#85: Bicycle Thieves [1948]


Director Vittorio De Sica was a prominent member of Italy’s neo-realist film movement, of which his work Bicycle Thieves is an equally prominent example. Stay with me here – don’t freak out. I’m not going to go all Arts Student on you. The Italian neo-realists basically tried to show the working man’s plight in 1940s Italy through film. These movies were usually shot on location (e.g. the streets) and cast with non-actors (so that fame/glamour wasn’t a key feature). If you haven’t seen this film, just imagine a down-and-out father and son traversing poverty-stricken Rome and you’re there.
The plot runs thus: father Antonio Ricci finally gets a job, but he needs a bicycle. His wife sells their wedding linen to buy back their pawned bicycle, but it’s stolen on his first day. For the remainder of the film we follow Ricci and his son Bruno as they attempt to retrieve this symbol of all their hopes. Although we learn little of their background, their story seems woefully common as they are frequently lost in the crowds, their individual cares overwhelmed by the masses.
The choice to cast non-actors gives this film an air of authenticity, not that I’d have recognised a famous Italian actor of the 1940s anyway though. Still, a trained and ambitious actor would have his own agenda, which always shows through a performance. It’s more that the cast seem to take ownership of their individual characters and their struggles; these scenes are familiar to them, perhaps. For my brother and I (he being my challenge assistant for this instalment), the stand out performance was from Bruno, the son. Throughout the film, he looks up at his father for support and guidance, but more and more he realises that Ricci is a defeated man. His expressions are crushingly emotive. Yes, I cried. It would take a heart of stone not to be moved by this film. But, I assure you, it was restrained and dignified crying.
I suppose that is how Bicycle Thieves is best described: as restrained and dignified. Nowhere is their absurdity, and the main characters, while desperate, unfailingly maintain their humanity. Ricci’s morals lapse once, in the climactic scene near the close, but at no point is our compassion for him weakened. Rather, in standing beside Bruno and watching this man break his principles in sheer desperation, our sympathy for him strengthens as our hearts break.
This all sounds rather emotional, and it is. This is what primarily moves the film along, as the plot itself is simple. It is the relationship between father and son, and our increasing realisation of the hopelessness of their situation which sees us through to the end. You might be thinking, ‘Gee, this sounds too much to cope with’, but I implore you to get hold of Bicycle Thieves. It is for the emotional experience that I recommend this film to you.

Sam's Summary (which comes with a quasi-spoiler): 'Films don't often end with such despair anymore'.

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