I finally got around to watching Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette),something I long wanted to do, on Criterion Collection DVD. This Italian film from 1948 is considered one of the greatest films of all time by critics (a Sight and Sound Director’s poll in 2002, listed this as the 6th greatest film ever). It attains the peak of the Italian neo-realist film movement of the immediate post-war era. Such films did not use professional actors, used on location settings and generally avoided stylistic additions (viewing almost as documentary style).
Marxist in its fundamentals, the film depicts a poor, working class man named Antonio Ricci whose livelihood depends on a bicycle — “No bicycle, no job.” When the bicycle is stolen, Antonio, with his small son Bruno, look frantically around Rome desperately trying to find it. He ultimately finds the thief, but the thief’s neighbors protect him and the police tell Antonio there is not enough evidence to do anything with. Antonio finds himself with his son, sitting on the curb outside a crowded stadium, with hundreds of bikes all around him. He is tempted by the desperation he feels and tries to steal one. He is caught by a mob of men, and is humiliated in front of his son. The bicycle’s owner, feeling sorry for Bruno, decides not to press charges. Bruno and his father walk away, dejected and hopeless.
The story is simple, and successfully comes across as natural and non-contrived. The film succeeds in pulling the viewer emotionally into the story through its realistic depiction of the poverty and hopelessness of the characters. The film is grim in its aura and view of the human condition, with its lack of humanitarian characters from any social strata seeming particularly negative. I think its message is harmed by this negativity and lack of being able to find anything or anyone of moral value during the search for the bike. I disagree with the implied suggestion that a non-Marxist society results in low societal mores with a complete lack of compassion in society and in fact would argue that last century proved it was Marxism that was the great debaser of the human condition and the dignity of man.
Nonetheless, the story is good as is the film-making. Lamberto Maggiorani (a factory worker in real life) and Enzo Staiola play the lead roles, but Rome itself is the star, in its post WWII, yet pre-boom, setting. I can understand this movie being critically revered, yet largely unknown to the American public. The deconstructionist approach of the film, despite gritty realism as its raison d’etre, makes it difficult for the viewer to be pulled in. Perhaps it intentionally keeps the viewer at arms length, making us outside observers of the human condition? The film has a forced propaganda feel to it, while attempting to blanket humanity with the sin of mass indifference towards our fellow man. Yet, there is a truthfulness to it, a reminder of the precariousness of life, and the sometimes cruel nature of the world. Recommended, but drink some wine from Friuli to lighten the mood some!