Friday, April 5, 2013

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

Director: Vittorio De Sica                              Writer: Cesare Zavattini
Film Score: Alessandro Cicognini                  Cinematography: Carlo Montuori
Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell and Gino Saltamerenda

Before there was the French New Wave, there was Italian Neorealism, or as I call it, plain old European Realism. What that means to me is small, personal stories about people, dealing with issues that seem insignificant, even trivial, compared to Hollywood stories of the time. But that was precisely the point. Instead of attempting to compete with the product that was being made in the U.S., European filmmakers made movies about everyday people, dealing with the realities of life for Europeans at that time, and it was extremely influential throughout the continent. Bicycle Thieves--the actual Italian title--is usually considered one of the earliest examples of this new style of cinema.

In post-war Italy, Lamberto Maggiorani is looking for work, like hundreds of other men, hanging around every day at the employment office. That day fortune smiles on him and he gets a job putting up posters around town. The only problem is he needs a bicycle to get the job, and he has pawned his. His wife sacrifices for him by selling the sheets of their bed and they get the bike back. He goes to work the next day with great relief and enthusiasm. But while he is putting up a poster, someone steals his bike. The next morning, with his small son in tow, he goes to the market where bikes are bought and sold on a futile search for his bicycle, which may already have been taken apart and sold. His desperate search is all the more frustrating not only because of its seeming impossibility, but because of his dogged refusal to give up.

There’s a powerful sense of helplessness and hopelessness in the film and, in true European fashion, it does not have a happy ending. There are any number of ways to analyze the film, but on its surface it must reflect the desolation of the post-war period, having followed Mussolini off the cliff, defeated by the Allies, and then left alone in poverty to be preyed upon by criminals with no recourse from the police. The use of real exteriors and interiors is only deviated from in one scene while a truck is driving in the rain and the city is seen in rear projection. The acting is outstanding, especially the part played by Enzo Staiola as the young son. The film won an honorary Oscar for outstanding foreign film before there was an official category, and though he didn’t win that year, director Vittorio De Sica eventually won a best supporting actor award. Highly influential, Bicycle Thieves is post-war Italian realism at its best.

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