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Bicycle Thieves (1948)


Times are hard, money in short supply, and jobs hard to come by in Italy in the years immediately after WWII. Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) struggles to feed himself, his wife (Lianella Carell) and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), and leaves home every day looking for work. One day Antonio is lucky, finding a job putting up posters. But to do the job he needs his own bicycle, to enable him to travel around Rome putting the posters up in different locations. He had a bike already, but pawned it because he needed the money, so his wife encourages him to sell the family linen to raise the money to redeem it. With his bicycle reclaimed, Antonio is able to start work in his new job. But disaster strikes when the bicycle is stolen in a distraction robbery, and although Antonio gives chase to the thieves, he loses them in the crowded streets. He then conducts an increasingly desperate search around the city, together with his son Bruno, in the hope of finding the bike. Without it, Antonio will lose his job and the means to support his family.


Lamberto Maggiorani holding a ladder in Bicycle Thieves


Ladri di biciclette, better known in English as Bicycle Thieves or The Bicycle Thief, is a key film in the Italian neorealist movement, and remains its best known and most celebrated product. Italian neorealism developed in the years immediately following WWII, and was distinguished by relatively low-key and believable stories about ordinary people and their problems. The plots were often drawn from real life, and the films explored the social issues and the economic background of the times. They frequently used non-professional actors, with Lamberto Maggiorani, at that time a factory worker, playing the lead role in Bicycle Thieves, and Enzo Staiola, playing his son, both non-professionals making their first film. The neorealist films usually avoided studio filming in favour of location work and this, together with the use of non-professional actors, often meant that the actors were dubbed, usually by professionals. The films also often focused on child protagonists, an important element of Bicycle Thieves.

These emphases were partly aesthetic, but they could also be brought on by circumstances. The use of real locations was driven not only by a preference for visual authenticity, but also by a lack of available studio space. Some of the same stylistic preferences would reappear in several later cinematic New Waves, including the notion of escaping the studio, escaping sets and artificiality and escaping, if you will, escapism. Other significant neorealist films were Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema (1948), Roberto Rossellini’s trilogy Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City) (1946), Paisà (1946), and Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero) (1948), and Vittorio De Sica's Sciuscià (Shoeshine) (1946) and Umberto D. (1952).

The realistic style, the focus on ordinary people and the interest in social and economic issues were driven by the political and economic background of post-WWII Italy. This was a time of political and social upheaval, as well as economic breakdown, brought on by the collapse of Mussolini's Fascist regime and the subsequent Allied invasion and occupation. With their emphasis on the realistic portrayal of everyday struggles, the neorealist films were also a reaction against the so-called "white telephone" films of the 1930s, superficial, glossy entertainments that ignored the realities of life in Fascist Italy.


Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola and bike


Bicycle Thieves is such a simple, deceptively straightforward story, that on paper it looks almost threadbare. But it's so beautifully judged, so expertly written and directed, and so honestly performed. Both Lamberto Maggiorani as the father and Enzo Staiola as his son play their parts with an impressive and wholly convincing naturalism. And the film's outward simplicity belies its thematic sophistication. For the writer Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio De Sica, the fairly simple story provides an opportunity to explore post-war Italian, and especially Roman, society. The father and son's quest takes them through different strata of society and a variety of locations, with the city itself becoming a key character in the film. They explore a market, a brothel, a restaurant, an underground communist meeting, a football match, a church and eventually a disreputable neighbourhood where thieves protect their own. There's also irony in the fact that the posters Antonio is putting up are for glossy Hollywood films, including one of a glamorous image of Rita Hayworth, in sharp contrast to the reality of life for him and his family. The film casts an unflattering eye over contemporary Italian society, from its social inequalities and economic hardships, to its toleration of pretty crime and worse. Antonio is shown looking for his bike in a market place full of stolen property, and has to defend his son from the suspect attentions of a creepy man in the street, something the film suggests is just another everyday experience.

The emotional centre of the film is the relationship between the father and son. But rather than document the two bonding over the course of their odyssey, it instead shows the son's growing disillusionment with his father. Under the eyes of his son Bruno, Antonio is slowly demoralized, driven to desperation and, eventually, reduced by the temptation to steal another man's bike himself, in order to replace the one he has lost. Poor Bruno is dragged along unwillingly, occasionally bribed, sometimes completely forgotten about, targeted by a paedophile and almost run over twice (these were real near-misses that De Sica kept in the film), as his son's welfare takes second place to Antonio's anguished search for the missing bicycle.

