Bicycle Thieves Review
More than fifty years since it was first released Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves now stands as a cultural icon. Regularly parodied and paid homage to – in everything from Maurizio Nichetti’s The Icicle Thief to Alexei Sayle’s Didn’t You Kill My Brother? - the film has become familiar to such a degree that those few cinephiles yet to experience it will no doubt be able to recount its narrative in its entirety: the tale of Antonio, the poor jobless husband and father who need a bicycle to gain employment, yet upon obtaining one has it stolen on the his day ay work. It’s this simplicity of storytelling, at times akin to that of a fable or parable, which perhaps explains the film’s enduring popularity. Upon it’s release Bicycle Thieves picked up both the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and the BAFTA for Best Film, and has since become a mainstay on ‘best of’ lists, in terms of Italian cinema rivalled only by Fellini’s 8½ and La dolce vita. And certainly, it is very much an audience friendly film, one which presents a softer side to the neo-realist movement.
Indeed, positioned between the weightier pairing of Visconti’s La terra trema and Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero in chronological terms, Bicycle Thieves comes across as by far the lighter offering. Stylistically and in terms of content, the film undoubtedly earns its neo-realist credentials – the focus on Italy’s poor and consequently disenfranchised; the use of location film as a means of communicating ‘authenticity’ – yet De Sica’s true self can’t help but come through. For he was also well regarded as a comic actor and predominantly a director of “entertainments” (see Miracle in Milan, Marriage Italian Style, After the Fox, etc.), in other words not the kind of filmmaking we’d ordinarily associate with the likes of Rossellini or Visconti. His view of the world is far more romanticised and as such Bicycle Thieves feels less rigorous than their best works. It’s far less subtle and prone to making obvious messages: the scene in the restaurant in which Antonio and his young son Bruno sit opposite a far wealthier family; or the vast warehouse full of items pawned by the poor so that they may afford their next meal or indeed a bicycle. It’s also far more willing to adorn its narrative with little character turns of the kind that you just won’t find in the sterner likes of Ossessione or Paisà: the troupe of amateur players or the elderly fortune teller. Clearly De Sica is a director motivated more by the drama of a situation than he is its politics.
In some respects this can prove problematic. There’s never any sense of the bigger picture, for example – a reason as to why these people exist in such circumstances. But then such issues are only raised if we take Bicycle Thieves solely as an example of neo-realism. And given just how widespread its popularity is, it becomes clear that this shouldn’t be the case. Indeed, the film is best approached in light of De Sica’s career as a whole, in other words as melodrama. We are dealing, after all, with a director who understands the emotional weight of a torrential rainstorm. As such Bruno, the cute young son, no longer becomes an unnecessary complication (as he would in the worlds of early Rossellini and Visconti), but rather as a sentimental mascot there to draw in that extra helping of audience sympathy. Certainly, Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio has that blankness of expression which allows us project on his features what we will, yet Bruno serves to enforce this. Likewise, the busy score is no mere accompaniment, but offers a whole range of unashamed manipulation, from happy to heart-rending. The overall effect is grand drama and it works perfectly; a scene of cyclists pouring into the frame from all angles as Antonio sits there with non and the soundtrack goes into overdrive may not be the subtlest piece of filmmaking you’ll ever see, but cumulatively it makes for wonderfully expressive, and ultimately really quite affecting, cinema.
As with Arrow’s release of Miracle in Milan, Bicycle Thieves presentation is generally fine if a little erratic. For one scene we’ll find superb clarity and a spotless print, for the next we’ll find prominent tramlining and a host of scratches. Again, as with Miracle in Milan this appears to be a restored print, though of the two it is perhaps the lesser offering. The overall clarity isn’t perhaps quite as sharp as we’d like, whilst the contrast levels are likewise a little darker. The soundtrack is in much the same position – ultimately watchable, though still host to instances of damage – and thankfully comes with optional English subtitles. However, the subtitling doesn’t always cover every word, especially during the more heavily populated scenes. Indeed, some sequences abandon subtitles altogether, though it must be said that this shouldn’t really be classed as a problem given that the gist can easily be discerned.
Of the extras the main attraction is 54-minute documentary on De Sica. Though it may not be presented in the best quality possible and comes with burnt-in English subtitles (it looks as though a video has served as the source), it nonetheless proves a worthwhile addition. Constructed from bits and pieces of archive footage, this documentary collects various instances of De Sica talking about his films throughout the years. Admittedly, it doesn’t cover every film he ever directed, but when those that are included stretch to all of the key works - Shoeshine, Bicycle Thieves, Miracle in Milan, Umberto D, Boccaccio ‘70, Marriage Italian Style and The Gardens of Finzi-Contini - we really shouldn’t complain. Also present on the disc are a brief poster gallery (containing only four examples) and the original theatrical trailer for Miracle in Milan.
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