Monday, January 12, 2009

Bicycle Thieves

I don't know why I've been putting this film off for so long. For months it's been at the top of my Netflix queue, only for me to put another three ahead of it just in time for the next shipment. I certainly didn't do this out of dread, as I did so long with The Birth of a Nation, so why put it off? Perhaps it was the fact that the film's synopsis seems so simplistic that I wondered if it was one of those classics marred by time; that is, if it grew into more of an intellectual and historical curiosity rather than an enjoyable film. But I finally reprimanded myself for letting something as basic as a brief summary hold me back, and popped in Bicycle Thieves, assured that the plot would be much deeper than it suggested.

Well, it wasn't. Matter of fact, the summary might as well be an entire synopsis: A man lands a job that requires he own a bicycle, so he pawns off some trinkets to get one (funnily enough his own bike, which he pawned earlier), only for the bicycle to be stolen. The rest of the film follows this man, Antonio Ricci, and his young son Bruno as they traipse through Rome looking for the thief. Yet in my initial dismissal of this sparse explanation I forgot the most important rule of cinema, "it is not what a film is about but how it is about it."

Bicycle Thieves
is a vibrant yet stark plod through a city torn not only physically but emotionally and economically by war, and without ever preaching to us director Vittorio de Sica forces us to provide our own answer to that philosophical question: "Is it acceptable to steal when your family is starving?"

True to the style of Italian neorealism, de Sica didn't use professional actors. Lamberto Maggiorani, who played Ricci, worked in a factory and did some occasional acting prior to his casting; as such, it's easy to say that he never really gets emotional, that he suffers his numerous indignities with a stone face and an occasional flash of pure shame. But isn't that how a normal person would act? Should he have shook his hands at the heavens, tearfully cursing God? No, Maggiorani was the perfect choice for the role, and emotes just enough.

de Sica splits his camera work between long tracking shots that amble the streets with Antonio and Bruno and static shots that let the action really sink in. In only 90 minutes, he manages to paint a vast yet strangely claustrophobic picture of Rome, one in which extreme poverty has banded neighborhoods together, to the point that when Antonio finally catches the thief, everyone in the community turns hostile when he attempts to notify the police.

It is in these final minutes that the grand, lasting tragedy of the story unfolds. Ricci, driven to desperation after failing to retrieve his bike or bring the criminal to justice, attempts to steal someone else's bicycle. Antonio never mentions it aloud, nor does de Sica go out of his way to hammer the it home, but the meaning is clear: in this economic fallout, people like Antonio, who themselves resort to theft after being stolen from, unwittingly perpetuate a cycle. Hollywood directors might have stressed that this climax calls into question the motives of the original thief, but de Sica trusts that you can think of that yourself.

The original U.S. translation of the film was simply "The Bicycle Thief," but its true translation cuts to the very core of the story with only two words; at the end of the film, Antonio must walk in shame not only because he was humiliated in front of his son, but because he realizes he is no different than the man who stole from him. For all we know this story can be copy-pasted and placed both before and after the film.

Many films remain tethered to their time period, or to some sociopolitical event. It's not their fault of course; you make a film for the present, not the future. However, the core message of Bicycle Thieves will sadly never lose relevancy because poverty will always exist. Indeed, as I watched it I couldn't help but think about the current state of our own economy; is Ricci's conundrum really that implausible in present-day America?

While more classic films retain their power than some would have you believe, Bicycle Thieves is surely one of the more lastingly exciting and resonant. Though Antonio and Bruno cover a lot of ground (literally), it feels eternally personal thanks to de Sica's minimalistic direction. I've been working through a number of established masterpieces lately, but few have stayed with me like Bicycle Thieves.

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