BICYCLE THIEVES (Ladri Di Biciclette) is one of those films that will always loom large on certain types of ‘greatest film’ lists, whilst simultaneously not feature at all on others. It’s a defining landmark of Italian neorealism, a movement that grew out of the depressive economic and social conditions following Italy’s defeat in World War II. “Realism” in this case does not necessarily mean a documentary style of filmmaking, there is much here that can rival any contemporary Hollywood film for sentimentality, but the use of cinema as a force of personal expression directly related to the filmmakers’ own experiences living through hard times in post-war Italy. Indeed the film is a strange mix of various different styles: melodrama and slapstick moments sit side-by-side as director Vittorio De Sica coaxes an extraordinary range from his amateur and untrained cast of non-actors he essentially just pulled in off the streets. De Sica believed that everyone could play one role perfectly: himself, although allegedly this didn’t put him above pulling the occasional dirty trick like accusing a cast member of stealing on the set to provoke an emotional response.
The story is almost childlike in its simplicity, the title itself giving away the key plot development that we then spend the first half hour of the film waiting for. Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is one of myriad unemployed desperately seeking work in post-war Rome. He gets a job posting advertising bills (glamorous posters of Rita Hayworth, a sly dig at Hollywood excess) around Rome which is contingent upon his having a bicycle, which he has previously pawned. His wife strips the bed of her dowry sheets and exchanges them for Antonio’s hocked bicycle. When the bicycle is stolen on his first day at work, Antonio and his eight year old son Bruno (an incredible performance by Enzo Staiola, an old man trapped in a small boy’s body) wander the city streets in search of the object their livelihood depends upon. The bike is the proverbial needle in a haystack amongst the thousands of others in Rome: the single versus the multiple becomes a recurring motif in the film, see the way that the thief is swallowed up by the rush hour traffic as Antonio attempts to pursue him.
Rome’s various institutions are no help, the police laugh him out of the station and Antonio’s local chapter of the Communist party are more interested in their upcoming amateur dramatics revue than helping a comrade, De Sica pulling no punches with his “Bread and Circuses” metaphor whether it comes to the left or the right. What passes for community is even worse: when Antonio eventually tracks down the thief he is attacked by the locals who close ranks around one of their own. Cinematographer Carlo Montuori shoots the father and son pair trekking fruitlessly against the grand, depersonalised backdrop of thirties Fascist architecture. At one point a boy almost drowns under the imposing Duca d’Aosta bridge. The tragic denouement, when the cuts come thick and fast, takes place outside the Stadio Flaminio in the aftermath of a match, the same stadium where the Italian national team lifted the football World Cup in front of a delighted Mussolini in 1934. The housing project where the family live was also built by the Fascist government but has rapidly become run down and covered in graffiti. There’s something different to find in the film on each viewing. This time I noticed the Tour de France posters on Bruno’s bedroom wall, the idea of cycling as a favourite Italian pastime as well as a vital mode of transport providing an escape route from poverty is scattered throughout the film.
BICYCLE THIEVES has been cited as a major influence by countless filmmakers from successive generations, mostly outside its home country, where initially the film was regarded as portraying Italians in a negative light. It inspired Satyajit Ray to make his first film PATHER PANCHALI (1955), as well as having something of a cult following amongst filmmakers in China and the Middle East. It should be mandatory viewing in schools, where I reckon it would cure young people of the fear of subtitles and black and white films in one fell swoop.