Vittorio De Sica’s ninth film as director, Ladri di biciclette, has been widely cited as one of the finest films ever made and has helped cement the Italian-born actor/writer/director, as one of the world’s most influential and remarkable filmmakers of all time. Released in 1948, The Bicycle Thief, as it was titled in the US (or more accurately “Bicycle Thieves” if you go with the literal translation), is a seemingly simple film that has made and continues to achieve a massive impact on cinema viewers worldwide.
Similar to his earlier work Sciuscià in many ways, Ladri di biciclette is also set in the ravages of post-war Italy, and features non-actors (De Sica cast Lamberto Maggiorani over Cary Grant and Henry Forda because of the way he walked – preferring realism over profile) to tell an unpretentious story about ordinary people struggling in an extremely challenging time where poverty was a dire reality. It’s the tale of Antonio Ricci – just an average man, trying to earn enough money to keep his family alive. Every day he waits outside a government employment agency in Rome alongside fellow unemployed labourers, hoping that there will be a job out there with his name on it. He gets lucky, and is selected for a duty that requires him to hang posters around the city. It’s nothing fancy, but it will earn him enough money for his family to get by. Unfortunately though, this position requires a bicycle – a possession he has previously submitted to a pawn shop to sustain his family’s meagre existence for just a couple more days. Trapped in a helpless situation where he needs a bicycle to get money, but needs money to get to his bicycle, Antonio returns to the pawn shop with his extremely supportive wife Maria by his side, and forfeits one of their family’s last remaining possessions, their matrimonial linen, in order to redeem the bicycle. Now with a bike and a job, things are looking up for Antonio. He’s truly happy for the first time in years – but as the title suggests, it’s going to be far from easy riding.
It takes a little while for one of the “title” characters to make an appearance. There are a few “trick starts”, where you think Antonio’s bicycle is going to be taken away from him, but it isn’t the case. He leaves his bike outside a fortune teller’s house under the supervision of an unidentified local boy, whilst he goes upstairs to find his wife – but the lad is surprisingly trustworthy after all. The suspense rises! Soon enough, the thief makes his big debut on Antonio’s first day on the job. Whilst Antonio is up a ladder gracelessly plastering posters promoting Rita Hayworth’s latest film Gilda around town (an image that symbolizes the absolute opposite of the misery surrounding Antonio, and a constant reminder of his own lowly status) two men are plotting to steal his bicycle. They succeed, and as the stolen bike heads off into the distance, Antonio does everything in his power to try and chase after him, but he has been outsmarted, and his only means of earnings is swiftly lost in an endless sea of nondescript bicycles (a large proportion of which are presumably stolen). He goes to the police – but they are very little help, not appreciating how much the bike means to him and his family’s continued existence – after all, it’s just a bicycle! With nothing more to pawn, and very little chance of obtaining another job, with the help of his completely & utterly devoted son Bruno, and assistance from close friend Baiocco, he is forced to comb the city to try and find the elusive bicycle and bring the thief to justice in order to save not only his pride, but also quite possibly his family from starvation.
He gets close to catching the criminal! Chasing down an old man he spotted talking with the thief, Antonio eventually finds the bandit himself only to discover he’s a pathetic epileptic, just as destitute as the rest of them. Beaten, and aimlessly wondering through the city streets, Antonio finally snaps and in a moment of sheer desperation he dashes to steal a lone bicycle, but is immediately caught. Humiliated, frustrated, and saved from prosecution solely because of the owner’s compassion, in tears, Antonio and his loyal son continue on the uphill journey that is life…
The premise to this film is extremely simple – so much so that the title reveals the whole story line – but as this film clearly demonstrates, even the most unremarkable foundation can result in a masterpiece which forces to the viewer to re-evaluate the way in which they view the world (if only for a minute). This is not so much a story about a man loosing a something important to him and then searching for it, but a tale of hope and despair, loss and redemption (the bicycle is simply a metaphor). It is the honest examination of a person who is torn by moral consequence and responsibility for not only his family, but also himself.
What makes this film stand out from the rest of the contemporary Hollywood films of the time (apart from the fact that it doesn’t conclude with a happy ending), is that De Sica’s tells the story through subtle actions, and sparse words, without the necessity of glittering production values or convoluted editing. But this wasn’t just a creative decision. As with a most of the films that followed during the Italian neorealism movement, there simply wasn’t the money available to use established locations and professional actors. Compromises had to be made, such as using natural lighting, and documentary “run and gun” techniques – a look which well suited the gritty and searing stories they “needed” to tell (as De Sica said himself, “the urge to tell the truth stirred in us”). And although Ladri di biciclette gives the impression of a lack of concern for technical matters to the indiscriminate eye, De Sica planned his work with extreme attention to every infinitesimal detail of camera techniques, mise en scène, musical score and especially characterisation.