Bicycle Thieves was made by the writer-director partnership of Cesare Zavattini and Vittorio De Sica. The two men made more than twenty films together, beginning with I bambini ci guardano (The Children Are Watching Us) in 1944, and continuing with the neorealist films Sciuscià in 1946, Bicycle Thieves in 1948 and Umberto D. in 1952. Their early films were marked by a strong humanism and a desire to portray the realities of everyday life. The inspiration for Bicycle Thieves was Luigi Bartolini's satirical novel, subtitled A Comic Novel of the Theft and Recovery of a Bicycle Three Times Over, although Zavattini and his co-writers developed the idea into a more sober and realistic economic and social critique. Zavattini wrote the script together with De Sica and another five writers, Oreste Biancoli, Suso D'amico, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi and Gerardo Guerrieri. Despite the army of writers involved, the screenplay for Bicycle Thieves is a model of simplicity and economy.


Antonio grabbing the thief in Bicycle Thieves


Vittorio De Sica had to raise the financing for the production himself, but there was the possibility of funding the film from an unlikely source, and on an even more unlikely condition. David O. Selznick became aware of the project, and offered to finance it, but he wanted to cast Cary Grant in the role of jobless Antonio. De Sica felt that was going too far and that the audience wouldn't accept Grant in such a role. That was surely the right decision, as Grant's casting, or that of any Hollywood star, and the necessity of filming in English, would have destroyed the film's efforts at authenticity.

Instead, De Sica found non-professionals for his leading roles, to give the film a greater sense of realism. Lamberto Maggiorani was seen by De Sica when he accompanied his son to the auditions, hoping that the boy would land a role. The part of Antonio's wife was played by Lianella Carell, a journalist who had been trying to interview De Sica. Casting the role of Antonio's son, Bruno, was more difficult, and filming was already underway when De Sica saw 8 year old Enzo Staiola, who was watching the crew filming on location. De Sica recalled that he was talking to Lamberto Maggiorani when “I turned around in annoyance at the onlookers who were crowding around me, and saw an odd-looking child with a round face, a big funny nose and wonderful lively eyes. Saint Gennaro has sent him to me, I thought. It was proof of the fact that everything was turning out right." Also among the cast is a sixteen year old Sergio Leone, later the instigator of the spaghetti western sub-genre, playing one of the priests Bruno sees talking together.

The style of Bicycle Thieves appears almost effortless, a simple story filmed on the streets with no big stars, no fancy sets and little artifice. But its documentary-style realism belies the complex planning and co-ordination that filming on such busy city locations required. De Sica used multiple cameras to capture the action and the performances of his mostly non-professional cast, and the crowd scenes required careful planning. This drove Bicycle Thieves over budget and meant that, contrary to appearances, it was a relatively expensive production by contemporary Italian standards.

Regardless of the precision and the careful choreography that had actually gone into its making, Bicycle Thieves looked real and authentic; the antithesis of the Hollywood gloss and glamour represented by those Rita Hayworth posters. Maggiorani looked like an ordinary poor Italian worker, because he was an ordinary poor Italian worker, and Staiola looked like a young kid plucked from the streets of Rome because that's exactly what he was.


Enzo Staiola and Lamberto Maggiorani


Originally released in Italy as Ladri di biciclette, the title was translated into English as the plural Bicycle Thieves in the UK, but the singular The Bicycle Thief in the US. The plural title is a more accurate translation and suggests the story's circular nature and its economic and social critique, that the economics of post-war Italy force one man to steal from another, something that can become a vicious circle. Was the US title an attempt to tone down those implications and to gloss over the fact that the hero himself becomes a thief?

What is true is that the film proved unexpectedly damaging to the Production Code in the US. The brief brothel scene and another scene, where Bruno is seen urinating against a wall, were enough for the film to fall foul of the Code. The Production Code Administration (PCA) would only give the film its seal of approval if the two scenes were cut, but De Sica refused. The Skouras cinema circuit released the film anyway, when it became clear that it wouldn't be approved by the PCA, and two more chains followed suit. With increasing challenges like this, the Production Code declined in importance and was eventually abolished.

