Monday, August 22, 2011

'The Bicycle Thief'/'Bicycle Thieves' - Reality of a crippled society

Vittorio DeSica was one of the pioneers of neorealist cinema in a post war ridden Italy. At a time when the country was crippled by the devastation of war, a crumbling economy, lack of jobs, an impoverished society, DeSica held out a mirror to the troubles of the common man. 'The Bicycle Thief' was a masterpiece from its very conceptualization. A movie that went on to win an honorary Oscar at a time when the foreign film category did not exist and was hailed by critics as the greatest film ever made at the time, this work of art needs no introduction to world cinema buffs. The tale of a father and son in search of a stolen bicycle which is essential to the livelihood of their family takes the most simple, direct approach to filmmaking, leaving the strongest impact at its closure.

Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is a man like many in search of a job in post war Rome. He bags one as a poster hanger, the only requirement being that he has a bicycle. In fact he does not, as he has pawned his to provide food at his family table. But a No means loss of a livelihood and waiting for another job may take a year. There are crowds of people willing to take his position. His wife Maria, played spiritedly by Lianella Carell, pawns her dowry bed sheets to reclaim their bicycle. Their hopes rekindled, a poor but loving family smile at the prospect of good times. In the morning Ricci heads out with his young son Bruno ( Enzo Staiola in a laudable performance), whom he drops off at his workplace in a gas station and then starts with his new job. Alas, on this very first day, in front of his hapless eyes, his cycle gets stolen, the thief vanishing into the crowd. What follows is Ricci's desperate attempt to find that stolen bicycle over the course of an entire day with Bruno in tow. Realization slowly hits him that he may never recover that bicycle and fall back into the vicious cycle of poverty once more.

Simple and direct in its story and treatment, 'The Bicycle Thief' is one of the most powerful takes on the degeneration of moral values in the face of sheer desperation to survive. At one point during their futile search, Ricci almost gives up, telling Bruno that they might as well eat and forget about their state. In a restaurant scene, one of the many poignant in the movie, a father filled with false bravado makes merry with his son, forgetting for a few moments the reality of their situation, only to have his son eyeing the rich children eating plates full of spaghetti. Realization reinstates the importance of that stolen cycle in their lives. 'If we had that cycle, we could eat', he words to his son. Later, he does find and confront the thief in an electrifying sequence where a crowd gathers, defending the thief and cornering Ricci. Even after getting the police, Ricci is unable to retrieve the cycle from him.

Desperation finally cuts through Ricci who rides the cycle of morality to grab what does not belong to him. In doing so, his action becomes the image of a society driven to desperate measures in order to survive. It's a vicious cycle and if circumstances don't change, the cycle won't break. 'The Bicycle Thief' employs non actors in the major roles. A truthfulness to the trying times the characters endure shine through these common people portraying roles not much different from their natural circumstances. In Ricci, we have the desperate man trying to provide for his family and be the father his son can look up to. Bruno is the face of innocence waking up to the harsh reality of life. When the father crumples of shame and despair, it is the son who holds Ricci's hands in an ironic role reversal.

DeSica who turned to neorealist cinema with 'The children are watching us' and later won the world over with 'Shoeshine' (also a recipient of an honorary Oscar), made this masterpiece, of a book by Luigi Bartolini which he reworked with his writer/collaborator Cesare Zavattini, who had originally brought the book to him. The effectiveness of the tale lies in it being devoid of sentimentality. It narrates a sad tale of working class Italy and keeps it to the point and in consequence highly effective. A highlight of the movie is its music. The melancholic strain that follows the father-son duo's travails is the emotional string that makes the proceedings heartbreaking.

The title of the movie has been a subject of controversy. Literally translated, it is 'Bicycle Thieves' which puts the film's tale into perspective. The deterioration of the moral fabric of a society in its desperate pursuit of survival, is captured impeccably in its title. However, released in the United States, it became the more simplistic 'The Bicycle Thief', telling of a stolen cycle and the efforts for its retrieval. The Criterion collection, thankfully, released the DVD with the literal title reinstated.

Shot in Rome, I could not help compare the city with the images captured in a Hollywood movie of those times, 'Roman Holiday'. We see not a shot of the tourist attractions and the picture perfect locations here. This is the reality of the heart of a city driven to desperate measures for survival. Men walking with the weight of the world on them. And from that sea emerges one man, with his tale, only to be swallowed once more by the sea of weary faces at the end. On watching this movie, it is said Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray found his calling for making neorealist cinema, employing non actors in real world tales of the common man. Indeed, Iranian cinema and many others to this day create great cinema out of realism. Truth, after all, does resonate. As does the enduring power of a movie made over half a century ago.

Originally released in 1948
In Italian with English Subtitles
Available on DVD
My Rating: 5/5


  1. This is one the most poignant movies I have ever seen :) Very heavy :)

  2. I of the finest movies there is and such important cinema. It laid the foundation to a different kind of cinema that led to important works by other great masters!