Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

There may be spoilers here, but since it's a neorealist film, is the story really the important thing?

Director: Vittorio de Sica
Screenplay: Vittorio de Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Gerardo Guerrieri
Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, and Lianella Carell

Images from the 2007 Criterion Collection release

I think I watch more movies than the average person. I turn to them for just about everything. When I'm depressed, I often watch bleak films (I avoid the term: "depressing films" because to quote Mr. Roger Ebert: "No good movie is depressing. All bad ones are."). Happy ones just don't cut it for me. You feel happy in the moment but when it's finished, where does that leave you? I've felt that rather than wrap yourself in a momentary happiness, it's better to confront these troubles and come to terms with them. 

I felt like watching Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves for some reason. I don't know why. I had seen it once, liked it, then put it on the shelf for close to a year. 

It tells the story of a man who needs his bicycle back from the pawn shop for a new job, loses it on the first day of the job, and spends the rest of the film looking for it with his little son in-tow.

As I watched it, I paid attention to faces in particular. I think casting was the most important task for Mr. de Sica. Look at the face of Lamberto Maggiorani, who plays the lead, Antonio:

That face in freeze frame tells you just about everything, I think. He looks so downtrodden, as if he already expects failure. I'm certain that Mr. de Sica saw it and said: "That's him. That's our Antonio."

Here's his wife, Maria, played by Lianella Carell:

Images like these tell the story, as they should. I'm not a fan of expository dialogue. It's usually the mark of laziness. 

Antonio and Maria pawn their sheets in order to redeem the bicycle ("We don't need to sleep on sheets" - says Maria). This image is probably one of the most famous in the film:

Any explanation of what all those linens are doing there is completely unnecessary.

Many of the shots in Bicycle Thieves feel like Mr. de Sica just captured events that happened to occur before his camera. I think the shot of Antonio hanging the Rita Hayworth poster is a little less natural and more self-conscious than others, but it's still an effective shot:

I think the film depends the most on Antonio's son, Bruno (played by Enzo Staiola). The story could've worked without him, but the story's not really that important and could've been about anything. What's important is Antonio's interactions (or lack thereof) with Bruno. We frequently see Antonio ignoring his son in his search for the bicycle. The irony, of course, is that as he searches for the bicycle that will help him provide for his family, he... ignores his family. It's a dilemma that transcends poverty. Everyone who supports a family has experienced the push-pull of work vs. family.

When it rains, Antonio runs for shelter. Bruno falls down and gets covered in dirt. Antonio, obliviously asks what's the matter, to which Bruno replies:

Bicycle Thieves is concerned with getting as close to reality as possible (hence italian neorealism), and I wonder whether that's a bit of a contradiction. Werner Herzog said (in the short film Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe) that what filmmakers produce is incredibly immaterial, so he feels the need to cook a good meal or do something real. I feel the same way about watching a film (this is explored in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, my favorite Allen film), and wonder how I should ration my time in reality and fiction. I suppose the important thing is that Bicycle Thieves is willing to call our attention to reality, rather than wrap us up in crazy plots and characters.

There are many great images in Bicycle Thieves  that tell us everything we need to know. As I've said, I'm not a fan of dialogue (gosh, I sound like Norma Desmond: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"), and images like this one, where the mise en scene (spatial distance) and body language convey emotion:

Bruno looks so dejected, as his father has just struck him in frustration. To make it up to him, Antonio takes him to a restaurant, in perhaps the best known scene in the film. He tells his son that they'll get drunk and order mozzarella sandwiches. Here, we see (almost entirely through visuals) a commentary on social class. Here's Bruno, looking at a bourgeois family at a nearby table (ain't he cute?):

And this great reaction shot of what may be the smuggest kid in the history of cinema:

I forgot to mention. There are bicycles everywhere in the film with the intent to taunt Antonio and amplify his frustration:

Eventually, he is driven to cross the boundary of morality and become a thief himself. The film should be titled Bicycle Thieves, not The Bicycle Thief , as it's sometimes called:

The most heartbreaking shots are of Bruno having witnessed the father he idolized commit the crime:

In the end, Antonio is lucky, because he doesn't get arrested. So is this a happy ending or a sad one? I'm not sure, and I usually don't like the question. I'm not a fan of films that force the ending to be sad or happy (The Shawshank Redemption, for one). It's sad because Antonio is a failure to his son, although it is happy to some extent because he still has his son (who almost gets run over by a car earlier). I suppose it's a bit like life: Neither happy nor sad, but a mixture that leans to the sad side.



  1. Just Excellent!!!

  2. Very nice and Excellent comment
    the piles of linens in the rack shows unemployment and poverty to pledge

  3. wow. amazing...just amazing :)
    i really love this movie and your review tells everything i think about it.