I’m going to do something a little bit different with this week’s Criterion File– I’m splitting it up into two segments. Why? Simple: the two films I selected for this installment both gave me an enormous amount to talk about, and not just on individual levels, or within the context of themselves, either. On the surface, Vittorio De Sica’s soaring, compassionate, heart-wrenching, optimistic Bicycle Thieves has nothing in common with Matteo Garrone’s towering, nihilistic mafia film Gomorrah; Thieves boasts a narrative centered around an event so small as to appear insignificant, while Gomorrah acts as a document detailing the ways in which the Camorra, an Italian crime syndicate based in Naples and Caserta, exerts influence over numerous facets of daily human existence. At a glance, they’re worlds apart.
But for all their differences they nonetheless remain cousins, perhaps several times removed but nevertheless bound together by one very specific element– their joint dedication to realism. Gomorrah may be one of the best recent examples of contemporary Italian realism (not to be confused with neorealism, which was more of a movement than a genre), while Bicycle Thieves is one of the most influential films to spring from the Italian neorealist movement. Both Garrone’s and De Sica’s films endeavor to weave slice-of-life narratives within a specific time, as in the post-war Thieves, or within a specific culture, as in the modern-minded, contemporary Gomorrah; with their shared aesthetic in mind, it’s perhaps natural to see the former as something of a precursor to the latter. (And maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to connect the crime-ridden world of post-WWII Rome with the crime-ridden world of post-911 Campania.)
With that in mind, Bicycle Thieves— which leaped onto the list of my time favorite movies of all time after I recently re-watched the film– feels like the appropriate place to start this edition of the Criterion Files. Andiamo:
Bicycle Thieves, 1948, Vittorio De Sica
More than sixty years after its release, what continues to make Bicycle Thieves— commonly known simply as The Bicycle Thief, though the Italian title identifies the moral crux of the film’s climax with far greater accuracy– such an indelible film stems from its minute scope in contrast to its multivalent nature. As André Bazin points out in an essay on De Sica’s masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves‘ central drama revolves around an event so small and so insignificant that it wouldn’t even warrant a filler spot in a newspaper. And yet today, the film still maintains a position as one of the greatest and most essential films ever made. How does a picture so minimal in scope and ambition come to be seen as timeless?
There’s no getting around the fact that Bicycle Thieves‘ influence on the neorealist landscape, both within and without De Sica’s homeland, during the 40s and 50s contributes enormously to the indelible, lasting impression the film has left on the face of cinema. As with all classics, remove them from movie history and canon and you irrevocably and tangibly alter the direction of the medium even leading into today. But Bicycle Thieves‘ true value doesn’t lie in its identity as a movie of a movement or a moment; as much as the film stems from both places of origin, its core meaning resonates far more universally, stretching beyond post-war and neorealist filmmaking.
If there’s a simple answer to the obvious question of how De Sica’s film maintains relevance even today, it lies in the emotional drive that’s so central to Bicycle Thieves‘ thematic and plot elements. It’s utterly unthinkable that one could feel unsympathetic for Antonio Ricci’s plight; he’s a man doing the best that he can within societal boundaries to provide for his wife, Maria, and his son, the precocious Bruno. A person can take his story at face value, ignoring all of the ancillary details of his predicament and the world he inhabits, and still walk away from Bicycle Thieves having experienced an affectingly rousing and humanist film. Antonio’s story is the kind we cannot help but invest ourselves in because of the sheer, unimaginable desperation of his situation. He’s a victim of chance, someone undeserving of the cruel turn they suffer, and with the stakes so clearly defined– he has to get back his stolen bicycle, or else miss out on a job he badly needs– that our hearts immediately go out to Antonio as he scours Rome’s criminal hot spots to retrieve his mode of transportation.
