Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette)

Director: Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay: Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Gerardo Guerrieri (story by Cesare Zavattini; based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini)
Stars: Lamberto Maggiorani (Antonio Ricci), Enzo Staiola (Bruno), Lianella Carell (Maria), Gino Saltamerenda (Baiocco), Vittorio Antonucci (The Thief), Giulio Chiari (The Beggar), Elena Altieri (The charitable Lady), Carlo Jachino (Beggar), Michele Sakara (Secretary of the Charity Organization)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1948
Country: Italy
Bicycle Thieves: Criterion Collection DVD
Bicycle ThievesThe key to Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette)—and to a large extent neorealism in general—is in a single line of dialogue. The film’s protagonist, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), is at the police station because his bicycle, which he must have in order to work and support his family, has been stolen. The police investigator tells him that little can be done and he should assume the burden of finding the stolen bicycle himself. As Antonio protests, begging for assistance, another police officer who has noticed the exchange approaches the desk and asks, “Anything serious, Captain?,” to which the investigator replies, “Just a bicycle.”

Just a bicycle. The words are said with such casual flippancy, yet they embody the philosophical heart of neorealism as a film movement and Bicycle Thieves as a deeply moving portrait of human struggle. It may be just a bicycle, but for Antonio it means his ability to work, which means he can provide for his family at a time when a significant portion of the country was unemployed following the devastation of World War II. The bicycle, in essence, is life for Antonio and his family, and the fact that the police officer and so many other characters in the film, most of whom are associated with official institutions (the church, charities, the welfare office), don’t recognize this is a fundamental component of the neorealist outlook.

For Cesare Zavattini, the Italian screenwriter who was neorealism’s philosophical founding father, the cinema should strive for an unvarnished realism, one that finds true drama and human value in the everyday—what might be otherwise be dismissed as “humdrum” or “tedious.” This was not so much an aesthetic impulse as it was a moral one. For Zavattini, it was the cinema’s moral responsibility to attend to reality and what was happening in the here and now.

Bicycle Thieves is a crucial neorealist film in this sense because it strikes so deep at the heart of what Zavattini envisioned for the cinema. The story is little more than Antonio and his young son Bruno’s (Enzo Staiola) search for the stolen bicycle, which takes them through various parts of Rome, exposing the day-to-day realities of the down-and-out in postwar Italy (these range from a church service for the homeless, to a restaurant in which a middle-class child with foppish hair turns his nose up at Bruno’s unsophisticated manners, to a house of prostitution). The film’s texture is largely unadorned with cinematic flourishes, yet it is uniquely vibrant. You can feel the dirt on the street, the chill in the air, and the roughness of Antonio’s increasingly rumpled suit. Even more tangible are the emotions, which are displayed with such naked intensity and poignancy that the film slips through the web of its fictionalized narrative and becomes akin to real life.

The irony, of course, is that neorealism as a film style is just that—a style—which means that it relies on forms of representation just as much as any Hollywood film. It just hides them better. The film’s emotional rawness is the result of De Sica’s genius in working with nonprofessional actors. The three main characters—Antonio, Bruno, and Antonio’s wife Maria (Lianella Carell)—were all played by nonprofessionals with no previous film experience. For example, when he was cast as Antonio, Lamberto Maggiorani was a factory worker, and Enzo Staiola, who plays Bruno, was literally cast off the street. Despite (or perhaps because of) his lack of acting experience, Staiola’s portrayal of Bruno is one of the most moving and least canned child performances in the history of the cinema. Constantly looking to his father for guidance, he transcends any simple notions that equate childhood and purity; his performance feels natural and lived in, and when De Sica gives us a close-up of his face as he watches his father make a terrible mistake in the film’s final reel, he turns it into one of the most heartbreaking sequences ever committed to film.

While Bicycle Thieves has been rightly praised for its realism, repeated viewings make you realize just how carefully constructed it is. While the black-and-white cinematography lacks the high-shine polish of Hollywood productions, it is still graceful and evocative, with De Sica utilizing subtle tracking shots and specific framing to evoke feeling and make thematic connections. Most noticeable is the film’s use of an orchestral score, that most artificial of film conventions, to help guide the viewer’s emotions.

