Some people think modern movies are crap; that everything old is great. I’m not necessarily one of them, but they have a point. Maybe the ubiquitous opportunities for everyone and their mothers to become filmmakers nowadays has drowned the medium in mediocre garbage. It seems I have to look harder to find examples of good or interesting cinema past, say, the mid-1970s, than when sifting through the relatively meager selection of the first seven decades.
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen every movie ever made.
Case in point: Why have I never seen a film like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves? Nearly every great movie has been ripped-off and recycled into a dozen lesser iterations. But for some reason this beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, wholly original story has been left untouched. Maybe that’s a good thing, but given the advances in both technology and storytelling, I shouldn’t have to trek back to 1948 to have my mind blown.
Set in post-World War II Rome, the movie tells the story of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a man who may have been middle-class at one point, but who is now forced to wait in a mob outside the employment office for news of day labor. A friend offers him a job for the following morning because he knows Antonio owns a bicycle. Antonio races home to tell his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), that they have to sell whatever they can to get the family bike out of the pawn shop.
The next day, Antonio drops his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), at the school-bus stop, and heads to his new gig. He apprentices briefly under a poster-hanger, who shows him how to affix large paper advertisements to brick walls—something he’ll need to do perfectly, several times a day, all around the city.
During one of his first solo projects, a thief (Vitorrio Antonucci) swipes Antonio’s bike and disappears into the bustling mid-day crowd. Antonio is livid. He can’t do his job without the bike, and his family has nothing left to sell with which to buy a new one. He runs to the police station, but is told that there aren’t enough resources to track down a single bicycle. Maria suggests consulting a popular local psychic, but Antonio insists that’s a waste of time.
The next morning, Antonio and Bruno scour the local markets with their friend, Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda), and some of his off-shift co-workers. Thinking the bicycle may have already been dismantled for parts, they pick through bells, pumps, tires and frames, looking for serial numbers and familiar markings—to no avail. Father and son eventually split from the group and wander different neighborhoods on their own.
It’s not a spoiler to say they find the bicycle thief, and I won’t go any further than that. This film’s climax is one of the most harrowing I’ve ever seen, a perfectly orchestrated exercise on the part of De Sica and co-writers Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, and Gerardo Guerrieri (working from Luigi Bartolini’s novel) in creating the same panic in his audience as in his protagonist’s mind. I never understood the “yell-at-the-screen” cliche usually associated with horrror movies until watching Bicycle Thieves. Antonio’s defining moment is one of such gut-churning honesty and desperation that even the gods take notice (you’ll see what I mean).
If a movie about a guy looking for his bike all day sounds boring, let me assure you there’s nothing pedestrian about Bicycle Thieves. Yes, it’s more about subtext and the mental gymnastics of being a broke, defeated breadwinner, but it’s also about elevating filmmaking to its greatest (at the time) potential. If for no other reason, you have to see what De Sica and cinematographer Carlo Montuori do with Rome. I’ve been to Rome, and it didn’t look half as gorgeous in person as it does in stunning black and white. These artists create a fantasy world where every street corner is interesting to look at and every glimpse of the greater city from the low neighborhood streets promises a thousand just-as-lively stories. You could get lost in some of these frames.
I also love the unexpected emotional notes the story hits; such as when Antonio decides to give up his search and invites Bruno to join him for some lunch. He makes the rash decision to spend money he barely has on a fine, little meal of wine and pasta. The bold choice frees him from the constraints of fear, just for a few moments.
De Sica and company undercut this by focusing on Bruno’s perspective, which is tainted by several glances at an adjoining table, where a well-to-do family is devouring a better meal as if it means nothing to them. Antonio realizes that the bicycle doesn’t just represent a job, it’s a way of eventually making his family comfortable enough to enjoy something resembling a life of leisure—if only on special occasions. In the course of five minutes, we the audience plunge past the depths of despair into murky, green oceans of jealousy and resurface—renewed and determined to make it to find a surer footing; and there’s not a contrived beat in the scene.
Despite being an Important Drama, Bicycle Thieves has really cool, really unexpected touches of comedy and weirdness. In the market scene, Bruno just manages to avoid being hit on by a pedophile. Later on, Antonio and Bruno visit the psychic and ask for help in locating the bike. Outside of the fact that their exchange made me realize that Tim Burton’s opus, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, was a satire/homage to this film, I loved watching the clairvoyant and her handlers deal with the easily manipulated crowd; the film is unclear whether or not the woman has extrasensory abilities—she treats all her customers as suckers, regardless.
It’s so refreshing to see a movie made by people firing on all cylinders. At the same time, it’s sad to think how rare an experience that is. Sure, one could argue that today’s big-budget blockbusters and rom-coms are made for a totally different audience than the kind that appreciate intimate dramas. But I think a lot of that has to do with conditioning. Most mainstream films nowadays are like McDonald’s food: senses-dulling, hastily consumed approximations of things that will actually nourish people. Bicycle Thieves is an exhilarating reminder of a time when movies were made to inspire and invigorate, not just create artificial demand for more processed garbage.
Note: Somehow, Bicycle Thieves became more popularly known as The Bicycle Thief. If you go into this movie thinking of it as The Bicycle Thief, you’ll do yourself a big favor, especially towards the end. Trust me.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 06/14/11.]