Monday, May 16, 2011

The Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Title: The Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell


The Bicycle Thieves is a great example of how a film can stretch its running time however its filmmakers want to. A film can span the time of centuries, or years even, just the same as it can show us what happens in the span of a day, or an hour. In The Bicycle Thieves, director Vittorio De Sica chose to show us the events that transpire during a day in the life of a working class hero. Antonio Ricci is a man who like most men during the post Word War II era Italy, were struggling to find a job. The film effectively captures that time when people stood outside of factories, waiting for patrons to offer them a job on the spot. Patrons would choose two or three people for work, the rest would have to turn around and go home, empty handed. As I write this the world is currently going through a tough economical time as well, so of course I could identify with the overall feeling that the film conveys. There is a heart wrenching scene in which Antonio takes his son Brunno for dinner and on the table next to them is a family with money eating a luxurious dinner with wine. Antonio and Brunno can only afford to eat a mozzarella sandwich with a glass of water. Brunno eats his sandwich as if it was the last in the world, gobbling it up. Antonio sees this and asks his son to eat slower, not to eat the whole thing in one bite, but quickly after saying this he realizes what a stupid request that is. The kid is hungry, of course he's going to gobble up that sandwich, so he let's the kid eat in peace.

Movies about poverty always get to me, I’m not exactly the richest guy in the world, so I understand what it is to struggle with a little bit of money, trying to stretch everyone of those dollars as much as you can. I understand the frustration of not having enough money to do all the things that you’d want to do. You watch your money vanish when you pay rent and utilities. To make matters worse, suddenly everything in the world is three times more expensive, and gas prices aren’t helping much either. I’m actually thankful that I don’t own a car in this day and age! I mean, pretty soon going on a car ride is going to be some sort of luxury, if it isn’t already! I could definitely understand the kind of world that Antonio and Brunno were living in, and because the film aimed for an extremely realistic approach to its story telling, it makes the film that much more believable and real to me, the situations in this film certainly ring true. The Bicycle Thieves brought to mind films like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and also Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man (2005), both of which are films about the working class struggling to survive during the great depression. I know most of you have probably seen Chaplin’s Modern Times (and if you haven’t then what are you waiting for! It’s a masterpiece!) but I also strongly recommend Cinderella Man. If you like movies that will pull your heart strings, movies about people struggling to survive in harsh economic times, you will definitely appreciate it. The interesting thing about The Bicycle Thieves is that even though we have a protagonist whom we follow all through out the film, this is also a film about people and how we all go through the same situations together as a society. Almost every single frame of this movie is filled with “the people”, in that way, it reminded me of a Fellini film, which often times had scenes filled with busy streets and the noise of life happening.

Though The Bicycle Thieves is a movie about struggle, at first it isn’t all gloom and doom. Antonio does manage to finally get a job! A company offers him the job of putting up movie posters on the streets, unfortunatley,  the catch is you have to have a bicycle and Antonio does not have one! But he takes the job anyway. He makes a special effort and sells all his linen so that he can buy a bicycle! Antonio and his wife are both so excited, they make plans with the money that Antonio will hopefully  get once he gets paid. They are happy that they are finally getting some income! But, tragedy strikes when a thief steals Antonio’s bike right from under his noses! This bicycle was Antonio’s only way of making money for his family and now some two bit low life just stole it from him! It’s such a sad thing because we follow him through this whole struggle of getting the bicycle, only so that it gets stolen. And that’s where the films journey begins. It’s Antonio’s struggle, trying to find his bicycle.

Happy to have a job!

I noticed when watching The Bicycle Thieves how influential the film has been. This is a film that follows a father and his son through really difficult times, yet they stick together, looking out for each other. It’s the kind of film in which the father struggles emotionally because he knows what a terrible situation he and his family are going through. Maybe his son doesn’t realize it because he is a child, but the father, the father knows, and it saddens him. It immediately reminded me of films like Life is Beautiful (1997) and The Pursuit of Happiness (2006), both of which are films about a father and their son trying to survive through an extremely difficult situation. Through this struggle, they form a bond. The father finds comfort in his son, who in turn still looks up to him in spite of the situation, because no matter what, Antonio is his father and no matter how difficult the situation, that love for his father will always be there. I’ve always loved that premise of true love shinning through the darkness and the desperation, and there is a lot of that on The Bicycle Thieves. It occurred to me that this film also influenced Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). It’s basically the same plot of a stolen bicycle and the ordeal to get it back. Pee Wee even visits a fortune teller same as Antonio does in The Bicycle Thieves! But of course, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure plays it for laughs, while The Bicycle Thieves took a completely realistic approach, still, the influences are definitely there on Burton’s film.

