One of, if not the defining masterpieces of Italian neorealism, Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Theives) is the first film I’ve seen in the post war sub genre which emerged from a country on its knees in the wake of a brutal Fascist regime. If there are other films in the movement that are half as good as this one, it won’t be my last dip into the genre. Vittorio De Sica’s film is set on the streets of Rome in 1948. With work scarce and hunger raging, a man tries desperately to secure work in an unfavourable job market. He manages to secure a job with adequate pay as someone who puts up film posters but when a thief steals his bike, something he needs for the job, his family are left penniless and he has to wander the streets, searching for his bike amongst a city of millions.
De Sica used ordinary people in the acting roles but it’s difficult to tell that from the performances. Lead actor Lamberto Maggiorani is superb as the man at his wits end following the crime and his miniature adult son, Enzo Staiola comes close to stealing the whole movie. The situation the family find themselves in makes for compelling viewing and the themes and imagery thrown up by the movie add to its impressive overall effect. I wasn’t surprised to read that in Sight & Sound’s first ‘greatest films of all time’ poll in 1952, Bicycle Thieves was ranked at number one. The most recent poll in 2012 ranked it at number 33 all time and my own algorithmic study ranked it at 35.
Bicycle Thieves is a deeply affecting drama whose story has stayed with me in the day or so since I watched it. The desperation of the central character and ends to which he and his son go are endearing and help to demonstrate the need for his stolen bike. In twenty-first century Western Europe it is perhaps difficult to imagine the circumstances by which the loss of a bicycle would bring a family to near starvation. Nowadays we’d just complain, post an angry status on Facebook and begrudgingly buy a new one but the film is from an era and location which was still in recovery mode following humanity’s greatest ever conflict and the poverty and fear for ones own survival really come across in De Sica’s film.
Early on the film demonstrates the extreme lengths to which families were going with a scene inside a pawn shop. In order to buy back his bike (which he had pawned weeks earlier for money to buy food), Antonio Ricci’s wife Maria (Lianella Carell), disgruntled, washes the sheets of her bed and then pawns them. The 7,500 lire raised buys back the bike but the shelves of similarly pawned sheets, stacked thirty or forty feet high made me gasp. These aren’t people who are living month to month or week to week but day to day, pawning even the most basic of items in the hope of scratching together enough money to put food on the table.
One aspect of the Italian neorealist films was their location shooting. As well as foregoing actors, they also went without sets and studios and as such the entire film was shot on the streets of the Italian capital. Rome has a crumbling beauty to it, something which has been lost in my view in between the modern buildings and heavily touristed landmarks. There are still small cobbled streets with imposing buildings crammed either side but the film makes Rome look like a city of nothing else. The roads and buildings are populated with real Romans going about their daily lives; buying, selling, begging, surviving. I enjoyed seeing the streets of Rome in a natural, un-tampered with way and interesting sights like decapitated but still standing Mussolini statues dotted the landscape, a stark reminder of the war which had ended just three years earlier.
The film’s English title is something which interested me. As a warning I should make it clear that the following paragraph contains spoilers. I try to avoid spoilers in my film reviews but I'm making an exception for Bicycle Thieves. The literal translation of the Italian Ladri di biciclette is Bicycle Thieves, the ‘i’ in Ladri denoting a plural word. There is a debate to be had though as to whether the literal translation takes some of the poetry out of the title as well as spoils the plot. All the way through the film I was wondering why the film was called Bicycle Thieves as only one bike was stolen. This was answered in the concluding scenes in which the central character, at breaking point, himself steals a bike. Not only would the alternative singular title Bicycle Thief help to avoid the thoughts of plot development before they are allowed to develop but it also has more of a hard hitting feel to it once you’ve seen the film.
The theft itself is built and built with tension before it finally comes. De Sica is clever to include several early scenes in which Antonio’s bike seems certain to be stolen, several scenes before it actually is. Because of the explicit nature of the title, you are waiting from the very first scene for the theft and the delay in this occurring works in the film’s favour.
The quiet tragedy of Bicycle Thieves is one of its most endearing features. In the grand scheme of things, one man’s lost bicycle doesn’t register but the well developed characters and terrific performances make these people you care about. As a result of this you care about the era in which they find themselves. Through no fault of their own these characters are forced to battle for survival and watching them do so is heartbreaking. This is a simple film but simply a masterpiece.
- Director Sergio Leone worked as an assistant for De Sica and has a small uncredited cameo as a Seminary Student.
- De Sica chose both leads in part due to their walk. Their pathos filled gait reminded the Director of Charlie Chaplin.
- Lianella Carell was working as a journalist who wanted to interview Vittorio De Sica. Instead of letting her interview him, the Director cast her in a prominent role.
- The film won an Honorary Academy Award four years after its release.
- The poster Antonio is putting up is for Gilda starring Rita Hayworth.