Italy was a mess after World War II, and directors such as De Sica decided to produce films such as Sciuscià and Ladri di biciclette, to give the world spectators a glimpse into the harsh conditions and unsympathetic realities of war imposed upon everyday people in everyday settings. Films such as this not only represented a radical break from traditional filmmaking conventions, but also brought a lot of hostile social and political issues to the big screen for the first time. However, these were not documentaries – they were fictional stories, with undaunted honesty and untiring compassion, about the “little people” that the universe has long forgotten about: the paper-hanger who has to sell his nuptial lien to buy a bicycle and the shoeshine boys of Rome. These are stories about life and humanity. Ordinary people trapped in tough situations forced to make real decisions (some of which they’ll no doubt regret), with real emotion, struggling for life and self respect. De Sica doesn’t pretend to offer any answers, but tries to show it as it is in all its imperfect beauty and tear-jerking cruelty using the power of simplicity to drive his point home.
There are many stunning and moving sequences in Ladri di biciclette in which De Sica has carefully and skilfully crafted, designed to make the audience really think about the situations his characters have been place into. With a montage of human faces and thousands of various different bicycle parts (whilst Antonio and Bruno search the open markets for a trace of evidence), De Sica expertly contrasts the world’s apparent abundance with Antonio’s own desperate need, just as he did with the earlier pawn shop scene, slowly panning the camera up a mountain of submitted linens. The goods are all there, but just out of arms reach…
Another powerful visual is when Antonio is interrogating the old man in the Church. Clearly commenting on the role of the Catholic Church during that period, De Sica obviously believes that in a time when recovery of a bicycle means the different between starvation and prosperity, where an old man cares more about what’s to eat than what’s happening around him, the priest’s promises of “soothed spirits” means very little. He pushes this point further when he shows a line of Roman women lining up to spend their last lira on a clairvoyant (having already given up on the good Lord). This is a service that even Antonio resorts to when he completely losses hope, only to be rewarded with metaphoric and cryptic answers – it would seem that no one, not even the all powerful and knowing God, has the answers…
But by far the most memorable scene is that of the restaurant. After an emotional rollercoaster ride, Antonio and Bruno finally get a chance to sit down, eat some real food and forget about their troubles for just a very brief moment. But it’s awfully short-lived! Both are rapidly reminded of their poor social status, when a rich and arrogant child sitting across from Bruno starts eyeing him off in disgust. This is a time when it’s truly man versus the elements. There’s no one to help – it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. The poor versus the rich!
To fund most of his films, De Sica worked as an actor right throughout his 150+ movie career. “All my good films, which I financed myself, made nothing. Only my bad films made money. Money has been my ruin” (Woman Times Seven is an obvious example). This also goes to show that in order to make an absolutely amazing film you don’t need high paid actors, or a studio space full of expensive lights. With Ladri di biciclette, De Sica had a story he felt he needed the world to know. His openness to form and versatility, allowed him to experiment with untried methods to ensure the technology matched the content and not the other way around. With the assistance of one of the most distinguished and experienced cinematographers in Italy, Carlo Montuori, together they proved that even with natural lighting you can still achieve images that look far more beautiful than some of the garbage coming out of Hollywood. The romantic Italianesque score by Alessandro Cicognini (who went on to do many other well respected Italian films) helps provides real emotional depth in a most subliminal way – as opposed to the emotional manipulation music performs on many mainstream films – truly adding to the magic on screen.
Long before life was beautiful, and only shortly after the city was open, Ladri di biciclette shows that there are no heroes, and that not all criminals are evil; that people are simply human – flawed and corruptible. But it’s not all negative – even in the direst of times, with the right person by your side, you can slog your way through anything…
- De Sica, V (1948), Ladri di biciclette, DVD, Compass Film SRL, Italy.
- That’s Life!, DVD (Special Feature), Compass Film SRL, Italy.
- Thomas Samuels, C 1987, Encountering Directors, Da Capo Pr, New York.
- Cheshire, G 2006, Bicycle Thieves, The Criterion Collection, viewed 1st October 2007, http://www.criterion.com/asp/release.asp?id=374&eid=522§ion=essay&page=3
- Ladri di biciclette (1948), Internet Movie Database Inc., viewed 1st October 2007, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0040522/.
- Vittorio De Sica, Internet Movie Database Inc., viewed 1st October 2007, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001120/.
- Wikipedia contributors 2007, Bicycle Thieves, Wikipedia, viewed 1st October 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_Thieves
- Wikipedia contributors 2007, Vittorio De Sica, Wikipedia, viewed 1st October 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vittorio_De_Sica