Saturday, 11 November 2017

REWIND REVIEW: The Bicycle Thief (1948)

(PG) ★★★★★

Director: Vittorio De Sica.

Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci.

"I know it's got training wheels on it, but I swear it's my bike."
Titles are everything. They get attention and can become a calling card or a catch-cry. But most importantly they sum up the central theme or ideas of a movie.

The title of this film is somewhat disputed. According to Wikipedia, the Italian title Ladri di biciclette "literally translates into English as Bicycle Thieves" but somewhere along the line in the US (and Australia as far as I'm aware) it became known as The Bicycle Thief - singular, not plural.

Below be spoilers! And a trailer that heaps praise upon praise for this hugely acclaimed film!

To me, the latter title is infinitely better and is a contributing factor as to why I think this film is so incredible (and why I'm going to continue calling it The Bicycle Thief). To quote San Francisco film critic Bob Graham, the singular American title is "one of those wonderful titles whose power does not sink in until the film is over". He's right. It's only as the credits roll that you realise the film's name is one of cinema's great misdirections. The audience spends the entire movie curious as to the nature and identity of the titular thief, only to finally understand that he's been in front of us the whole time, and that the film is in fact about one man's downfall from working man to petty criminal. In other words, the film isn't about the initial bicycle theft, but instead how that act creates another bicycle thief. Antonio (Maggiorani) is not the victim of the eponymous character - he is the eponymous character, and we only find this out at the end.

This is what makes The Bicycle Thief such a cunning dissection of life in post-war Italy, where chances are few and life is hard. When we first meet Antonio, he is so doubtful and pessimistic about getting a job that he doesn't even bother lining up with the daily throng of fellow unemployed men. But at the offer of meagre pay for posting advertising bills around town, he comes alive. He and his wife Maria (Carell) pawn their bedsheets in order to get their bicycle back so Antonio can take the job, and things seem to be looking up for the Ricci family.

This is the heartbreak of the film. The bike, which is subsequently stolen, comes to represent opportunity. It is the thin line between success and failure, and between a good man and a bad one. In the end, it is the factor that decides whether Antonio pulls his family up by their bootstraps or pushes him to breaking point and to commit the very crime that leads to his own downfall.

What really sells the devastation and bleakness of The Bicycle Thief's final act is the presence of Antonio's son Bruno (Staiola) throughout the narrative. It's one of the great child performances of all time (Staiola was just seven - watch the video below for the slightly creepy story of how he was cast) as Bruno's innocence and unwavering devotion to his father takes the film to higher levels of pathos. The final scene is even more of a gut-punch thanks to the shots of young Bruno's tearful face as he looks up at his father.

The film is hailed as a great example - if not the pinnacle - of Italian neo-realism, a movement that sprang up in the wake of WWII. This movement, now hailed as the Golden Age of Italian Cinema, comprised films shot on location with non-professional actors and dealt with the real life issues facing a country and a populace ravaged by war. You could even argue that these films reflected a nation struggling to find its moral compass again after its leaders initially sided with the Nazis.

The Bicycle Thief certainly ticks all those Italian neo-realist boxes. Its locations were very real places around Rome. You can still visit them today as many of them remain unchanged, more than 70 years on from filming - if you're so inclined, here is a very thorough and well compiled guide to the locations.

As for the cast, its two key leads - Maggiorani and Staiola - were non-professional actors. Lamberto Maggiorani, who gives a wonderfully well-rounded performance in the lead role, was a factory worker when cast. He tried to continue a career as an actor afterwards, but never again reached the great heights of The Bicycle Thief, occasionally working as a bricklayer to make ends meet between movies. However it's a little bit of a myth that the entire cast were non-actors - a quick perusal of the film's IMDb page finds a few key players had previous film experience. It's heartening to see some went on to solid film careers.

The much-lauded realism of The Bicycle Thief wasn't easy to achieve. Director Vittorio De Sica carefully staged and rehearsed the large crowd scenes, and used up to six cameras to film the action to ensure he captured the non-actors' reactions with a minimal amount of takes so as to keep things fresh. The impressive downpour sequence came courtesy of the Roman fire department. The market sequence featured 40 hired vendors, brought in by De Sica. De Sica may have given us the apex of neo-realism, but he realised that it took great artifice and meticulous planning to make it look like no artifice or planning was involved, and for all its documentary-style qualities, The Bicycle Thief ended up being expensive, running well over budget.

This review by A.O. Scott highlights some of the other factors of neo-realism (although he mistakenly says Staiola was Maggiorani's real-life son):

While Wikipedia claims the film was "viewed with hostility and as portraying Italians in a negative way" upon release, The Bicycle Thief has been racking up the acclaim since day one. It won seven awards at the Italian Silver Ribbon Awards in 1949 (Italy's top film prize) and it was recognised at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland, the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the Oscars. The inaugural Sight & Sound critics poll in 1952 called it the best film of all time.

Despite the passage of seven decades, The Bicycle Thief still holds its power. Empire named it #4 in its 2010 list of the 100 best films of world cinema, and as of writing it sits at #99 in the IMDb top 250. But its influence on cinema is its biggest legacy. Martin Scorsese is a fan, Satyajit Ray said the film confirmed his desire to be a director, and it is said to have had an impact on Brian De Palma, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, the Iranian New Wave, and Sergio Leone, with the latter having a small cameo as one of the many priests seeking shelter from the rainstorm.

But more importantly, the film remains powerful, moving and gripping. It pulls you in and holds you close until its heartbreaking ending, proving that in the right hands, something as simple as a bicycle can be a powerful storytelling tool.

Further reading:

Turner Classic Movies' collection of increasingly great articles on The Bicycle Thief.

Mental Floss' 11 Heart-stealing facts about The Bicycle Thief.

I watched The Bicycle Thief at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis (featuring a live score by Richard Tankard) - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

No comments:

Post a Comment