With 60 years of history chattering in your ears, it’s all but impossible to write objectively about Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece
With 60 years of history chattering in your ears, it’s all but impossible to write objectively about Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves. And yet, watching it, it’s all but impossible not to react to it with the simple emotional devastation it demands.
Shot around the crowded streets and rubble-strewn tenements of post-war Rome, De Sica’s sensitive camera follows Antonio Ricci, an ordinary Joe struggling like everybody else in the furious frenzy of defeat. He’s offered a job putting up film posters around the city, but only on the condition that he owns a bicycle. He doesn’t, so his wife marches him down to the pawn shop to sell the family’s bed sheets (women play a dominant role in the film as protectors, energisers and dispensers of wisdom).
It’s here that De Sica hints for the first time at the hallucinatory reality to come with a stunning sequence inside the shop, where thousands of families’ bed sheets are piled to the ceiling – a deft suggestion of the misery that has afflicted the city, and a moment of surreal unexpectedness in a film famed for its reality. But there is De Sica’s point: this new Roman reality looks like a nightmarish fever dream.
Now in possession of a bike, Antonio and his son, Bruno, set out for a day’s work, but disaster strikes when the bike is stolen. Antonio spends the rest of the film looking for it – his masculinity being slowly picked apart in front of his child as he sinks further into despair and desperation. Along the way, he will be our guide through a snapshot of post-war Italian life, where an entire people are struggling to survive in any way they can.
De Sica remains studiedly uninterested in the past. Though the Roman police are clothed in proud, fascistic uniforms and gangs of young men (Mafiosi?) roam the ghettos, this is not a film that questions who any of these people were, what they did in the war, or whether they ‘deserve’ their fate. Those were the kinds of questions explored 20 years later in Bertolucci’s The Conformist.
Rather, The Bicycle Thieves is a humane and poignantly sympathetic study of an individual’s pain, which, by extension, stands for a people’s. De Sica struck it lucky with his non-professional actors, especially Enzo Staiola as Bruno who, when he sits on a wall and admits to being tired and hungry, will crush even the hardest of hearts. By the end of the film, any vaguely sentient audience member will, like Antonio, be scraping himself off the floor.
The film’s reputation is unequalled.
Deserves all the accolades. A devastatingly emotional journey.
An enduring masterpiece.