The story of today that was told in the past
For a long time I was thinking of reviewing some of my favorite cult classic films, but was terribly scared of reviewing theme as these were the ones which inspired me to take keen interest in cinema and especially world cinema. Anyway, I have decided to add one category to my blog called the “Cult Classics” and the first of the “Cult Classics” series is the film that inspired another great director to leave his lucrative advertising career and get into filmmaking. He’s none other than the great Satyajit Ray and the film that convinced him to become a filmmaker was Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief.
Set on the grim streets of post war Rome. The film focuses on the middle class Italy post World War II. Director Vittorio De Sica, was a leading force in the neorealist movement in Italy. It’s no wonder that this 1948 film is the one people point to as the perfect example in the genre.
Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is a husband and a father who is desperate for a job. He goes to the local job club and as luck would have it, he gets an offer. There’s a small catch though: he needs a bicycle, which he doesn’t have the money for. He lies and says he has a bike and rushes home, worrying as to what he’s going to do. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) pitches in the last bed sheets to bring to a pawn shop to get the money for a working bicycle. This poor family, giving whatever they have so Antonio can have a bike for his job is an amazing depiction of a family that throughout it all, is still being as hopeful as they can be, even when the world is looking grim. And then something tragic happens.
Not even halfway through his first day of the job, Antonio’s bike gets stolen from right under his nose. No matter how hard and fast he runs, a thief on wheels will always be faster. The rest of the film has Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) going through the seedy streets of Rome, searching for their ticket out of poverty. Sadly, one has to meet dodgy individuals who are really on there to help themselves and seeing post-war Rome is something of a scary revelation. Sifting through the grime of brothels and markets, life is an endless battle and one that De Sica doesn’t hold back from showing the audience.
This is what life was really like there and instead of presenting a washed over piece of fluff, De Sica and partner/screenwriter Cesare Zavattini don’t hold back and in turn make sure to grab the audience and keep our eyes glued to the sadness that is around at every turn. And as an audience, we look at Antonio’s son Bruno as our surrogate, the one we’re guided by through the trials that is going on with his family. We feel for him when we see his reactions to what his father is going through. A hardworking man who is at the Devil’s door, so to speak, and it is heartbreaking up until and including that final reel which will devastate you.
De Sica takes non-professional actors and uses on site location to give the audiences what middle class Italians were living, where they were eating, what establishments they shopped at and gave it a reality that most films of that time didn’t bother to achieve. It’s not intrusive and is almost as if a documentarian is capturing these true moments of life in the wild, never interfering but instead just letting life play along in front of him. It’s a wonderful way to tell a story, and thankfully filmmakers in this neo-realism movement weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and sometimes shock people with the truth about life and how plenty of them were living with the worries of how they were going to eat the next day.
The Bicycle Thief is a film, when I originally watched it over 2 years ago, didn’t resonate with me much. Italian neo-realism didn’t hit me where it was attempting to and, like French New Wave soon after, wasn’t connecting with me. A couple of years later, I watched it again and something snapped in my brain. I watched the film with brand new eyes and saw what De Sica was going for with this touching tale of a man and what was on the line for him. It wasn’t that I had a son or got married, but when I went to live on my own, I understood what it was like to scrape on by and take any job one could get, especially when times were tough.
Not to say you need to have such hardships to truly appreciate this film. A film with a son or daughter being senselessly murdered will still resonate with me because as a person you can’t help but feel empathy for the parents or whoever else is involved. But with a bit more of an outlook in life, one can see things in a film that at one point can just be an afterthought.
And I guess it was because of all these that De Sica had a crowning achievement, not only in this particular genre but in film in general, the film won an honorary Oscar in 1950 and was listed in many ‘best of’ lists, especially Sight & Sound’s poll for greatest film of all time by 1952, 4 years after it’s release. Since then it’s been regarded as one of the best films of all time and for good reason.
It is a story that still resonates, even in today’s world.
Ratings: * * * * * /5