by Simon Braund
In The Player, Robert Altman’s magnificent mouthful of the hand that fed him, Bicycle Thieves (or The Bicycle Thief as it was called in the US, presumably to lure art-movie-averse Americans with the promise of a daring, debonair stick-up artist who robs folk on a tricked-out Huffy) is cited as the definitive antidote to Hollywood movies. Why, you may ask, would Altman cast this unassuming little film, directed by Vittorio De Sica in 1948, in such a heavily emblematic role? Well, first of all, it performs exactly the same function in the Michael Tolkin novel from which The Player was adapted. But secondly, it fits the bill with gratifying precision.
Its storyline is reductively simple (a man searches for a stolen bicycle he needs in order to keep his job); it has no heroes, no villains, no romance, no action, no stars (no professional actors at all, in fact), and it categorically does not have a happy ending. Plus, it was shot on location on the mean streets of post-War Rome in grainy black-and-white on a budget that wouldn’t pay for a day’s craft services on the average Hollywood production.
It could hardly be less Hollywood if it were in a foreign language — which, of course, it is (Italian).
In spite of all that — or rather, because of it — Bicycle Thieves remains among the most beloved films ever made, a heart-rending, poetic and compassionate rumination on the human condition that, as has often been said, invests the mundane tribulations of ordinary people with the power and pathos of Greek tragedy. It has exerted an incalculable influence on international cinema, working its low-key magic on filmmakers from Fellini to Jean-Luc Godard to John Cassavetes to Tim Burton (and yes, we are talking about Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure here). In 2001, Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai made Beijing Bicycle, a loving homage to Bicycle Thieves if not a direct remake, which reflected the social fabric of contemporary China just as De Sica’s film reflects the poverty and desperation of an Italy shattered by World War II. But before we get into that, a word or two on Italian neo-realism, a phrase that, in accordance with international law, must be uttered in every sentence containing the words ‘bicycle’ and ‘thieves’. And rightly so, since Bicycle Thieves is not only the best-known example of Italian neo-realism (see?) but also, without question, the most sublime.
Neo-realism was a movement born amid the rubble of the Second World War, an attempt to capture the true nature of a country and its people devastated by the conflict and reeling from almost 20 years of Fascist rule. Kicked off by Luchino Visconti’s 1943 film Ossessione (some would claim Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 Rome, Open City), neo-realism can be viewed, since that’s what it was, as a furious, flipped finger to the opulently vapid ‘white telephone’ movies of the Mussolini era. Its aim was to portray ordinary lives with honesty and integrity. To that end, De Sica shot Bicycle Thieves entirely on location, largely with available light and with a cast of non-actors. (Legend has it that potential producer David O. Selznick suggested Cary Grant for the lead role. De Sica countered with Henry Fonda before opting for an all-amateur cast.) Lamberto Maggiorani, who plays Antonio, the lead role, was a factory worker who genuinely struggled to find a job once filming was complete. Just how ‘real’ the neo-realism in Bicycle Thieves is can be appreciated in a scene where seven year-old Enzo Staiola (playing Antonio’s son, Bruno) narrowly avoids being flattened by a car while crossing the road. Twice.
The film began life as a novel of the same name by Luigi Bartolini. It was adapted for the screen by Cesare Zavattini, whose partnership with De Sica yielded 12 films, including such worthy siblings to Bicycle Thieves as Shoe-Shine (1946), Miracle In Milan (1951) and Umberto D (1952). The action — if you can call it that — focuses on poverty-stricken, unemployed Antonio, who is offered a job as a billposter on the condition that he owns his own bicycle. Luckily he does. Unluckily it is in the pawnshop. To reclaim the bicycle, Antonio’s wife, Maria (Lianella Carell) hocks her wedding sheets. In a scene of unmatched poignancy, Maria hands over the sheets to the pawnbroker and, as the camera pans up, they are placed on a shelf stacked high with the bridal bed linen of other women driven to the same last resort. Shortly after Antonio begins his job, his bicycle is stolen, and he and son Bruno embark on a quest through the foreboding backstreets of Rome to get it back.
Again, to check the film’s neo-realist bona fides, compare De Sica’s vision of the Eternal City, defeated and dishevelled, with the Hollywood travelogue version in Roman Holiday, released five years later. Antonio and Bruno eventually find the thief, but he has already sold the bicycle and, in any case, his neighbours are willing to give him an alibi. Walking despondently home, Antonio and Bruno pass a football stadium and Antonio, falling prey to temptation, steals a bicycle from the hundreds parked outside. He is caught immediately by the crowd and, although the owner refuses to press charges, Antonio is humiliated in front of his son — a far worse fate for a proud man.
Bicycle Thieves has been criticised for its lack of political perception, the case being that, in presenting an unadorned view of its subjects’ lives, it fails to reveal the social mechanisms that determine them. To the film’s myriad champions this is a little like criticising The Seventh Seal for its lack of car chases. The film makes no claims to political insight (and anyone with a basic grasp of 20th century European history can fill in all the socio-political background necessary); it is, like the best films, a good story, well told. And in its depiction of a man’s relationship with his son, it is at times almost unbearably touching. First there is the scene where Antonio and Bruno prepare to go to work in the early morning, dressed in matching overalls and pocketing their meagre packed lunches. Then, while they are searching for the thief, there is the shocking moment when Antonio, in rage and frustration, hits Bruno — an act he atones for by buying pizza that he cannot afford. And, of course, there is the ending: Bruno reaching out to grasp his father’s hand — the first time he does so in the entire film — while the tears course down Antonio’s cheeks. Walking away towards an uncertain future, the football crowd quickly swallows them up (again in defiance of the Hollywood tradition; no iconic ride into the sunset for Antonio and Bruno), reminding us that their story is just one among many.
Empire, January 2008