Monday, September 27, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Bicycle Thief" (1948)

"The Bicycle Thief" is the best-known of the Italian neorealism movement, which was characterized by non-professional actors, naturalistic light and shooting in real locations -- often with passersby serving as unwitting extras. It grew up out of necessity due to the lack of much filmmaking infrastructure following World War II, and soon became an ethos that influenced generations of movies.

The immediacy and unornamented sentimentalism of the pictures, which tended to focus on the plight of the underclass, gave these films a visceral heft that connected with audiences. "The Bicycle Thief" is often cited as one of the most emotional films ever made, particularly its depiction of the relationship between an itinerant worker and his son searching for the stolen bicycle that represents their very livelihood.

A bit of controversy over the title: The original Italian is "Ladri di biciclette," or "Bicycle Thieves." This is of course a reference to the film's tragic climax, where the father, desperate after a long search has come to naught, tries to steal a bicycle himself and is caught and humiliated. I for one am a proponent of retaining the English translation of foreign films, even if they are inaccurate.

Besides, one could argue that using the original title kind of gives away the ending. Otherwise newbies might watch the movie and be thinking: "They keep chasing that one kid who stole his bike ... who are these other thieves?"

Director Vittorio De Sica, who co-wrote the script along with five (!) others based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini, cast non-actors in the lead roles, to stupendous effect. Lamberto Maggiorani, with penetrating but soft eyes and flaring cheekbones, plays the father, Antonio Ricci. Maggiorani was just an ordinary factory worker when De Sica cast him.

Lianella Carell plays his loving wife Maria, who seeks guidance from a local mystic, which Antonio considers a waste of money. Still, her prophecy that he would find a job came true, and so he turns to the old woman to help find the bike. Sure enough, as soon as he exits her building, the thief (Vittorio Antonucci) walks by.

Enzo Staioli is an absolute revelation as their son Bruno. With a mop of irrepressible hair that even a downpour of rain cannot long suppress, Bruno is a 7-year-old fellow pilgrim and witness to the joyous and heartbreaking events -- the film's silent narrator.

After more than a year out of work, Antonio is blessed with a job putting up movie posters around Rome, on whose outskirts they live. But it comes with a condition: He must provide his own bicycle to get around with a ladder and supplies. No bicycle, no job.

Unfortunately, they hocked his bicycle to pay for food. Maria pawns the household's entire supply of bedsheets to get the money needed to reclaim the bike. There's a telling scene where Antonio watches the clerk climb a high storage wall to place their sheets amongst a mountain of others people have been forced to pawn. It reminded me of the last scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," where treasures great and small are entombed in a vast warehouse.

Antonio is thrilled about starting work, taking pride in his new uniform (which is basically just overalls and a cap) and gleefully tallies all the money he'll soon be bringing in -- 12,000 lire a month in wages, and at least 2,000 in overtime, plus a family allowance of 800 a day. They won't be rich by any stretch, but can put their days of hunger and worry behind them.

Alas, on his first day the bicycle is stolen while resting against the wall where Antonio is putting up a poster of Rita Hayworth. He chases the thief, a teen boy wearing a German-style hat, but he gets away.

The look on Antonio's face when he arrives by bus, instead of by bike, to pick up Bruno at his own job at a gas station is one of pure shame. He can't even stand to face Maria, so after dropping the boy off immediately goes looking for help. He enlists the aid of his friend Baiocco, an actor and sanitation worker. The next day he, Baiocco and his men, and Bruno set out to look for the bike, stopping at a huge outdoor venue devoted to nothing but bicycles. After hours of searching and one nasty, fruitless confrontation, they come up empty.

It's hard today to think about bicycles being such a huge enterprise, but in post-war Europe, they were the primary source of transportation.

After Baiocco bids adieu, Antonio and Bruno search night and day, knowing that failure means ruin for the entire family. They spot the thief on the bike talking to an old beggar. Failing to catch the boy, they follow the old man to a church, where a shave and soup are offered in exchange for attending service. When they lose the old man outside the church, Antonio loses patience with Bruno and slaps him sharply, and the betrayal in the lad's eyes is just wrenching.

To make it up to him, Antonio takes the boy to a restaurant -- an alien experience for young Bruno, who mimics the rich child at the next table theatrically pulling long strings of mozzarella away from his mouth.

In the end they find the thief, and Antonio is nearly killed by a mob from the boy's rough-and-tumble neighborhood. Bruno summons a policeman, but lacking any witnesses or evidence of the bike, Antonio is forced to decline to press charges.

The denouement is one of the most memorable in cinema. Outside a football arena, Antonio is taunted by thousands of bicycles left by the spectators. He settles for stealing a lone bike leaning against a wall, but of course its owner quickly emerges and begins chase. Ironically, the shouts of "Stop, thief!" that produced no reaction from the crowd when Antonio uttered them less than 48 hours earlier elicit an immediate reaction now, and in moments a dozen men are chasing him.

He is quickly caught, slapped around and frog-marched toward the police station. But the bicycle owner, seeing the bawling Bruno clutching at his father's coattails, takes pity and orders him released. The movie ends on the ambiguous note of father and son, humiliated and despondent, clutching hands and weeping as they walk away into the crowd toward home, their hopes of a new life dashed and their prospects bleak.

The musical score by Alessandro Cicognini, a sweeping breeze of strings and horns, pulls the audience along in its sorrowful journey. It was the music of the streets, set to a story about the people who live there, work there, and if they're lucky enough, ride past on a bicycle.

4 stars out of four

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