The Film: 'Bicycle Thieves' (1948), Dir. Vittorio De Sica
Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola and Lianella Carell.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: Well, I guess I haven't seen it because -- Wait! I'm turning the tables this week. How many of you have seen 'Bicycle Thieves' (or as it's commonly known as in North America, 'The Bicycle Thief')? C'mon. Be honest. Let's see a show of hands. Yeah. That's what I thought. No one has actually seen this movie. It's all part of a big conspiracy of people claiming to have seen it to show how cultured they are. I will now be the first person to actually watch it.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions: 'Bicycle Thieves' is the classic tale of man has bicycle, man loses bicycle, man searches for bicycle, man steals bicycle and realizes that he has become part of the vicious circle of poverty that led to his loss of bicycle in the first place. The film follows a man and his child as they search the city for his stolen mode of transportation, which he desperately needs to do his job, which is the only thing keeping him and his family from starving to death.
It's a firmly episodic adventure, which would be a problem if the film was about plot, but it's not. Like most films to emerge from 1940s Italian neo-realism, 'Bicycle Thieves' is all about theme and message and, thankfully, the theme and message here is not only timeless, it's timely. What do Americans circa 2010 and post-WWII Italy have in common? They both look just about ready to collapse into a lawless wasteland straight out of 'The Road Warrior.'
The film may be vital, but it's certainly not subtle, choosing to lay the message on thick through obvious imagery and longwinded speeches. The film's blunt-force-head-trauma message delivery system wouldn't be a problem if the film was paced quickly, but at a slow two and a half hours, it definitely becomes a chore at times.
'Bicycle Thieves' was part of a movement of films that were made to spur social change, not provide entertainment or tell gripping stories. To a modern viewer, this makes the film a fascinating artifact, something to be studied and appreciated, but not always enjoyed -- at least not in the typical meaning of the world.
Eh, or so my film textbook in college told me. When my film history class hit Italian neo-realism, my professor decided to show us Roberto Rossellini's 'Open City' instead of 'Bicycle Thieves.' I appreciated the hell out of 'Open City,' but it wasn't the kind of movie I'd be eager to revisit. I expect the same out of this one.
Post-Viewing Reaction: 'Bicycle Thieves' is not two and a half hours long. In fact, it's a briskly paced 89 minutes, further proof that black and white plus subtitles plus classic status does not necessarily mean you're in for a slog. While I was wrong about the length and pace, I was right about how the film's message is handled: director Vittorio De Sica's got himself some heavy hands, ensuring that every frame of the film is pounding the film's message deep into our skulls.
This would be an issue if the film itself wasn't so powerful. 'Bicycle Thieves' may lack subtlety, but you can feel De Sica's sympathy for his characters, his anger at his poverty stricken homeland, in every frame of the film. Modern "message movies" feel deliberately manufactured to win Oscars, to feel important and give movie stars a chance to cry on camera and show everyone how deep they can be. Filmed on location using non-actors, there is a stunning authenticity to 'Bicycle Thieves' and the message stops feeling like a message and starts feeling like, well, life. As blatant as the film's meaning is, it's not delivered through speeches, but rather through knowing glances and the actions of the characters. De Sica is smart enough to realize that you don't preach to an audience -- you show them what they need to know. A picture's worth a thousand words, so here are twenty four a second.
The film's social responsibility reminds me very much of Charles Dickens, who built a career telling rags-to-riches stories that showcased the trials of lower class and the hypocrisy of the rich. If Dickens was Italian, alive in the 1940s and forgot the glimmer of hope that lies at the end of much of his work, he would have written the story of Antonio, who lands a job hanging posters around Rome. It's a good job and it pays well ... and it requires him to use his bicycle, which has been hocked. This leads to one of the most powerful images in the film: his wife pawns their bedsheets to get the money to buy back the bicycle and we see her bundle of sheets added to a vast warehouse filled with thousands of similar bundles. There is more than enough bedsheets to keep every family in Rome warm at night, but no one can afford to keep them.
The rest of the story is well known enough (and somewhat accurately recounted in my pre-viewing section). His bike is stolen and he journeys across the city, desperately trying to find it so he can keep his job. A stolen bicycle today is a first world problem. For this man, a stolen bicycle means a loss of livelihood, a possible farewell to a roof over his head and food on his table. As he grows more and more desperate, he transforms into a different man, dismissive of his wife's feelings and his son's safety. Eventually, he makes the decision to steal a bike for himself (and we can't help but agree with this decision) and we are forced to ask an obvious but vital question: is the original thief a bad person or is he like Antonio, a good person backed into a corner? As the film reaches its sobering, heartbreaking conclusion, this question is thankfully left unanswered -- life is all about those moral ambiguities, those questions without answers, those small victories and bitter defeats.
The film isn't visually interesting and the sound work feels primitive even by the standards of the time, but that may very well be the point. This is not a movie. This is a raw depiction of reality. This style of filmmaking wouldn't hit America until the 1970s, meaning that while the film is not a technical wonder, it still feels very much ahead of its time. The only technical flaw that sticks out like a sore thumb is the derivative musical score, which feels out of place in a film this grounded in hard, gritty reality. The film would have benefited from a solely diegetic soundtrack.
'Bicycle Thieves' reminded me very much of Akira Kurosawa's 'Stray Dog,' the story of a Tokyo police officer in post-World War II Japan whose gun is pick pocketed, sending him on a quest to find the thief. Although more of a noir than a social message, it's a close cousin to 'Bicycle Thieves' through its depiction of a nation that did not emerge from the war as a victor. World War II may have put America on the road to prominence, but it left countries like Italy and Japan crippled for decades to come. It's sobering to see these films and to try to comprehend what these people went through. It's only by watching 'Bicycle Thieves' and seeing what De Sicca had to live through that we can understand why he made this film in the first place.
Next Week's Column: Last week, Alfred Hitchcock's 'The 39 Steps' was the clear cut winner for what movie I should watch next. Now, my current batch is down to two films: one 1970s tough guy classic and one of the most infamous and controversial horror films of all time. Vote for what I should watch in the comments below!
'The Sound of Music'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'