31 Days of Film: Bicycle Thieves

One of my favorite things about watching a classic for the first time is noticing all the ways that it has stretched its influence through cinema.  I still remember the first time I watched Citizen Kane, on a long plane ride over summer vacation before my senior year of high school.  Almost every shot, every scene, there was another “ah” moment realizing exactly how important Orson Welles was to film and the American canon at large.  The same happens when you read Shakespeare or Dickens or when you listen to Muddy Waters or James Brown.  There is a thrill in experiencing what you love in works previous.  Watching Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece Bicycle Thieves for the first time was full of moments like that.  You can find little pieces of Bicycle Thieves throughout the last six decades of film history; its influence stretches far and wide.  The whole time I was watching it I kept thinking of a recent favorite of mine Two Days, One Night or Deux Jours, Une Nuit in French, a 2014 Belgian-French film about a woman, over the course of a weekend, pleading with her coworkers to forego their bonuses so she can keep her job.

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Even some of the best films ever made suffer from the passing of time.  There are incredibly imaginative and creative films that are only enjoyable today as academic exercises.   The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari and The Passion of Joan of Arc, two of possibly the greatest films ever made.  I wouldn’t break either of those Blu-rays out at your next movie night.  Even more recent films like Black Narcissus or The Lost Weekend feel like their films for a difference universe today.  Bicycle Thieves is not one of those films.  As enjoyable a watch today as it was 60 years ago, Vittorio De Sica’s neorealism masterpiece is one of the great triumphs in storytelling in modern times.  Bicycle Thieves follows Antonio Ricci, an Italian man living in the suburb of post-WWII Rome who is impoverished and desperate to find work.  Ricci finds work putting up posters in Rome but the job requires him to have a bike; a bike which he recently pawned.  Possibly spoiled by the title of the film—after Ricci manages to get his bike back from the pawn shop it is quickly stolen during his first day on the job.  What follows is Antonio and his son Bruno desperately scouring the streets of Rome in hopes of finding his stolen bicycle.  Many films aim to tell larger than life stories of men and women who can leap buildings or bend the world around them with magic—the mastery of Bicycle Thieves is how true to life its story really feels.  Every moment of pain and desperation that you witness Antonio suffer feels all the more piercing to the audience because the film seems almost inseparable from life.  The understated nature of the performances—a rarity especially in early filmmaking—combined with the seemingly small but ultimately catastrophic nature of the conflict pulls the viewer in and makes the film all the more compelling.  It also makes the ending of the film all that more heartbreaking when De Sica has spent all that time convincing you how real this story is and how important the stakes are.

While Vittorio De Sica, as the writer and director, deserves all the praise one can heap on him for this film Bicycle Thieves is a forgotten film, lost to the vast history of cinema, if it were not for the performance of Lamberto Maggiorani.  Maggiorani was he himself a bit lost to cinema history.  His first role as an actor was in Bicycle Thieves and while he worked on and off for the next 22 years, never a leading role again or even many roles more than an extra.  In fact, after his work on Bicycle Thieves he had to return to his job as a factory worker and later after being left off found occasional work as a bricklayer.  But Maggiorani’s performance as Antonio Ricci is one of—if not the most important performance in Italian cinema.  Possibly it is due to the fact that at the time of filming, Maggiorani was he himself an impoverished laborer and only amateur actor in post-WWII Italy and that playing Ricci was not much of a stretch but whatever the reason may be his performance is riveting and beautifully done.  It is impossible to look away.

Conclusion:

It’s a classic.  It’s one of those films you kind of have to see.  It may have taken me 25 years but I did in fact see it.  And unlike so many important movies Bicycle Thieves is still an incredible movie to this day.

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