The neorealist films enjoyed limited box office success in Italy and their moment was relatively short-lived, but Bicycle Thieves was one of the more commercially successful and it was also the most critically lauded of them all. The film was showered with awards internationally, winning the British Academy Award for Best Film, the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, the National Board of Review Awards for Best Film and Best Director, the New York Film Critics Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Grand Prize at the Brussels Film Festival. It also received a special Academy Award for outstanding foreign language film and was nominated for Best Screenplay. The film came in first place when Sight & Sound conducted the first of its regular best film polls in 1952.


Enzo Staiola and Lamberto Maggiorani sitting by the road in Bicycle Thieves


Lamberto Maggiorani was a reluctant performer, but circumstances saw him return to acting when he was let go from his factory job. He appeared in several more films in small roles, including a bit part in De Sica and Zavattini's Umberto D. in 1952 and a small part in their Il giudizio universale (The Last Judgement) in 1961. Enzo Staiola appeared in more than a dozen films, including a small role in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and both he and Maggiorani had supporting roles in A Tale of Five Cities (1951). Staiola eventually gave up acting to become a teacher.

De Sica and Zavattini would continue making films together, collaborating 22 times in all. Their later films included Ieri oggi domani (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) (1963) and Il giardino dei Finzi Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) (1970), both Academy Award winners for Best Foreign Language Film.

Bicycle Thieves was highly influential, and inspired many more film makers to take their cameras to the streets and film with small crews in real locations. Its storyline has acted as a jumping off point for films as varied as Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985) and Shiqi sui de dan che (Beijing Bicycle) (2001), while Maurizio Nichetti's Ladri di saponette (retitled in English as The Icicle Thief) is a direct homage-cum-parody.

Despite its very specific origins in the economic woes of post-WWII Italy, the deceptively simple story of Bicycle Thieves, and its focus on the father-son relationship between Antonio and Bruno, means that the film still maintains its universal appeal. It's not necessary to understand the economics of 1940s Italy, or the socialist critique embedded in the film, to appreciate its moving and poignant human drama. Its central character is not a great man, or even a very successful man, but the film elevates him into an everyman hero, a kind of noble figure, despite his repeated failures and bad luck. He's just an ordinary guy who can't get a decent break. He could be any one of us. And that, really, is the point that De Sica and Zavattini were making.



Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette)

Year: 1948
Genre: Drama, Crime
Country: Italy
Language: Italian
Director: Vittorio De Sica

Cast Lamberto Maggiorani (Antonio), Enzo Staiola (Bruno), Lianella Carell (Maria), Elena Altieri (the lady), Vittorio Antonucci (the thief), Gino Saltamerenda (Baiocco), Giulio Chiari (the pauper), Michele Sakara (charity secretary), Fausto Guerzoni (amateur actor), Carlo Jachino (beggar)

Screenplay Cesare Zavattini, Vittorio De Sica, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi and Gerardo Guerrieri, based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini  Producer Vittorio De Sica  Cinematography Carlo Montuori  Editor Eraldo Da Roma  Art Director Antonio Traverso  Music Alessandro Cicognini

Running time 89 mins (black & white)
Production company Produzioni De Sica




This post is part of the Non-English Language Blogathon, hosted by Thoughts All Sorts

Comments

  1. Terrific summary of a heartbreaking movie. Hollywood would never have gone for its unrelenting realism at the time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, you can see why it created such a stir at the time, it seems so authentic and looks so realistic, it must have been a shock to people used to Hollywood.

      Delete
  2. I like what you said about this film appearing to be "effortless". It is so well done and so seamless – it makes filmmaking look easy.

    You've done justice to this haunting, memorable film. I've only seen it once, yet it had such an impact, it feels like I saw it just last week.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's definitely a film that stays with you. I think that's partly because of the naturalism of the actors, they make the characters seem so real.

      Delete
  3. As your blog title intimates, you've reviewed a 'cinema essential' in The Bicycle Thief. It's a film that is mandatory viewing for anyone wanting to discover film. It's such a piece of poetry - as you point out correctly, it's naturalism shapes an amazing experience. Thanks for a great review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree it's an essential, and poetry is quite an apt description.

      Delete

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