In an era of incredible CGI and special effects, a simple black and white film in old style celluloid stock would hardly pass muster. But that is the wonder of the classics – from the surreal to the overtly overdone, the classics cannot be ignored. They are the foundation of our current filmmaking, cinematography and directing. Vittoria de Sica does nothing less than create an everlasting classic in ‘Bicycle Thieves’. It’s exactly twenty-one years since I last watched this wonderful film that comes in at number four on the Empire World Cinema top 100, and I still love this little gem. Given an Honorary Oscar in 1949, the BFI and Sight & Sound Magazine declared it the best film ever made in 1952. Huge praise indeed for the latest inductee into the JumpCut UK World Cinema Club.
Deplete of special effects, Dolby Surround Sound and technicolor – ‘Bicycle Thieves’ was made on proper film with no digital editing luxuries that allow multiple choice and economical cutting. Every single rush counted when this film was made. Italian Neorealism has often been referred to as The Golden Age of Italian Cinema, and ‘Bicycle Thieves’ most definitely falls into this category. Shot in Rome, a city that showed every terrible consequence and emblem of WWII, the film was made on a very limited budget, featuring everything that defined it as an Italian Neorealism piece – poverty, working class people, socialist politics and ethics, filmed on location and often using “actors” that were ordinary people with no previous acting experience. Rome was a city devastated by war and populated by individuals and families longing to return to normality and urgent to find work that would keep them and their families alive. Literally.
‘Bicycle Thieves’ (not ‘The Bicycle Thief’, which is the American name and version – sheesh don’t get me started on that Trans-Atlantic conundrum), is rich in its depiction of absolute nothingness and the desperate desire to find something. You might find a reference more akin to this particular film movement in the classic ‘Rome, Open City’ (Rossellini, 1946) which is fabulous and ample content for a different review. But in ‘Bicycle Thieves’ there is everything that defined this film movement – the main character Ricci has been looking for work for what seems like an eternity; every day he joins the queues of men waiting to be called for jobs and then one day he hears his name. He has been assigned to a well-paid city job hanging up film posters but he needs a bicycle in order to fulfil the role. With his wife’s agreement they sell the sheets off their bed to get their bicycle back – a bicycle that they had pawned a while before, in order to provide for Ricci, his wife and their two children. But the bicycle is stolen on his first day in the new job. The film focuses on Ricci and his son as they search the streets of Rome looking for the thief and more importantly the bicycle. And in that search we see the underbelly of Rome, the devastation wrought by war and the desperation to survive that preoccupies every person involved in the story.
Shot with simple untrained actors in the main, on a very limited budget – ‘Bicycle Thieves’ portrays a post-war Italy stultified by war and poverty and reduced to basics in order to survive. The very simplicity of this film and its Marxist take on the world, on life and post-war Europe still has relevance today. If you can slow your mind and ban yourself from your computer/laptop for 24 hours and watch this gem, you will be blessed.; truly blessed by the simplicity and utter brilliance of this outstanding work of art. And it is a work of art in its depiction of ordinary people (mostly non-actors) in extraordinary circumstances where they triumph over challenges that would annihilate most of us softies living in our decadent western idyll. This film is good for your soul, and that might be an outdated concept in 21st century society, but I truly believe that films like ‘Bicycle Thieves’ keep us stitched tightly to the concept and reality of our humanity. Please find it and watch it soon. Thank you in advance.
Director: Vittorio de Sica
Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell