The Criterion Collection says Bicycle Thieves; Appellate Judge Dan Mancini says The Bicycle Thief. Let's call the whole thing off.
"In my opinion, De Sica was really a filmmaking genius, because he had enormous intuition and sensitivity, but above all he was a driving force. When dealing with a child, he was able to charm and mold him until he became extremely natural, looking like he had played that role forever."—Sergio Leone, "The Smallest Detail"
Ask me what Italian Neorealism is all about and instead of going on and on about postwar economic depression, left-wing politics, and stark naturalism I'll recommend you watch Bicycle Thieves. Its 89 minutes will tell you more about the movement's style and substance than any of my blathering can. Not only is director Vittorio De Sica's study of life on the hardscrabble streets of Rome immediately after World War II a must-see piece of cinema, it's among that special breed of classic that doesn't require suffering through. For all its dark themes and pessimism, it's a captivating, emotionally compelling drama that entertains.
Facts of the Case
Antonio Ricci (Lamberti Maggiorani, Achtung! Banditi!) is an unemployed lathe worker trying to make ends meet for his wife and two kids during Italy's postwar depression. He finally lands work hanging advertising posters all over Rome, but there's one problem: the job requires a bicycle, and Antonio pawned his in order to buy his family food. Ricci's good-natured wife Maria (Lianella Carell, The Counterfeiters) pawns their bed sheets in order to buy back the bike. The Riccis' good fortune doesn't hold out, however, as the bicycle is stolen on Antonio's first day on the job. Met with apathy when he files a police report, Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola, The Barefoot Contessa) hit the Roman streets on the desperate longshot they can find the stolen key to their survival.
It's no secret Italian Neorealism is deeply informed by socialist and communist politics, but the earliest entries in the movement (those made before 1950) weren't merely socioeconomic polemics. Produced immediately after World War II, they were intended in part to remind America and western Europe that Italians were human beings, that not all of them supported Mussolini's fascist government, and that some worked against the leadership of their own country to help secure victory for the Allies. Bicycle Thieves isn't as overtly political as, say, Roberto Rossellini's Paisan, but it still falls into the category of early Neorealist film meant to advocate leftist politics as well as give celluloid flesh and bones to the very real economic suffering of the citizens of decimated Italy. It's a credit to Vittorio De Sica's enormous talent that the film transcends its firm political footing to fire on all cylinders as a raw and truthful human drama.
It's a convention of Neorealism to eschew professional actors in favor of less mannered, more authentic amateurs. Neither Lamberti Maggiorani or Enzio Staiola had professional experience as actors when De Sica cast them as father and son in Bicycle Thieves (each would go on to act in other films). The duo gives the film a harrowing sense of reality, yet Bicycle Thieves doesn't suffer an iota from stilted delivery of dialogue, over or under-acting, woodenness of characterization, or an intruding sense of the film's awareness of itself as a piece of fiction. Before moving behind the camera to become one of the fathers of Neorealism, Vittorio De Sica was a movie star. No doubt his talent and experience as an actor are responsible for the astonishing performances he was able to draw out of amateurs. It's said that Charlie Chaplin directed actors so effectively because he was better than they were, and knew exactly how they should approach their roles even if they didn't. I suspect it was the same with De Sica. In many ways, as a matter of fact, Bicycle Thieves is De Sica's riff on Chaplin's The Kid. Its father-son relationship is so palpable, so entirely convincing that one has to believe De Sica could relate intimately with both Antonio and Bruno; that he was playing both roles in his head even as he directed his actors. Whatever powers De Sica used to coax these amazing performances out of a man and boy who'd never acted on film before, the fact remains that, beyond politics, the movie's greatest achievement is its realistic, unsentimental, but highly emotional depiction of a father's relationship with his young son.
Bicycle Thieves is about Ricci's emasculation—not literal, not even economic, but his symbolic emasculation in the eyes of his son, his loss of moral authority. De Sica pits market capitalism against the well-being of the traditional Italian family, and makes his protagonist's soul the battleground. In one of the movie's many small but touching moments, Ricci, having failed to catch the crook who rode off on his bike, returns to the placard he was hanging when the crime occurred and finishes gluing it in place. De Sica's message is clear: Ricci is exceedingly decent and honorable. Watching him struggle to provide his wife (a loyal and supportive woman) and children with the barest of life's necessities is heartbreaking. As Ricci and Bruno set out to recover the stolen bicycle, we're as overwhelmed as they are by the longshot odds of finding a particular bicycle in a Roman metropolis teeming with postwar blackmarket crime. But how will the Riccis survive if they don't find the bike?
Because of the family's dire straits, we (like they) hold onto the slimmest hope that by some miracle the bike will be found. This is a movie after all, and miracles happen in movies all the time—right? Unfortunately for us and for the Riccis, this isn't that sort of movie. It's a movie that mirrors our real world in which cops don't take time out of their busy days to find stolen bicycles, serendipity doesn't arrive on the scene to right all wrongs, and there are no convenient deus ex machina. As Bicycle Thieves enters its final act, Ricci begins to crack under the pressure of the growing realization that he'll never find the bicycle, and that he'll soon be unemployed once again. We begin to crack under the growing realization that this admirable man will likely have to sacrifice his moral character on behalf of the survival of his family; and that when and if he chooses to abandon his own decency, his young son will be alongside him to witness the whole thing. The movie's real and all-too-human tragedy transcends politics and the theoretical framework of art movements by keeping its narrative feet firmly planted in the plight of its father and son team. Bicycle Thieves is as compelling a piece of storytelling as it is politically and economically astute.
I'm beginning to run out of superlatives to describe Criterion's luscious transfers of black-and-white films, but what can I do? Their work here doesn't leave much room for griping. The transfer comes from a digitally restored 35mm duplicate negative. Minor source damage aside, the image is beautiful. Viewers familiar with the previous Image DVD or old VHS copies, will be blown away by the improved clarity and contrast. That said, those irked by Criterion's recent practice of window-boxing full frame transfers in order to avoid overscan by inferior tube televisions will be disappointed to hear that they've continued the trend here.
Audio is a single-channel restoration of the original Italian mono track, as well as the English-language dub with which the movie originally played in American theaters. The digital clean-up removed a lot of ugly hiss without, of course, improving on the narrow range of the original recording. Still, Bicycle Thieves sounds great for a movie made in Italy in 1948.
The supplements on the set's second disc consist of three documentaries. Working with De Sica is comprised of interviews with film scholar Callisto Cosulich, screenwriter Suso Cecchi d'Amico, and actor Enzo Staiola. It runs just under 23 minutes. The 40-minute Life As It Is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy is comprised of a video interview with film scholar Mark Shiel (Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City) intercut with scenes from key Neorealist films. Disc Two's real gem, though, is Cesare Zavattini, a 55-minute documentary on the critic, scholar, and screenwriter made by Carlo Lizzani (Love and Anger) in 2003.
The set's slipcase also houses a beefy 76-page booklet loaded with two introductory essays, theoretical essays by Zavattini and French critic André Bazin, and remembrances by the film's cast and crew. It's a great read.
Bicycle Thieves (or The Bicycle Thief if, like me, you're accustomed the U.S. release title) is one of a handful of seminal classics that demands a Criterion Collection treatment; without it, the collection has an ugly gaping hole. Let's just say that this stylish two-disc set amply fills that hole.
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Scales of Justice
• Working with De Sica Documentary
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