Thursday, September 9, 2010

Split Screen: The Bicycle Thief

This is the first in what will likely be multiple articles from me and Elizabeth Ditty. We both watch a lot of movies, and often we find that we disagree on certain vital points in movies. So instead of just agreeing to disagree, we've decided to make it a learning opportunity and explore our opinions in writing. Spoilers for the film in question follow, of course. Also, be sure to check out her companion article here on her blog.


“The Bicycle Thief.” Few titles so easily conjure up foggy ideas about what classic foreign cinema is and represents. It is the mystery behind the curtain, an ancient tome that is daunting and remote in the weight that has been given to it. Those who approach it, almost always believers in the power of cinema as art, do so with a sort of hesitant respect reserved for these sacred cows and the old testament notion of ‘fearing God.’

This is compounded all the more by the implication that these classic films are somehow different than the films we see in our day to day life, not just that they are particularly well shot or well acted but that they have some other, intangible quality that keeps them on the best of lists and quick on the lips of well-studied critics and cinephiles.

Unfortunately, this is perhaps the worst way to approach “The Bicycle Thief.”

The story of an impoverished man and his son seeking work in post-war Italy, “The Bicycle Thief” is a film about simple people with a narrow, minimalist scope. There is little subtext, a deliberate avoidance of much of the possible social commentary, and a single-minded devotion to the modest plot. “The Bicycle Thief” is, at its heart, more parable than modern narrative.

The anchor of the film are the two main leads, Lamberto Maggiorani as the father, Antonio Ricci, and Enzo Staiola as his son, Bruno. The director, Vittorio De Sica, believed that every person was able to play one role well, and that was to naturally be themselves. As such, both performers were not professional actors. But instead of hindering the film, their honest and graceless performances lend weight to the film that it wouldn’t otherwise have. The father looks as though he worked his entire life because he had. The son is not precocious and clever in the typical cinematic way, but feels wiser than most movie children because he is an actual child who lived a normal life.

Which is why it’s so crushing to see both characters wrapped up in the tide of the plot. The titular bicycle is Antonio’s only chance of getting a job, putting up posters with his son in order to buy food to feed his family. But the inevitable happens and the bicycle is stolen, leading to a slow spiral of despair as father and son search Rome for the one hope of their salvation.

It is that desperate search that takes up most of the film, with the two characters descending deeper into desperation as the chance of finding the bicycle slips through their fingers. Yet in doing so, we are brought closer together to them. They are a perfect father son pair, a father painfully aware of his son’s opinion of him and of the necessity to provide and be that figure of support. The son trying to live up to the desires of his father, even when those desires are impossible for either of them to meet.

It is the genius of the film, then, that their is never any resolution to their task. The bicycle is forever out of reach. In the final scenes of the film, the father attempts to steal his own bicycle, continuing this cycle of deprivation and suffering. But it is the one redeeming point in the father's life that he fails to steal it. He is, to the end, a good man. And sometimes the worst things happen to good people. It isn't satisfying, but it is life, and that is what The Bicycle Thief captures so perfectly on film.