Bicycle Thieves

Bicycle Thieves

*****

Reviewed by: Ben Sillis

In Robert Altman's The Player, Tim Robbins' cold-blooded movie producer murders a screenwriter, a man exasperated at populist Hollywood cinema and the opportunism of dollar bill-eyed screen execs. "What do they know about film? When was the last time they went to see a proper film, like Bicycle Thieves?" he asks. His prompt dispatch at the hands of Robbins' mogul shows Altman's take on the lack of artistic merit in cinema today and watching Vittorio de Sica's 1948 classic, it's not hard to understand why. It is a moving and beautiful work that reaffirms your faith.

The film revolves around a simple plot, superbly executed.

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Unemployed, middle-aged Ricci gets a job putting up billboard posters in the centre of Rome. But there is a prerequisite. He has to have a bicycle. This seems an easy enough requirement - indeed, everyone else present, although ineligible for the job, declares that they have one - but the purpose of the film is to show how important even the smallest items are to the destitute. Ricci has already pawned his bike and to get it back his wife is compelled to sell their bed sheets. Then, on his first day at the job, his bike is stolen, and he must search for it through bustling Rome against what appears to be all the odds..

Society's failure to realise how significant a bicycle is to the welfare of Ricci and his family is only underlined later when a policeman waves him away after reporting the crime; it's just a bike, he says, don't you think the police have more important things to be dealing with? But Ricci must have his job, and is driven to desperation.

The film is full of uncertainties from the start. Is the man who attempts to help Ricci chase the bicycle thief actually his accomplice? Does the old man know the suspicious teenager? Is the young hoodlum faking the fit, or not? We can never be sure, and it is this creeping possibility of guilt right before our eyes that makes Ricci's plight all the more unbearable. The performances are wonderful and utterly convincing. Even the child playing Ricci's son hovers closer to endearing than ingratiating. And it is only possible to view the actions Ricci resorts to in the end with true horror and sympathy.

Although moving and tragic, the true purpose of the film is to illuminate the state of Italian society after the Second World War. De Sica uses the narrative of the father and son searching for the bicycle around the impoverished streets of Rome to capture various scenes of life in the rubble of post-war Italy.

The opening scene depicts a group of clamouring, unemployed manual labourers crowding around a council official - significantly separated from the group by standing at the top of a flight of stairs - a damning indictment of both the bureaucracy and division of wealth that divides the country. A later scene takes place in a church, as homeless and impoverished men and women cram into the makeshift pews, all for a tin of the soup being prepared outside. It is a grim existence; for every spoilt child shown eating heartily in a restaurant, there are scores more men and women lingering in the alleys and side roads, idle, angry and without hope.

It is not hard to see why Bicycle Thieves is touted as the greatest achievement of the Italian neo-realist period. It successfully fuses an emotive story with astonishing visuals and a stark social commentary in a way few films attempt nowadays.

Reviewed on: 05 Mar 2006
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The poverty of opportunity in post war Italy. Out on re-release in December.
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Director: Vittorio De Sica

Writer: Cesare Zavattini, Oreste Biancoli, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Adolfo Franci, Gerardo Guerrieri, based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini

Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci, Giulio Chiari, Elena Altieri

Year: 1948

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: Italy

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