Not too long ago I went to see Breathless—oh, wow, almost ten years ago!—and at some point in the future I will probably end up seeing both Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. I did, and will do such things even knowing that I’m not going to like a movie, if it has some significance to cinema. Sometimes you see a classic because it’s great, and sometimes you see it with the strong suspicion that you’re not going to find it great at all, but sometimes you just don’t know.
Which brings us to The Bicycle Thief.
See what you think: In the crushing post-war poverty of 1948 Italy, Antonio (a young married man with two children) secures a job which he can only take if he has a bike, since it involves putting posters up all over the city. He has a bike, he just has to get it out of pawn (which he does with his wife’s help), but on the very first day it’s stolen. He then runs all over Rome trying to recover it, and being faced with the increasing prospect of starvation. Filmed in black and white, using no actors—only real people. Part of the Italian Neo-Realism cinematic movement, which focused on the hard times of poor people.
There’s a lot of ways this could go horribly wrong, and despite (or perhaps because) its pedigree, I was not without trepidation.
But The Boy and I went. Much to my relief, this is a film which is both a sad story of hard times and a very watchable movie.
We see Antonio get the job, and we’re wondering…”Is he going to steal a bicycle?” But, no, turns out it’s pawned and he can only get it out by hocking his sheets. (There is a massive warehouse stockpiled with pawned goods. It’s amazing.) So he and his wife pawn his sheets, and they walk around the city enjoying their new potential prosperity. He carries the bike everywhere, and when he puts it down, you’re on the edge of your seat: Who’s going to steal the bike? There’s a particularly frightening scene where the wife has gone in to give money to a fortune teller, and he gets tired of waiting so he has a kid on the street watch his bike while he goes to fetch her.
But, no, the big deal is that post-war Italy is full of bicycle thieves. (The original title of the movie in Italian is The Bicycle Thieves which some are now using for the English title.) And these thieves are like car boosters today: They work in teams, distracting the victim, getting in his way, and the bike is ridden off and chopped up, only to be resold as an unrecognizable rip-off, or just as parts.
Because it’s so prevalent, and because it’s Italy, the police are no help. Antonio takes his squad and his boy all around the city on a hunt for this bike, being driven to increasingly desperate ends.
It’s great. It’s suspenseful. You feel for the characters. It’s sad but it’s not grief porn.
There’s a scene, for example, when Antonio’s son Bruno is looking for parts of his father in the marketplace, and a pedophile approaches him. And follows him around, offering to buy him a bicycle bell. It’s creepy as hell, and Antonio realizes Bruno is missing and sweeps him away from the now non-chalant creepy guy. As I said to The Boy, “In a modern movie, the kid would’ve been kidnapped, molested and murdered and the wife would be turning tricks.”
And it’s true, it’s not enough to show honest struggle any more, you have to have degeneracy.
This is a very pure, simple movie—though its simplicity belies the huge amount of effort and skill that went into it. Not just working with non-actors, which required lots of coverage and retakes, but it’s beautifully shot and framed in ways that were not at all simple to arrange. It’s also a brisk 90 minutes, telling its story and getting out with a minimum of fuss. In contrast to the last movie we saw, God of the Piano, it showed how arty/indie films can do the whole “the movie just ends” thing without feeling like it ended because they ran out of film.
But then, I don’t know that it really counts as an “indie” film, either, since Vittorio de Sica was well-established as a director (and would go on to direct Sophia Loren frequently in films such as Bocaccio ’70, and before de Sica decided to go “all amateur” Cary Grant was floated as a possible lead here. Might’ve been a great movie with him, but it is an entirely different and great movie with the people actually living the hard times playing the people living hard times.
It did not disappoint. The Boy and I were enthused.