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Bicycle Thieves (1948)
|by P. G. R. Nair|
Director: Vittorio De Seca/ Italy/Italian/93 mts
Vittorio De Sica's remarkable 1947 drama of desperation and survival in Italy's devastating post-war depression earned a special Oscar for its affecting power. Shot in the streets and alleys of Rome, De Sica uses the real-life environment of contemporary life to frame his moving drama of a desperate father whose new job delivering cinema posters is threatened when a street thief steals his bicycle.
The story is simple. Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is a poor man who is thrilled when he is at last offered a job: delivering and putting up movie posters. But he needs a bicycle, and must supply his own, so his wife Maria (Lianella Carelli) pawns the family's entire stock of bed linen to redeem the bicycle he had already hocked. On his first day at work, the unlocked bicycle is stolen and Antonio drops everything to go on a desperate odyssey through the streets of Rome with his little boy Bruno (Enzo Staiola) to get his bike back, pleading and accusing and uncovering scenes of poverty similar to theirs wherever they go. They create uproar in classic crowd moments: in the streets, in a market, in a church mass. Faces always gather avidly around the pair, all commenting, complaining and generally magnifying the father and son's distress and mortification.
This is a story that magnificently withholds the comic or dramatic palliatives. Antonio and Bruno are a world away from Chaplin and his Kid. The son is the intimate witness of the father's humiliation, his inadequacy as a provider. The scenes at the beginning of the film, when Antonio casually leaves his bicycle unlocked but it remains for the moment miraculously un-stolen, have to be watched through your fingers.
But the lesson is not learned. He doesn't even hold Bruno's hand! And, in a later scene, we see the poor boy almost run over by a car because his father isn't looking out for him. Bruno's simple physical survival is the movie's secret miracle, and he is finally to be his father's savior, but in such a way as to render Antonio's humiliation complete. This is poverty's authentic sting: banal and horrible loss of dignity.
Seen from the perspective of today, it is the sparseness and restraint of the film in general and the performances in particular that make "The Bicycle Thieves" such a powerful experience. That, and something more. For this film manages to appeal to the better angels of our nature in a way that only deepens as we grow older along with the film.
The passage of time has only intensified the resonance of something De Sica said 60 years ago: "We are so tired, we have lost any feeling of responsibility toward anyone but ourselves and, when we cut ourselves off from our brother, we prepare our own destruction." See "The Bicycle Thief" and delay the apocalypse, if only for an 93-minute span.
A series of "Hundred Favorite Films Forever"
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