THE BICYCLE THIEF — THE CRITERION COLLECTION
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Vittorio De Sica advanced Italian neo-realist cinema in 1948 with this modest story about a family man trying to get back his stolen bicycle.
Considered at the time of its release to be one of the finest films ever made and one of the most searing indictments of the caprices of capitalism in any medium, “The Bicycle Thief” went on to influence all aspects of world cinema, including the French New Wave and American independent cinema. Using a cast of nonprofessional actors, De Sica turned Luigi Bartolini’s postwar novel into a filmic parable of staggering impact.
Real-life factory worker Lamberto Maggiorani plays family man Antonio “Ricci.” World War II stimulated America’s economy and did the opposite to Italy. Ricci waits every day on the street with a mob of unemployed men for a “shape up,” in the pathetic hope that one of their names will be called by a petit bureaucrat who will offer them a job. Ricci anxiously accepts a position putting up posters around Rome even though the bicycle he needs sits gathering dust in an enormous pawnshop. Ricci’s wife Maria (Lianella Carell) is sympathetic to Ricci’s plight.
Without complaint Maria strips their bed in order to exchange their good linens for the bicycle. At the pawnshop she even manages to negotiate a somewhat larger sum for the trade. De Sica patiently weaves in every detail of character, atmosphere, and social reality without editorial commentary. Text and subtext become interchangeable.
With a stack of Rita Hayworth posters, and a ladder he carries with his free arm as he rides his bike, Ricci comes to life with excitement on his first day on the job. Almost immediately, his bicycle is stolen as he puts up a poster. With his six-year-old son Bruno (Enzo Staola) in tow, Antonio searches for his “Fides” cycle, or at least for the thief who took the one thing standing between financial stability and starvation for his family.
The overpowering sense of desperation that overtakes Ricci sweeps up the audience in its wake. When Ricci reports the theft to the police, he’s told no effort will be made to retrieve his bicycle. De Sica examines myriad aspects of postwar Italian culture with a generous depth of field dedicated to a social background that percolates with discontent, sadness, and a longing sense of what it means to be a man.
“The Bicycle Thief” is a purely socially driven story. Nearly every scene is set in some form of social setting. De Sica leads his audience on a tour of Rome and its inhabitants during a deeply troubled time. When Ricci finally succumbs to a crisis decision that practically seems preordained, it comes as a heartbreaking moment for its effect on Ricci’s son whose future seems as uncertain as that of his father.
Not Rated. 89 mins.
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