The producers of this film had famous people in mind for the role of Antonio. Actors like Cary Grant and Henry Fonda were considered for the role, but ultimately De Sica decided to use real people and not professional actors for the main roles. This in my opinion was a great move on his part. It added a level of authenticity to the film. We don’t have a distracting famous actor to take us out of the reality of the film, which is something that happens to me all the time. The actor chosen to play Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) was a factory worker before he made this film, so even though he wasn’t a professional actor, he knew what being part of the working class was all about. In fact, he lost his day job as a factory worker to be on this film. Ironically, he struggled to find work as an actor after he made The Bicycle Thieves. Still he managed to work on 16 films before he died in 1983! Enzo Staiola, the kid chosen to play Bruno just happened to be on the set when De Sica chose him to play Bruno, simply because of the way he looked and walked. It was De Sica’s choice to use non professionals for the roles. A bold move, because these were amateurs he was choosing to act on his film, and when using amateurs, you risk the acting on your film not being very good. But it was a move that payed off, the reality the film elicits is there, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that these are real people on screen. It helped that De Sica was good at directing actors, he probably knew how to handle them because he was an actor himself. De Sica had acted in many films before he directed The Bicycle Thieves, but he was a struggling actor himself; he wasn’t that popular at the time and was having trouble finding acting jobs. Reportedly, he wasnt making a penny as an actor,  so he went with directing another film. The result was The Bicycle Thieves.

Vitorrio Di Sica directs a scene

The film forms part of the Italian Neo-realistic movement. These were films that tried adding a new degree of realism to Italian cinema, they were shot on location, with non professional actors in the lead roles. Many of the scenes in The Bicycle Thieves were shot in plain day, with real people walking the streets of Italy. In fact, there is one scene where a car almost hits actor Lamberto Maggiorani, this was not planned that way, he was actually crossing the street, and that was a real car that almost hit him! I appreciate this kind of filmmaking because it’s exactly the kind of films I make. I didn’t even know it, but I must be part of a neo-realistic movement in Puerto Rican filmmaking! I wasn’t even aware of it! I also shoot on location with non-professional actors. We shoot with the real world as our background, same as The Bicycle Thieves, so I appreciated and connected a lot with how this film was made. This is a film that used the real Italy as its backdrop and it’s a real treat to watch! Since Antonio runs all over Italy pursuing his stolen bicycle, we get to see many different Italian landscapes. I loved how the Italian city landscape was captured in all its raw natural beauty. You get to see how people really were back in those days, the way they dressed, the cars they drove. On the Bicycle Thieves we see Italy in the 1940’s, the way it really was.

Seconds after Antonio realizes that his bike has been stolen!

This film is considered one of the best films ever made by many critics and filmmakers around the world. It has appeared on many top ten lists. A search of top films you need to see before you die will surely bring up The Bicycle Thieves. And I can see why. It is a film that shows what real people go through when they face economic struggles in the real world. I’m sure stories like these are floating around in the real world as we speak, so it’s a film that was made during the 1940’s but its themes still ring true in our day and time. That to me is a sign of a great film, when a film still shines, when it still amazes with its beauty, when it’s themes still speak as loudly as they did when it was made. For any true film lover, this is a film not to be missed.

Rating: 5 out of 5


Mr. Fiendish said...

Agree with you 100%. This, along with Rossellini's Rome Open City are the bibles of Italian Neorealism and I can't think of a movement that has inspired more independent filmmakers, other than maybe the early AIP exploitation films. There's just something really great about using real locations, real people instead of professional actors, and trying to make the situation as authentic as possible. Believe me I know, even if my effors involve setting loose a lot of people in vampire makeup on the streets of the central plaza in Bayamon. you would know too.

Franco Macabro said...

Yeah man, I completely identified with this film in that sense, the neorealistic side, specially with the way Rio Piedras Mon Amour (my latest cinematic endeavour) is turning out! I was very inspired and influenced by this film, watching it and then learning the whole story behind it has given me new motivation!

I love the thrill of shooting in a real place, with real people.

Direct to Video Connoisseur said...

I loved this movie, and De Sica's work in general-- Umberto D. is my favorite of his. I can't wait for Shoeshine to come out on DVD tomorrow. Great stuff.

Reanaclaire said...

Hello..I would like to offer you to write some movie reviews.. do drop me an email if you are interested.. thanks!


Franco Macabro said...

@Direct to Video Connoisseur: I didnt know Shoeshine would be coming out on dvd tomorrow, thanks for the heads up on that one man! This was my first De Sica movie, but I will definitely explore the rest of his filmography!

SFF said...

This is such a wonderful little film. I haven't seen it in ages, but any fan of film should see it. It's essential viewing.

Great coverage here Francisco!

Franco Macabro said...

Yeah, this is a beautiful film, that little kid really gets to ya! Same way the little kid in Charlie Chaplin's The Kid does! I forgot to mention that one in the review, but I'm sure it was highly influential when De Sica decided to make The Bicycle Thieves.

Thanks for commenting Sci-Fi Fanatic!


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