DVD Review Of The Bicycle Thief
© by Dan Schneider, 6/30/06
Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (Ladri Di Biciclette), made in 1948, in black and white, is one of the all time great films, and, in its Neo-realistic cinema verité simplicity, it shows how utterly creatively bankrupt most filmmaking these days is. And by that I mean worldwide, not just the obvious flaws of the Hollywood crap factory. Lean, spare, poetic- it tells one story, but tells it very well, and that story becomes universal, and is applicable to all people who have ever suffered, or been driven to do desperate things. Its screenplay is deceptively slight, but that does not mean it is not great. Oftentimes, it is assumed that a great screenplay must be witty like Woody Allen films, deep like Ingmar Bergman films, or characteristically complex like Robert Altman films, but great screenplays can also be the antithesis of those things. A great screenplay may be like that in Stanley Kubrick’s for 2001: A Space Odyssey, full of symbolism writ large, and on the other hand, it can be like The Bicycle Thief, which is symbolic precisely because it is so intensely personal.
The story is rather simple: in post-World War Two Rome, Italy, jobs are scarce, and Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) finally gets a job offer, as a billboard sign man, posting billboards about town, after waiting for months in front of the downtown labor exchange/unemployment office. One catch, he needs a bicycle. He has one, but it’s at a pawnshop. His wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), sells their good bedsheets so Antonio can get back his bike. The job is apparently a good one, as other workers anxiously vie for the job. Their desperation is in the hot, oppressive air. We then see scenes at home between Antonio, Maria, and their young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola, later to appear in The Barefoot Contessa), in one of the great child scene stealing performances of all time, and how Antonio suddenly feels human and dignified again, wearing a uniform, and being able to make money. Yet, on his first day at work, while hanging posters, his bike is stolen by a young man (Vittorio Antonucci). Antonio has the weekend to get the bicycle back, so he can report to work Monday with it. He gets his acquaintance, Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda), a garbageman, to help him look for the bike the next morning, along with some of his pals in the garbage company.
But it is to no avail, so they keep on searching, and Antonio and Bruno have a number of encounters, such as seeing the thief with an old man, whom they track down to a church, but the old con man gives Antonio the slip, by saying he wants some of the free soup the church is offering. They do get a tentative address of the thief, and eventually Antonio catches up with him, and forces him back to his apartment, where his mother and neighbors declare him a good boy, an innocent. The vile wolfpack mentality closes in, and the thief plays his false innocence to the hilt, like the true professional grifter he is- likely having sold the bike already to another pawnshop, as a policeman is powerless to do anything, after they search the thief’s apartment. At least this policeman, and an earlier cop, were helpful, if impotent. When Antonio first reports his bike as stolen the bureaucrats at the police department flat out laugh at his claim of lost property, feeling nothing but contempt for his loss.
Antonio and Bruno eventually end up outside a soccer match, where hundreds of bikes are parked. He sees one in an alleyway, and, in a scene that shows a human desperation and honesty that are too often overlooked in art, Antonio gives Bruno some money to take a trolley home, and decides to steal the bike in the alley. Of course, he almost falls as he tries to pedal away, and the bike’s owner raises alarums, and this man’s neighbors chase and quickly capture Antonio- who is now pilloried as a bicycle thief, and a low man. He is so ashamed and without that he cannot even say a word. He is totally humiliated- all his honesty, honor, and playing by the rules have forced him into doing something wrong, and Bruno, who stayed behind, witnesses his father’s capture, runs to him, and weeps. The old man, whose bike it was, decides not to press charges, possibly out of pity for Antonio’s humiliation in front of his son, and Antonio walks away with his son, both weeping, yet hand in hand, having been defeated inside and out. In a sense, this film is at the exact opposite emotional and political end of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, which detailed an American triumphalist version of similar themes, and contains a psychic violence that the physical, cartoon violence that most action films show can never attain.
Reputedly, none of the film’s actors were professionals, at the time, but Lamberto Maggiorani comes across so realistically, and wholly believably. His brooding good looks are what film stars all long to have. Enzo Staiola, who plays his son Bruno, is magnificent. He is wisecracking, but not in the annoying way Hollywood smart aleck kids are. There are numerous scenes that are hilarious, as when he explains to his dad that he’s muddying his handkerchief because he slipped in the rain, or when he tries to take a moment to piss against a wall, only to have his dad interrupt him, to his chagrin.
Later films, from Tea With Mussolini to Life Is Beautiful, have tried to capture this era, but The Bicycle Thief surpasses all later attempts because it was there, as it happened. Life Is Beautiful, with the annoying Robert Benigni, seems a pallid ripoff, by comparison- after all, what other actor but Benigni could create a character so annoying that he makes you root for the Nazis to kill him! The DVD by Image Entertainment has only has a trailer, but does give a viewer a choice between Italian with subtitles, or English dubbing. I watched the dubbed version, and it was very good, only off in a few instances. There is no commentary, but a film as eloquent as this does not need one. The visual transfer of the film could be cleaned up, for many imperfections show, and it could really use The Criterion Collection treatment, as long as they retain the dubbed version.