But that’s the real trick of the film. It’s infinitely more complex than that. Certainly Bicycle Thieves can just be enjoyed on the strength of emotion, but De Sica weaves so much more subtext into every frame of his film that that rush of emotion comprises just one of the many traits that makes his picture such a masterpiece. Maybe the best test of Bicycle Thieves‘ thematic multiplicity is found in conversation; try talking about the film with a few people, and see how many directions the conversation goes. Is it a movie about one man struggling to provide for his family? Is it a record of the hardships faced by many living in Rome post-WWII? Is it a movie about the wealthy lording it over the poor? Is it a morality play focusing on how otherwise upright people come to steal just to survive? Or is it a comment about mankind’s self-predation? Regarding matters of humanity, does De Sica fall on the side of optimism or nihilism?
The questions we can ask about the picture are endless, and in point of fact none of them can be singled out as being more pertinent or relevant than the rest. Based on that alone, there should be little wonder as to why Bicycle Thieves endures as a classic today; the only correct answer is “all of the above”, and while four words on their own are reductive, the discussions they inspire more than build up the film to its proper stature. If you’re incredulous, put that claim to the test; watch Bicycle Thieves with some friends and see what conversations come up and where they go once it’s finished. There are so many directions to go in when talking about the film that you’re unlikely to have the same discussion twice.
For me, Bicycle Thieves is a movie that’s very much motivated by matters of class and social standing, which seems to be De Sica’s foremost concern as well. Largely, the focus is placed on members of the working class, but more than a few moments directly compare how people like Antonio and Bruno live with that of Rome’s upper crust. Most famous among these is the restaurant scene, in which father and son sit down for a meal they can barely afford and the latter eventually captures the attention of a snooty, well-dressed and groomed boy sitting at a neighboring table, but details highlighting class divide appear earlier as well, when Antonio, Bruno, and a group of Antonio’s friends scour the streets searching through numerous vendors selling bike parts. The restaurant scene most prominently displays that theme of class conflict, in the quiet but overt disdain the posher boy shows to Bruno; what we see of social inequity during the scene among the vendors is far more nuanced. A finely-garbed young man blows bubbles to his heart’s content, completely ignorant of Antonio’s plight and without a care in the world; an older man in similar natty attire persistently attempts to seduce Bruno. In both scenes, between actions either callously oblivious or predatory, it’s clear that class conflict is at the forefront of De Sica’s mind, and it’s hard not to watch the film even today and think about the disparity between these two sets of characters– and how the archetypes they represent remain relevant even today.
And of course it’s impossible to dissect the topic of class in Bicycle Thieves without examining how even the members of the lower class– who comprise the bulk of the film’s characters– clash with one another. Start with the event that kicks off the entire film; it’s an example of the poor cannibalizing and victimizing the poor. We learn that the thief comes from destitution just as Antonio does, and perhaps his situation is even worse. This doesn’t justify his actions, but rather paints a portrait of a time and a circumstance so desperate that stealing becomes a necessity to survival. Eventually the downtrodden Antonio finds himself continuing the cycle of crime the thief introduces him to earlier in the film, and we see how both men are just victims of a corrupt society.
That note provides a perfect segue into my thoughts on Gomorrah, but for the record, I could go on. There’s so much in Bicycle Thieves that’s ripe for discussion, and I’m sure there exist numerous conversational threads I haven’t discovered. I hope to stumble upon those yet unseen characteristics and aspects the next time I watch the film; if I do, maybe you’ll find me back here talking about Bicycle Thieves yet again. Until then, though, we’ll turn our gaze to Garrone’s exposé on the inner workings and vast reach of one of the most infamous Italian criminal empires of the day. Keep an eye out for the follow-up to this chapter of the Criterion files in the next week and a half!
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I don’t know what it is about Bicycle Thieves that stays with you long after you leave the theatre but I think you hit the nail on the head. It is ‘all of the above’ 🙂
Hey, thanks Jacqueline – I appreciate that.
And I agree. “Bicycle Thieves” is an experience that lasts. It lingers. For me it’s the deep and abiding humanity. There is no human right or wrong, just social wrong, and that gives the film universality.