THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 32: THE BICYCLE THIEVES

by Daniel Suddes

Ladri Di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, aka The Bicycle Thief). Directed by:  Vittorio De Sica. Written by: Cesare Zavattini, De Sica, Suso D’Amico, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, Gerardo Guerriri. Based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini. Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell OSCAR COUNT: 1 (Honorary Award for Best Foreign Film released in the United States).

For a while, this was the film that was on everyone’s mind. It lead to a new genre, was given an honorary Oscar after its release, and was voted the greatest film of all time in the first ever Sight and Sound poll made just three years after its release. But that initial wave of praise rolled back, and is still out somewhere in the middle of the ocean of praise. It slipped to sixth in the next Sight and Sound poll (the top spot was now occupied by mainstay Citizen Kane) and was excluded in the next one. It did place sixth in the 2002 directors’ poll, but has not been on the critics list since its slip in 1962.

Perhaps this is because director De Sica was a one hit wonder. None of his films (with the possible exception of Umberto D) have been as renowned, and some were flat out dismissed by critics. Besides, when the film was released, Italy was still recovering from the destruction of World War II and had yet to rebound. Fellini, who released his first film the next year, became Italy’s new cinematic poster child. De Sica was forever forced to observe the action in Fellini’s massive shadow.

But oh, what a film De Sica managed to craft! The film can be read in many ways – from a fable about fatherhood, to a documentary of postwar Italian life. It is still being quoted in a variety of films. Everyone from Pasolini to Pee Wee Herman owes it a debt of gratitude.

The plot is fairly simple. A man named Antonio Ricci gets a job (through the “employment office”) as a paper hanger. He needs a bicycle to complete the task. Trouble is, he’s already pawned it. No matter – Antonio merely trades his bed sheets back for his bike, and starts his job. But as the title implies, the bicycle is stolen. After the police refuse to help him, the man tries to find his bicycle by himself, and takes his young son with him to assist in his quest.

The film works as well as it does due to the relationship between Antonio (the father) and Bruno (the son). I could try and rationalize that the bicycle is somehow the Holy Spirit, but that is probably reaching far too much. This film is not a religious allegory. It is meant to capture life in Post War Italy, a country that was  torn to pieces and has never quite recovered.  Bicycle Thieves is a time capsule of the world after the costliest war human society has ever endured. All of the distrust and deceit of human society was present in this film, even though this film suggests that some people have come to depend on the very society that failed them. Antonio is berated by the people that he has come to expect help from. This message still resonates strongly today, but just four years after the fall of fascism, it was downright revolutionary.

Additionally, there are many self-referential scenes (as there were in Citizen Kane). One driver speaks about how “movies bore him. I just don’t like them.”  This is immediately followed by a scene in which Ricci is passed by dozens of bicycles, symbolizing his own plight. The placement of the scenes indicates that De Sica was trying to make a joke about what films could do. Before Bicycle Thieves, films had been “boring” in their attempts to capture what true life was really like (Kanenotwithstanding). They worked better as a medium of dreams. De Sica demonstrated how they could be used to show the truth about the human condition, at a time when that definition was being challenged. That is why it was so revered upon its release. It was the first of its kind and, judging by the constant quoting that the film still undergoes today, is still one of the best.

Once again, I must break a cardinal sin in critiquing to properly examine this film. But, in discussing what the best scene of Bicycle Thieves is, it is necessary to do so. The best scene of the film is the final scene, in which Ricci’s frustrations come to a climax. He never does recover the bicycle, but attempts to find justice by stealing another. The result is humiliation, isolation, and the threat of violence. It is the sort of ending Sophocles may have come up with, if he did not wish to include the gore thatOedipus Rex featured. But it is still a man being punished for his desires that do not match what has happened. Ricci should not have expected to be treated with a kindness that he did not treat the initial thief. But that is exactly what happens – and he finds himself on the wrong end of the vengeance he so desperately craved. It is a scene of great power and thought, one that reveals the post-World War II nature that was focused on the destruction rather than the blame. That is why the film has been greeted with the acclaim that it has. It perfectly captures the emotions that the entire world was trying to come to terms with, over situations that challenged the very fabric of humanity. BicyclThieves captured a world that does not exist anymore, but De Sica was determined to make sure that people did not forget the message.

Did You Know: The film was originally designed to be a big budget spectacle, with David O Selznick producing and Cary Grant in the lead role. Neither were involved with the finished film.

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