Thursday, May 26, 2011

Day 36 - The Bicycle Thief

The Bicycle Thief (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica

Italian neorealism is a style of film set amongst the poor and working class, typically dealing with issues of poverty and dispair. This was the backdrop of the Italian landscape after the second World War, ravaged by a depression and moral decay. The Bicycle Thief is set dab in the middle of it, telling the story of a working class stiff trying to recover his stolen bike, but really that's just a plot device to show the destitution of Italian society. It shows the extraordinary lengths and despair that people must go through in order to simply survive. 

The film opens in the front of an unemployment office where hordes of people wait around for jobs to come up. Antonio has been out of work for some time now but gets a lucky break when he gets a job putting posters up around town, but the only requirement is that he must have a bicycle to get around. Antonio, with a family to feed and desperate for work, does not have a bicycle but lies and says he does, one of the moral compromises he must make to get by. In order to get a bike, Antonio must pawn his bed sheets, his wife's dowry. The sheets are bundled up into a sack and pawned off. In a telling shot, a man takes the sack in the back room and throws it into a gigantic storage unit of similar sacks revealing that Antonio isn't the only person in this position. His story, his plight, can be anyone's. Antonio buys the bike and is ecstatic to begin work. As luck would have it, on his very first day someone steals his bike right in front of him. Needless to say, Antonio is crushed and must get his bike back. Without it, his family will starve.

So Antonio and his young son spend the next hour or so of the movie roaming the streets of Rome trying to find the bike, a fool's errand if there ever was one. They don't have much luck and Antonio grows increasingly desperate as it becomes harder to hide his anguish and helplessness. And that is basically the entire film. You just watch them wandering around searching for the bike and Antonio's growing desperation. As already mentioned, the simplistic plot is just the tour guide for the neorealistic setting. In their wanderings of Rome, the viewer gets an up close look at the poverty and social conditions of post WW2 Italy. Take these two images for example. What else really needs to be said about them?

It starts to get really good when Antonio ends up running into the thief and has a heated confrontation with him. It is not clear, however, if he actually is the thief or not. After all, Antonio only had a quick glimpse of the thief's face during the theft. The bike is nowhere to be found and the kid has a clean record. Despite no proof or collaborating witnesses, Antonio is convinced the kid is scum. The gathering crowd watching the spectacle become wary of Antonio's unfounded accusations as he grows increasingly hostile. Eventually, Antonio must back down and retreat empty handed, dejected as ever before. What follows is perhaps one of the most dramatic and emotional moments captured on film. For those who have not seen The Bicycle Thief yet, I won't go into details but it is pretty powerful stuff and basically makes the entire movie.

As great as the last act is, the rest of the movie can be a bit tedious and dull. The single-minded quest to find the bicycle is not powerful or compelling enough to carry the middle as there is only so much of this story you can tell before you must get on with it. While the search seems to be carried out with meticulous and inordinate detail, it loses its impact along the way. Maybe I was distracted or tired at the time, but my emotional connection to Antonio during the middle was wavering as the search for the bike seemed empty. I could sense and see Antonio's desperation, but I could not feel it, until the powerful last act of course. Regardless, The Bicycle Thief's status as a world classic is well founded. Few other movies tell so much with so little or have the raw emotional impact of its closing shot.

Grade: B+

1 comment:

  1. I think this is the first of your breakdowns I'm going to call bullshit on. Or challenge, or whatever the appropriate term would be. You must not have been in the right mood when you watched it. SEE IT AGAIN! Ha.

    I just watched this for the first time this week, broken up in half hour increments or so over three days, while working out, and even in that messed up viewing situation I felt it was amazing. So much in fact that just now, about 2 minutes ago, I finished watching it AGAIN all the way through in one sitting. Like movies should be seen.

    And dude, that movie is a masterpiece. Maybe I'm overly biased because I'm a new father and the father-son dynamic was very touching to me, but I don't think that's it. Everything about it is great.

    I'm not going to shy away from SPOILERS right now, so if anyone is reading but Chris, and you care, stop reading...

    Ok so one of the nice things about seeing it twice back to back like I did is that I was able to confirm that, yes, undeniably, the dude Antonio pegs as the thief was actually the thief. That's just a note to follow up your comments.

    The title, and how it's meaning changes from the beginning to the end of the movie, is just plain genius. You know what I'm talking about...

    The imagery is beautiful throughout, despite the fact that we are in the slums, and I really like the pacing too. Antonio gets job. Antonio gets bike (I agree that pawn scene is awesome). Antonio loses bike. Antonio and friends look for bike (I like that there is a community element to this slum tale... no one is all alone... everyone has their people to help them, thief or not). Antonio and son look for bike. Antonio and son find beggar, which I'm going to go off on a tangent now because the beggar scenes are great. The church connection, and the disrespect shown for the church/God while arguing with the beggar over the bike, was powerful. These people have, in one way, given up on God completely, tolerating a sermon for food only, while on the other hand, they have also deluded themselves into desperation and pleading with God in the form of talking, depending on, and paying the "seer." The beggar's wise (dishonest) words were some of the best in the film: Leave me alone. I mind my own business. And in return, all I get is trouble (obviously not verbatim, that's just how I remember it). Continuing with the pacing, you then have a peak of frustration for Antonio, which he takes out on his son with a slap. Big moment. Then you have the "I need to get my priorities straight and keep in mind what really matters" sequences with Antonio and son that are what really get me. The scene in the diner. The sharing of dreams from father to son. Earlier, with Antonio getting nice and philosophical about how they're going to die anyway, so he shouldn't sweat the small stuff. So much to offer in this movie man!

    The showdown with the thief in the whorehouse and then with his gang... the policeman telling Antonio it's over... and then of course, the new bicycle thief... and all it's consequences. GENIUS.

    Nothing seemed forced to me, and all the acting was great, despite the fact that none of the actors were professionals, and that everyone in the movie was handpicked by the director from all walks... Antonio was really a factory worker, his son was just a random kid in the street watching the filming (I loved him), and the wife/mom was really a reporter who wanted to interview the director... with the studio pick for the lead, Cary Grant, and the director's own early choice, Henry Fonda, being cast aside so they could go all amateur on our asses. Which worked out perfect!

    I know it's crazy I'm complaining about a B+ grade, but this movie deserves an A, and you should give it an A. Or else I will steal your bicycle...