Friday, March 25, 2011

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Ladri di biciclette, Italy, 93 minutes
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Writers: Luigi Bartolini, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, Gerardo Guerrieri
Photography: Carlo Montuori
Music: Alessandro Cicognini
Editor: Eraldo Da Roma
Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci, Giulio Chiari

It doesn't take very elaborate thought experiments to start figuring out how wrong the neorealism style in film has the potential to go. As conceived in the first place largely by Italian directors Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini in the years immediately following World War II, neorealism relies essentially on location shooting (usually in war-damaged urban settings), amateur actors, and stories focused on life issues of the working and lower classes. It's not far down that road before you start running into Jack Webb and his carnival of right-wing law and order in "Adam-12" or either of the "Dragnet" series.

In fact, in many ways Bicycle Thieves might as well have opened with a version of one of Webb's classic voiceover monologues: "This is the city. Rome. A bustling metropolis, now fallen on tough times, but that doesn't stop its citizens from attempting economic recovery every day. I need a bicycle to work here. I hang posters of Rita Hayworth." Fortunately, De Sica was not above deploying some of the most artificial conventions of filmmaking, and they are key to what not only redeems the various miscues scattered throughout the picture but positively make it one of the greatest films of its era or any other.

The first and perhaps most important, for me, is simple enough: Alessandro Cicognini's haunting score, notably the theme, which essentially reduces to a recurring figure played first on clarinet, then on saxophone, and finally picked up in orchestral arrangements. On early viewings it seemed to me ham-handed and even blatantly manipulating, but more recently it has stood out as entirely of a piece with the film, and essential, leading the way to its greatest profundities, which live on an emotional plain.

Equally important, Carlo Montuori's photography, an almost muddy black and white, is deceptively plain but perfectly effective. Look more closely from setup to setup and you start to notice the careful compositions and especially a knack for shooting on angles that continually finds ways to emphasize the vast flat plains of the place, presumably the bomb-wrecked blocks cleared of debris and awaiting redevelopment. No ancient Roman ruins are anywhere in sight, indeed precious little architecture of any kind, save shabby old buildings and the occasional bridge and, always, emptiness yawning into the distance.

The story is bone simple, the details of the lives built around it laid out swiftly but patiently. In an impoverished postwar Rome, Antonio Ricci (played by Lamberto Maggiorani) lucks into a job hanging posters around the city. The job promises an adequate living wage—immediately he begins to feverishly calculate his wages and what they will mean to him and his family, a state of mind he returns to again in one of the film's most poignant moments—but it's necessary that he have a bicycle to hold the job. And he was recently forced to pawn his bicycle.

In a plot point reminiscent of O. Henry, his wife Maria (played by Lianella Carell) steps up, taking bed linens out of a drawer and stripping them off the bed she shares with Antonio; she launders and sells them. They are part of her dowry but pawning them enables Antonio to get his bike back. The sequence unfolds deliberately, with virtually none of its necessary steps omitted. It takes the better part of a morning to accomplish. Long lines of needy people are everywhere. The sad-faced man behind Maria at the pawnshop has a pair of binoculars to sell. The pawnshop itself is a giant warehouse packed to the rafters with stuff, which requires climbing to reach the upper shelves.

The extraordinary happiness of the family at the prospect of Antonio's good fortune is evident in every frame, a glowing, heartbreaking, simple joy. On the morning of his first day of work it's all about the job. Antonio's son Bruno (played, or rather overplayed, by an 8-year-old Enzo Staiola) cleans the bike. Maria tailors the uniform Antonio must wear and prepares a lunch for him to take. Bruno rides with him to work. The shots of Antonio with Bruno and the other bicyclists riding their bicycles to work are energetic, sweet, and tremendously affecting.

Then, you can guess. Before less than 20 minutes of the film has elapsed—all of the foregoing compressed into fluid, evocative action—Antonio is on the job and his bike is stolen by a gang of thieves who work expertly together. The bicycle and thief melt into the city without a trace. Antonio's despair is palpable. For the remainder of the film, usually with Bruno at his side, sometimes with the help of friends, he wanders the city searching for it.

A good many complain—I was certainly among them when I first saw this in my 20s in a film class—that the picture, certainly from this point, is stultifying. As Antonio and Bruno shamble about, Antonio first in his pathetic uniform and, the next day, once again in his everyday jacket and rags, walking aimlessly from a market with stalls selling bicycles and parts, to a church service, to a restaurant where they splurge on a meal, and even to a fortuneteller, they only become smaller and smaller against the looming, unfeeling, and persistently anonymous face that the city presents to them.

Antonio even finds the thief, maybe, or anyway the kid who might have been the member of the gang to actually take the bike. De Sica is canny enough to use the same actor (Vittorio Antonucci) as the thief, seen only fleetingly in a very short shot just before the crime, and as Alfredo, the boy who Antonio tracks down in his neighborhood and against whom he makes his accusations, but with no proof. Alfredo seems likely to be the one who did it, but with no evidence, and with the bike already likely stripped down to parts and scattered, there's nothing to be done about it.

The film ends on the resolution of a final act of desperation to which Antonio is driven, an act of which he is formally absolved but that will likely affect Bruno's view of him forever. The final shot shows the two of them from behind, walking away from the camera, disappearing into a crowd of people at dusk. It's devastating.

On some levels it's fair enough to characterize Bicycle Thieves as boring or even hackneyed and overbearing. Certainly most of the performances are weak at best—it's the quality of the faces themselves that bears most of the work of the characterization and drama. Not much happens in the last 70 minutes. And the film does, by implication anyway, often veer close to the preachy. Yet so much about what I'm going to just go ahead and call the fundamental profundities of life is compressed, and with such facility, into this—the grinding unfairness, the ludicrous optimism, the pathos of the love that animates it, and the concomitant lack of any other choice to life but that alone. For all its missteps, I can't help finding it terribly moving, and more so every time I look again.


  1. I can't decide whether I should be pissed at your dig against Jack Webb, or pleased that you included Webb in the same company as Rossellini and DeSica.

  2. Oh gosh, this is a really good point, and I'm a little annoyed with myself too for hammering Webb so hard. It's not easy these days for me to get past the right-wing politics of things, that's my only excuse. Webb's biography does make clear how much he esteemed the neorealists, and in fact I think many of his productions (chiefly the second "Dragnet" and "Adam-12," which are also what I encountered first) are perfectly enjoyable on that level. You always, of course, have to get past Webb's tendency to speechify, however.

  3. I well remember those goofy later Dragnets, with their ludicrous portrayals of the counter-culture. But I come at Webb for his work on radio, and it's pretty remarkable. Dragnet on radio is one of the best dramas ever ... he was such a stickler for realism that he'd "waste" a couple of minutes just having cops talking to each other. In perhaps the most famous example, he placed a long-distance call, and he walked the listener through the entire process ... calling the operator, waiting while the operator transferred his call to the other location, talking to that operator, waiting for her to contact his party ... it goes on forever.

    The real find, though, is a show called "Pat Novak for Hire." If, as is reasonable, you figure Webb is a humorless dud, you'll have your mind changed with that show.

  4. Sorry to double-post, but first, here's that phone call:

    Also, I never realized until I was hunting that call down, but Webb actually made that call and recorded it. Said there was no way they could fake that kind of realism.

  5. Wow, you're right, that phone call is terrific. I always figured there had to be more to Webb than met the eye if one chapter in his life involved marrying and divorcing Julie London. I used to have some of those Dragnet radio shows on cassettes. Wish I still had them to listen again. I suspect now they didn't fully register. I will make a point of keeping an eye out for the Pat Novak.