worker) and his precocious son (Enzo Staiola) who struggles to live up to his tough but loving father; the cinematography of Carlo Montuori that gradually gets grayer and grayer as the moral nature of the story is revealed; the music by Alessandro Cicognini that blends beautifully into the street noises of Rome; the dialogue (in Italian, but Italian is a language that doesn’t depend on subtitles to get its meaning across) and of course the city itself, which demands co-star status just as it did in other films by both Italian and American filmmakers. Rome is more than a location, it is part and parcel of the story being told, whether it’s Ladri di biciclette or Roman Holiday, a Fellini film or an Audrey Hepburn vehicle.
When the precious bicycle is stolen, this simple act causes Ricci’s world to collapse, especially frustrating as he was so close to grabbing the best brass ring a man in his position could hope for; a simple honest job that paid well and where the work was steady. Losing the bike means that even this modest dream is slipping away, and leads Ricci to search throughout Rome, on foot, using what little money he has left, in a desperate attempt to retrieve the key to his happiness. At first he assumes the police will help, and like many law-abiding citizens is rather shocked to discover that they are rather indifferent to such a “minor” crime. We watch as Ricci goes through the stages of loss, and empathise with his plight as he leads us on an increasingly erratic travelogue through post-war, economically-depressed Rome.
By keeping the camera so commonly fixed on Maggiorani’s face, the lack of much in the way of “action” forces us to care about this character and the way the system continuously lets him down; from the police to the church — and ultimately to God and himself — nobody but nobody comes through for him, and the ratio of those who want to help versus those who simply don’t care forms a powerful commentary on the fragility and arbitrary nature of existence. Just today, by sheer coincidence, I happened to see a survey that said around 60% of workers live pretty much paycheque-to-paycheque. The more things change …
The rich tapestry of Italian life gives us a number of colourful supporting characters, from the friend who incompetently tries to help Ricci organise a search to the bike mechanic falsely accused, from his wife Maria to the psychic she trusts (mocked by Ricci at first, he eventually reaches the “bargaining” stage of grief and goes to see her himself, symbolising the end of his rational hopes), finally to the accused thief himself, and of course the young son who must tag along on this descent into hell, trying desperately for his father’s approval. Interestingly, I’ve never met a woman who’s seen the film who didn’t fixate on the boy’s perspective; just another example of the layers this seemingly simple tale contains. Fellini in particular was likely scribbling a lot of notes in the film’s many religiously-influenced scenes, as scenes of incredible similarity turned up in Nights of Caribia and other works.
Ultimately, the film does not lead you to any sort of neat ending, happy or unhappy. Having been rebuffed at his last, best hope for getting the bicycle back (which has now become his life, hopes and dreams), he sacrifices his own moral code and, under pressure and relentless temptation, tries to steal a bike to replace his loss, becoming the very thing he loathes and destroying the last shred of his character. His son rescues him from humiliation and possible jailing and leads the crying, broken man away to face an uncertain — but undoubtedly tragic — future. The impact of society’s failure and the relation of poverty, desperation and crime in the face of life’s inherent unfairness hits you like a one-two punch, and the indefinite ending leaves you reeling.
After 60 years, Bicycle Thieves still resonates, affects and engages its audience — this is what has earned it its classic status. If you can catch a screening of this 35mm anniversary print, do so; but if not, treat yourself and rent it. Watch it without distraction, in a dark room, so the effect of the visuals is not diminished; you may not fully see its greatness at first, perhaps, but this is one of those films that changes you, however subtly, and gives one yet another perspective on this world.