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Friday, November 27, 2015

Vittorio De Sica | Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief / Bicycle Thieves)

becoming the very thing you hate
by Douglas Messerli

Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Gerardo Guerrieri, Oreste Biancoli and Adolfo Franci, based on a fiction by Luigi Bartolini), Vittorio De Sica (director) Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief / Bicycle Thieves) / 1948, USA 1949

For many years after its first American showing in 1949, De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief ranked as one of the favorites of international filmmakers, ranking alongside Potemkin, The Gold Rush, and other such classics. But since the 1960s the film  has continued to lose favor among critics and filmgoers, in part, perhaps, because of its several sentimental nods to Chaplin and, more importantly, its loosely structured second half, as the father, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) who has had his bicycle stolen, travels with his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola) around Rome in what appears almost a random search for the lost vehicle. It may also be that the gray, washed-our images of De Sica’s version of that golden, sun-lit city, which so perfectly captured the emotional conditions of its citizens of 1948, no longer speak as clearly to us today as they did to post-war audience.
     And then, the story today seems to somewhat strain credibility, as the major hero is shown in very few moments of adult relationships, and, in the end, is redeemed and forgiven by his young child, transforming the work—a bit like the director’s later Miracle in Milan—into a social and spiritual fable.
      What many seem to forget today is that the bicycle Antonio and his son are so desperate to retrieve is not an object important in its own right, but is a symbol of everything the elder seeks to become: a virile male who can support and provide for his nearly starving family. 
     From the very beginning of this work, the hero seems so defeated that he can hardly act. Even when his name is called out offering the possibility of a job, he does not respond, but sits in a kind of starved stupor nearby; only when a friend demands he report, does Antonio react; and even though he is offered what seems to be a good job, he appears someone defeated, particularly since it requires he have a bicycle, an object he has just pawned to help feed his wife, son, and baby.
      It is his wife (Lianella Carell), clearly, who is the stronger of the couple, seen from the beginning as carrying not one but two buckets of water from the local well into their shabby apartment. Antonio takes up one of the buckets almost as an accident. It is she who immediately goes into action, pulling of their sheets, washing them, and packing up the remaining ones, the remnants of her dowry, to pawn them in order to release the bike.
       The job is offered a nearly meaningless one: he is expected to travel throughout the city carrying movie posters to be pasted up at various locations to encourage the Roman citizens to attend Hollywood films such as Gilda, which he and his family, quite obviously, cannot afford to attend. But that menial job will help Antonio’s family eat, and, given their current situation, his payment seems like fortune.

       The fact, accordingly, that his red Fides cycle is stolen from him on his very first morning, says little about his attachment to the object, but everything about his position in the universe. And, although his friends reassure him that they will start a search for the bicycle the very next morning, we can perceive that both and Antonio and wife feel completely overwhelmed and despondent before they have even begun the search.

      De Sica reiterates this sense of complete defeat through the encounters of that next day, a Sunday, in which father and son seek out two major locations that are famed for selling stolen bikes. Even his friends suggest that the vehicle will have already been stripped, and that they should look for individual pieces, tires, frames, bells, and the pump rather than a whole machine.
      Through the search, the director takes us on a voyage where nearly all those the two encounter live similarly or in conditions that are worse than their own. At one point they follow an elderly man whom they have observed speaking to the thief into a church service led by impatient do-gooders, who lock the poor parishioners within to force them into religious participation before serving them up a charitable lunch.

     When the father and son do encounter the man he believes to be the thief (Vittorio Antonucci), we discover that he lives in a destitute neighborhood, in a room even less comfortable than their own home. In this rough neighborhood, the only thing the people have is one another’s allegiance, which, as in many gang neighborhoods of today, protects any criminals among them. Indeed, we suspect, almost everyone the father and son meet throughout the day may also be corrupt.
      Meanwhile, the searching duo are forced to squeeze into trams, walk for long distances, to stand in the rain, and are spurned by nearly everyone they meet. The child falls in the mud, is scolded by the elder, and, at one point, is slapped by his father even as he attempts to help. At another point, Antonio, going off for a moment alone, fears for his child’s life when a nearby gathering a people shout a warning about a boy who has fallen into the river.  He is relieved when he discovers it is not Bruno.
     What remains unspoken is that the child and man wander the streets of that dreary Roman Sunday with almost totally empty stomachs. But even in their attempt to ameliorate that situation with a pizza, they are unintentionally mocked by the waiter and a well-to-do family dining upon several courses who sit next to them in a small café.
      If one feels, at times, a sense of frustration with Antonio’s inability to successfully take action against the villain and his confederate, the old man, we also realize it is because the man has lost his fortitude before the voyage has even begun. He knows he will not find that magic machine that might lead him to be a familial success. Is it any wonder, then, that he feels attracted to steal, to become the very kind of person (a situation expressed best in the original English title in the singular, a mistranslation of the Italian which I, nonetheless, prefer) from whom he is seeking retribution?

      Bruno’s father, obviously, is experienced even in that act, and is easily caught. While he fortunately is released by the bicycle’s owner, he is nonetheless shamed in front of his son and mocked for his actions. As he turns toward home, empty-handed, he can have little self-respect left. He has only the love of his son, demonstrated as the boy takes the hand of his father.  Hopefully, at home he will find the forgiveness and love of his wife. But their ability to survive remains in question, and that question can only damn the society which has so utterly neglected its own citizens.
     Today, we might see this lovely film anew within the context of so many of the poor and homeless of our urban centers. But it is difficult to perceive it as the representation it was of those massive transformations taking place in Europe after the Second World War’s end.

Los Angeles, November 27, 2015