There are not many great visual flourishes in the film, which had Sergio Leone as an assistant director, but where it succeeds grandly is in the evocative soundtrack by Alessandro Cicognini, where a simple horn plays so ruefully that it almost becomes another character. The Antonio-Bruno relationship is central to the film, and after Bruno mocks his dad for letting the old man con his way out of his grasp at the church, Antonio smacks the boy, who runs off and cries, saying he’ll tell his mother that Antonio belted him. Antonio says, ‘In a second you’ll have more to tell her, ‘ but it is said in so true a fashion, between father and son, that we know there is true love there, and Antonio is no abusive father, and a viewer can only chuckle at the immanent humor in the despair and frustration. Yet, when Bruno wanders off, and Antonio hears his name being called, as people gather at the river, under a bridge, to pull a drowning person to safety, Antonio is relieved to see it is a grown Bruno, not his boy, who sits safely on a stone stairway overlooking the scene. Realism also informs scenes where Antonio gives up. ‘To hell with it! You want a pizza?’, he says, at one point, and treats his son to some breaded mozzarella cheese at a restaurant, declaring, ‘There’s a remedy against everything- except death.’ Yet, we see that all he can afford is the cheese and water, not even wine, while a rich family eats at the table next to them, and Bruno eyes a fey rich boy who turns up his nose at Bruno and his dad. Antonio says, ‘To eat like that, you need a million lira a month at least,’ and even in his despair, Antonio cannot escape his situation, and soon obsesses over the bicycle again. He even goes to a psychic scam artist he earlier chided Maria for believing in, but she is of no help, as could be expected.
The film is almost pitch perfect from beginning to end, yet, as often happens, something is lost in the translation of its title, Ladri Di Biciclette, which literally means Bicycle Thieves, but in America is known as The Bicycle Thief. The original title is more literally true, as both the ‘real’ thief and Antonio, steal bikes, and it also allows for a deeper look at their differing motivations. When we see the original thief’s one room apartment- with mother and two other siblings- we see that he, too, is poor, and we have to wonder if he is Antonio on the future, with just a bit more desperation. Yes, he’s obviously a skilled con man, but he may have started out pure, as well. This deeper look is lost in the Americanized title, for while technically Antonio is a thief, he is truly forced into it, lest his family will be even more degraded, while the young thief is likely merely using external circumstances to justify his black soul. De Sica wisely does not opt out for that simplistic end, though, for we still have the contrast between the professional thief, and the rank amateur, Antonio.
Many critics have reduced this film to De Sica’s supposed refutation of a simple false dualism- that De Sica is merely trying to show good and evil are relative, but the film clearly is NOT doing that, for we know, all along, that the young professional thief would likely be a con man regardless. All of his neighbors are cheats and liars, as he has likely been accused many times before, and even his mother lies for her manifestly guilty son. De Sica recognizes that there IS good and evil, but that sometimes an act that appears evil- such as thievery, can be born of different circumstances; pure evil and greed, as in the case of the young thief, and mere desperation, as with Antonio. Ironically, many of the critics who chide viewers for their supposed biases against the young thief, show their own biases in wholly missing De Sica’s actual point- which is not to show that there are differing reasons for similar acts, but that the reasons CAN be night and day, yet still be confused, and that usually, and regardless, it is the honest who are screwed either way.
Even worse, are those stolid critics with a political ax to grind. Marxists somehow got it into their heads that Antonio, who is clearly shown as living in squalor, is a member of the bourgeoisie, simply because he wears a fedora, not a cap, or because his wife has clean bedsheets, thus when he gets a job, it is symbolic of governmental favoritism for an elite class, and the young bike thief, who wears a German hat, is a member of the international proletariat, although he clearly is a member of the criminal class, and in that conflation much of Marxist theology bogs down. The theft of Antonio’s bike is therefore claimed as a revolutionary act, and his lying neighbors are just good workers defending a comrade. That Antonio is left bereft, at film’s end, to Marxists, symbolizes a perverse justice. To point out all the ridiculous flaws in such super-simplistic ideas would waste time, but, clearly, the only reason such absurd claims were made were because the screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini, who adapted the film from a novel by Luigi Bartolini, was a member of the Italian Communist Party, at the time. Interestingly, the film has also been seen as a very Conservative film, praised by Christian groups and even William F. Buckley’s The National Review, not because it delineates good and evil, as described above, but because they see it as a refutation of Marxist ideals, in that Antonio and the other laborers do not find work degrading, but a fundament of their self worth; so much so that when the young thief kyboshes Antonio’s ability to gain that self respect, he loses all hope, and is reduced to dishonesty himself.
Neither reductivist outlook adequately deals with the many subtleties and nuances this great film portrays, and the fact that The Bicycle Thief is shorn of Freudian psychobabble and preaching is one of its strengths. Yet, it is not pure cinema, either, as many European critics have labeled it. Although the visuals convey the milieu well, they do not get inside the characters. This is where the writing and acting ability of Maggiorani and Staiola works magic. And it is why I prefer the non-literal Americanized title, as well, for the duplicity of meaning it brings to the viewer- which of the two thieves, then, is the titular thief? Great art is simply not so easily reducible as political panderers want it to be, and one can be thankful for that, lest The Bicycle Thief would not be what it is, nor would we still be watching it with such easy appreciation for its simple virtues.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? website.]
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