Film Review: Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves)

I haven’t seen a lot of movies filmed in the years immediately following WWII. I’ve seen practically no movies, apart from Bicycle Thieves, that were filmed by Italians, in Italy, for Italians, in Italian. So I think it’s important that I approach this review with as much humility as possible. My eyes have been trained for a completely different cultural context. I’m sure that many of the details that I found odd, unusual, or striking, would have been completely commonplace for the audience for which they were intended, and other details that in current time I consider commonplace and cinematically routine, to the audience for which they were intended were revolutionary, thought-provoking techniques. So take this review with a grain of salt. It’s quite possible that some of the things I’m about to say, I simply have not done my homework on and can’t back up with any cultural information. These are just some observations that I made.

Plot

Life Among the Lowly, Italian-style.
Life Among the Lowly, Italian-style.

Bicycle Thieves was created to expose the ugly truth of the life of poor people in Rome after WWII. Because the economy of Rome was clearly depressed, it stands to reason that most of its populace could be counted among the poor. Antonio Ricci, the film’s main character, is one of the working poor – barely. He pawns his bicycle to put food on his family’s table, and when he gets a city job that requires him to provide his own bicycle transportation, his wife pawns their sheets to get the bicycle back. Unlike the elderly character referred to in the credits as “The Beggar”, he is not reduced to accepting charity meals at a church, but Ricci obviously lives a marginal existence. Bicycle Thieves tells a meandering tale of just how low a person living in the margins will stoop to keep from going over the edge. Just what is a guy to do when he plays by the rules to protect the people he loves – and gets kicked in the teeth for his efforts?

This is not a new story. It kind of reminded me of a less dramatic and more compact version of Les Miserables.

Bicycle Thieves did its best work when it reviewed, in excruciating detail, the sometimes minor and sometimes major injustices Ricci is expected to bear without complaint. The audience watches him die a death of a thousand cuts as he is required to provide a bicycle he can’t afford to get the job he needs in order to afford it, to overlook the damage that was done to the bicycle by the pawn shop, to perform well at a job for which he is given about 30 seconds of training, etc. etc. etc. the list goes on and on in scene after scene. The biggest affront of all is probably the expectation on the part of the police that he do their detective work for him and track down his bicycle himself after it is stolen. I guess that’s one bonus to the phenomenon of vigilante justice, from the eyes of the state – it cuts down on the paperwork and manpower required to actually perform one’s function, freeing up time and resources to sit on one’s hands in meetings.

Themes

Bicycle Thieves does its worst work, in my opinion, when it attempts to portray Ricci as a loving man. The most glaring difference in cultural contexts between what I know and what the film appears to expect me to know, is the normalization of the way Ricci treats his wife, Maria, and his son, Bruno. He belittles and chides Maria and engages in ‘horseplay’ with her which (and believe me I was paying attention to the actress’ face) she does not appear to enjoy. At a key moment in the film, Ricci slaps Bruno across the cheek because Bruno dares to question his judgment. He also takes Bruno along with him in his vigilante quest to regain his bicycle and frequently leaves Bruno to wander the street. The film does provide a cautionary note when this pattern gets a little extreme and Bruno is pestered by a man who, according to my interpretation of the subtext, is a pedophile; but these tendencies in Ricci that, in my opinion, are minor instances of family violence and neglect, are accepted by the film’s network of characters as perfectly acceptable behavior for a family man. I really found the family dynamics of the film’s main characters to be deplorable and I’m glad I still have the sensitivity, and sensibility, to feel that way.

However, the film performs a valuable work in its exploration of where crime really comes from. Everybody in Rome is desperate and they’re all driven by social forces they neither control nor really understand. While the film provides no explanation for why the Thief stole Ricci’s bicycle, as the Thief maintains his innocence until the bitter end, it is crystal clear why Ricci does what he does. Who among the audience can honestly say that he has never bent, twisted, or broken the rules due to desperation and fear for survival or at least safety? What’s the old saying – “Desperate times call for desperate measures”? A little charity, and a little compassion, goes a long way, especially when one is entering a situation in which there are a lot of moving parts that have already been in motion for a long time. On the other hand, the film warns, it’s easy to let the impulse to heal get out of hand. You could end up like the film’s “Holy One” woman – sitting with a bedroom full of desperate, hopeful, expectant people, spouting vague platitudes and trying to pass them off as divine inspiration.

Acting

Bruno, played by Enzo Staiola
Bruno, played by Enzo Staiola

When it comes to actors in Bicycle Thieves, Enzo Staiola steals the show. He is expected to play not a child, but a miniature adult (it is Bruno who notices the dent in the bicycle while he polishes it after it is retrieved from the pawn shop, not his father) with essentially adult cares. Staiola does what the role requires him to do, which most frequently is to visibly worry. He worries in his home, he worries on the street, he worries in the church, he worries in the rain. I was relieved when he was allowed to visibly enjoy a mozzarella sandwich in a restaurant, because I was starting to worry on his behalf, wondering if the pint-sized actor might have had a stress headache at the end of the day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child in real life emote as effectively as Staiola does on film. When I took an acting class in college, I remember discussing the phenomenon of child acting with my professor; she said that child actors frequently do not fare well in the art as adults, because the skill set required is different (adult acting requires drawing upon experience, which children simply cannot do because they have not had enough experiences yet). Enzo Staiola has 15 acting credits listed on the Internet Movie Database. The most recent listing is for 1977. No further comment necessary.

The Internet Movie Database is a great resource for amateur film critics like me. It tells me that Bicycle Thieves is an example of the Neorealist movement in film, and it has this to say about Neorealism:

The neorealist movement sprung up in Italy after the end of WWII as all of Europe was trying to rebuild itself. It was in retaliation to a general belief that most people find life dull and boring and use their imaginations to fantasize a better world. The neorealistic film is one that attempts to see the beauty in everyday life as people go about doing what people do. Consequently, the neorealistic film is made to look as realistic as possible by, for example, shooting outdoors in natural light and using amateur actors.

Bicycle Thieves? Beauty in everyday life? Reminds me of the person who introduced this film in the theater calling it “delightful”. Bicycle Thieves is hardly beautiful, and far from delightful. While it’s not gritty, and it certainly doesn’t wallow in tragedy, the film is a realistic portrayal of a hard life shared by little people who are not masters of their own destiny. It’s sad, somewhat depressing, and it doesn’t offer easy answers or schadenfreude. I recommend it to people who are living in soft comfort, as a wake-up call to help understand how things are going for the rest of us. One doesn’t have to live in a post-WWII depression to have a hard life.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

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