While these stylistic and artificial flourishes help account for why Zavattini did not consider Bicycle Thieves to be truly neorealistic (like virtually every other well-known neorealist film, he felt that it was ultimately metaphorical in nature because it relied on an invented story), they in no way take away from the film’s emotional core. In fact, they are testament to its power, as De Sica is able to deploy cinematic means both conventional and unconventional to craft a film whose overall effect is one of transparency. There is little sense that you’re watching something fabricated, and the emotions that Bicycle Thieves engenders feel natural and right, never forced or contrived. It has passages of beauty and heartbreak that suggest a genuine humanism that is all too often lacking from movies whose primary goals are to thrill, excite, or otherwise distract from life itself.

Bicycle Thieves Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • Italian Linear PCM 1.0 Monaural
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 Monaural
  • Subtitles English
  • Working with De Sica short documentary
  • Life as It Is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy documentary
  • Cesare Zavattini documentary
  • Book featuring new essays by critic Geoffrey Cheshireand filmmaker Charles Burnett, remembrances by Vittorio De Sica and his collaborators, and classic writings by Cesare Zavattini and critic André Bazin
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMarch 29, 2016

    When Criterion released their DVD of Bicycle Thieves nine years ago, it was a relief to finally be able to discard the previously available Image disc, which had a transfer that was literally painful to watch—soft, washed out, and taken from a print filled with dirt, scratches, and tears. Now, Criterion has surpassed their previous effort with a brand-new transfer that improves even further on their already solid work. Their new Blu-ray boasts a magnificent new 4K transfer made from a 35mm safety fine-grain master that was struck from the original nitrate negative (their DVD transfer was made from a 35mm duplicate negative, so they have moved their source up one generation), and digital restoration has returned the image to a nearly pristine state. As with Criterion’s DVD, the picture is slightly grayer than you might expect, but the low-contrast approach is the intended look of the film. If anything, the Blu-ray looks quite a bit brighter and less contrast-y than the DVD, although detail remains excellent. And, of course, it is no longer window-boxed, which was the bane of Criterion Academy aspect ratio DVD releases for some time. The Blu-ray appears to have the same clean, digitally restored monaural soundtrack as the DVD, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack, except now presented in Linear PCM. And, once again, the disc offers the option of an English dubbed monaural soundtrack, but I would recommend sticking with the original Italian track.
    All of the supplements from Criterion’s 2007 DVD are included on the new Blu-ray. While there is no audio commentary, there are several excellent documentaries, starting with Life as It Is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy, a 40-minute interview with Italian film scholar Mark Shiel (author of Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City). Shiel goes through the entire history of neorealism, discussing its influences, historical roots, and most important filmmakers. Shiel’s general overview of neorealism is nicely complemented by two other documentaries. Working with De Sica is a 22-minute documentary that includes new interviews with Bicycle Thieves screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico, film scholar Callisto Cosulich, and, best of all, actor Enzo Staiola, who talks about his experiences as a child actor working with De Sica. Finally, Cesare Zavattini is a 55-minute documentary about the life of the theoretical founding father of neorealism. The documentary was made by famed Italian filmmaker Carlo Lizzani, who has also made documentaries about neorealist directors Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini, and includes interviews with directors Bernardo Bertolucci, Marco Bellocchio and Roberto Benigni, among others. I was also pleased to see that they have maintained a thick insert booklet, rather than going with a fold-out insert, although it has about half as many pages as the DVD booklet. Still included are the essay by critic Geoffrey Cheshire and remembrances by Vittorio De Sica, Lianella Carell, Luisa Alessandri, Sergio Leone, Mauel De Sica, and Maria Mercader. Unfortunately, they have dropped an essay by filmmaker Charles Burnett and classic writings by Cesare Zavattini and critic André Bazin.

    Copyright ©2007, 2016 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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