Bicycle Thieves (1948)
So we perambulate to one of the great masterpieces of our age, a film swirling within the heady apogees of humanities artistic achievements, equal to the doomed, hexed romance of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, of Welles mosaic genius and structural synthesis of Kane, or with Kubrick’s epoch sprawling visionary science fiction odyssey – a poor fella and his kid look for a bike in Rome. First of all no, this isn’t a bio-pic of Lance Armstrong’s Tour De France winning team circa 1999 to 2005, the first time I saw Bicycle Thieves was as part of the syllabus of my Film Studies A level, when the whole apparatus of Italian neo-realism formed one arc of four coursework strands. As a rather immature adolescent the prospect of a black and white, foreign film with subtitles and no-one famous and everything filled me with nothing but crushing boredom, and if watching the damn thing wasn’t like so completely unfair then the prospect of writing a 1,500 word essay on the film ignited howls of ‘I hate you’, slammed doors, sour faced pouting and bursts of screaming suicide threatening hysterics. Naturally I was wrong, there are clear and compelling reasons for the films enduring legacy, so as part of an impromptu exercise I thought I’d pop down to the South Bank* and revisit the film on the big screen. As his highest profile masterpiece the film is the centre piece of a retrospective of Vittorio De Sica, one of the key figures of early post war European cinema, whose subsequent films such as Two Women, Shoeshine and Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini have charmed generations of filmmakers and critics, if not always finding much of an audience beyond his Neapolitan homeland or the dusty tomes of some vintage movie periodicals.
Shot in post war Rome on furtively sourced odds and ends of discarded film stock De Sica’s humanist masterpiece is the inverted antidote to the Hollywood blockbuster, a film which rushes a peloton direct to the heart with nary a camera trick or subtle plot curve to divest it of its simple, elegant energy. The story is as modest as its characters threadbare shawls – a distraught father Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) anxiously seeks work and recompense in order to feed his family amid the poverty stricken slums following years of conflict. One modestly lucrative method of employment is as a bill poster, traversing the city to glue announcements and adverts upon shivering walls and within dust choked plazas, as the capital slowly attempts to regain its feet and regenerate from many years of damage. To conduct such work the employers insist on a form of transport, to be able to fulfil their contracts all across the city, so the family sells their final meagre possessions to be able to purchase a bike and hopefully secure a more stable financial future. As you may guess from the title Antonio’s bike is stolen, instigating an anxious search of the city with his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) in tow, leading to a heart-breaking climax which is up there with E.T. going home, Mr. Lowry’s psychiatric retreat into fantasy in Brazil, or the terrorists massacring millions of innocent public sector workers in their intergalactic 9/11 known as Star Wars. Goddamn Rebel scum……
I think it was the great Stanley J. Kubrick who made the insightful distinction between form and content, recognising that Eisenstein exemplified the former with montage, with the cutting, the grammar of film indicating political affiliations to connect meaning and emotion through a sequence of associations. On the flipside Chaplin was all content, all pathos and humour, the drama steered through plot, the human condition writ large on those mournful, searching eyes. Bicycle Thieves follows this path, plucking at the heartstrings through simple emotional connections, as a desperate search for something as pedestrian as a bike takes on near mythic proportions . The film and the entire neo-realist movement is a remarkably organic volte face to the so called ‘White Telephone‘ cinema of Mussolini’s reign, the cinematic equivalent of 1980’s American soaps, as muzzled melodrama and status obsessed classicism obscured a culture in the thralls of fascist suffocation – see also the Nazi regime mountain films.
Neo-realism is a film movement which literally sprang phoenix like from the askes of the previous regime, using non-professional actors, shot on real Rome streets with real exteriors and locations, awarding the dramas a physical immediacy and social conscience which has been imitated and extended all across the world. One of his De Sica’s primary skills was in crafting performances, his films are all about the actors and the characters journey, so the films focus on common people, their interactions and struggles appealed to a broad audience, particularly in those difficult post war years as Antonioni and Bruno’s poverty stricken journey rang a chord within many countries and communities. Their frantic search offers the city in microcosm, as they attend church, neighbourhood meetings and even a brothel in a closing scene, but the sense isn’t to make a political point of the crushed proletariat scrabbling for morsels among the debris, less than a objective truthful presentation of the world as is, for once focusing on the common man and his son, bonding through a shared struggle. This is a small, quietly affecting film which appears as a conscious rejection of fascism and fantasy, when you’d have thought the exhausted societies of Europe might have been clamouring for a heady draught of escapism such as was offered by Hollywood in its musical heyday. It remains the most consciously political genre of cinema, purely by virtue of its environs – usually the proletariat, the social order under examination, with its oratory finding sympathetic ears in Iranian cinema, with the Dardenne brothers, through some Argentinean directors (see my new find of 2015 Pablo Trapero) and Indian cinema, or just think about Ken Loach’s socially aligned work here in the UK as another localised example.
I do have a long term ambition to cover the frequently lauded all-time greats here at the menagerie, not because they are necessarily my all-time favourite movies, but perhaps more as an intellectual challenge to pit my puny rhetorical wits against the commonly accepted global canon – although there are variations across the various polls a handful of films almost always make appearances. We have covered Vertigo, Tokyo Story, Citizen Kane and 2001, and one day I’ll get around to Potemkin, The Seven Samurai (next year gentle reader), Greed, The Searchers and La Règle du jeu, although having re-watched that on DVD again last year I honestly can’t see what all the fuss is about – evidently I’m a philistine. As you might imagine Scorsese is a huge fan of the neo-realist canon, a movement emanating from his ancestral home just as he was born in the badlands of the Bronx, and with the likes of La Terra Treme and Rossolini’s trilogy (Paisan, Rome Open City & Germany Year Zero) you can see the echoes in some of his films – you can learn more in his comprehensive documentary My Voyage To Italy. Bicycle Thieves is clearly a masterpiece of world cinema, like Chaplin its design and definitions hum across the decades and crucially across cultures and creeds, as we all have families, we all squabble, we occasionally experience financial woes and have parents who must at some stage fall from their childhood erected pedestals. Personally when we studied the neo-realist cluster I was more deeply moved by Umberto D which took as its story the travails of an elderly man wandering the same decaying environments, attempting to retain his dignity amidst the squalor, but I haven’t had the courage to see that again for almost twenty five years so perhaps the time is ripe for a revisit. Time’s a funny old thing isn’t it? I expect it took me weeks of torturous foot dragging and indifferent research to write my coursework piece on the film back then, whereas now I can vomit a 1,500 word piece in a few of hours. Talk about getting on your bike;
* Brucie bonus – as I quietly reading my book, waiting for the previous screening to conclude I was rather amused to see Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay exit NFT1, having just concluded a Q&A on their new film 45 Years. Which was nice.