Bicycle Thieves: Criterion Collection Review

Made in 1948, when the Italian film industry was struggling to find its feet in the aftermath of the Second World War, the neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves is a monumental piece of cinema, and its power has diminished not one bit in the 60 years since it was made.

The film is not so much dazzling for the strength of its plot - which could hardly be simpler - as for its choice of subject and the manner in which it is made. Partly through necessity and partly through the vision of director Vittorio De Sica, Bicycle Thieves was a huge step away from traditional studio-bound dramas that the director, formerly a celebrated actor himself, would have been very familiar with. De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is out there on the street, using real people and not actors, and showing without a trace of sentimentality or manipulation just how difficult the lives of real people are after the war with almost documentary realism. Its very simplicity however serves to undercut any accusations of preachy social realism or of making any grandstanding political statement. Rather, it’s a simple and truthful examination of how human nature reacts when placed in exceptional circumstances. The fact that this is something anyone can identify with is why the film has endured as long as it has, why it is still riveting to watch today, and why it remains an influence for a new generation of filmmakers attempting to find a way to show the reality of the world around us today.

With high unemployment and poverty widespread in Rome in the post-war years, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is fortunate to be offered work by the employment office putting up posters around the town. It’s a well-paid job, with regular hours and the opportunity of overtime, but it requires the use of a bicycle, which must be supplied by the employee. Ricci has however pawned his bike to put food on the table for his wife and child and in order to get it back, his wife has to pawn the very sheets of their bed. It’s not a unique situation by any means, as is evident by the racks of bikes and bed linen in the pawn-shop’s offices. On his first day at work however, before he has even earned a wage, Antonio’s bicycle is stolen.

It’s a hard blow for Ricci and his family, but there is only so much the overworked police can do to find a single bike in a city the size of Rome, particularly as the bike has more than likely already been dismantled for parts. Antonio however has no choice but to believe it can be found and, with the help of some friends and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), he sets about visiting the flea-markets of the city, where a stolen bike, if it can be found at all, is most likely to turn up. It’s an agonising search, one that the viewer has no choice but to entirely empathise with, seeing it as we do from a number of perspectives. From Ricci’s viewpoint, the bicycle is a symbol of his ability to be a provider, a husband and a father – something that has been taken away from him by the post-war circumstances. But the viewer also sees what is happening through the eyes of his son Bruno, the next generation for whom the bicycle as a loss of their father’s dignity can be seen to have an even more profound effect.

On its own, the fate of Antonio and Bruno would be devastating enough, but the theft reveals just as much about other people. Much as he did in his previous film Shoeshine, De Sica doesn’t apportion blame for the social ills they have to endure on any individual, organisation or event, whether they be political or economic. More than anything, the theft of his bicycle and Antonio Ricci’s search for it reveals that his struggle to survive is echoed in the lives of others he meets, all of them similarly driven to commit desperate acts, doing whatever is necessary to pull themselves out of the depths of their poverty.

All of this might sound rather miserable, but Bicycle Thieves is equally balanced in terms of humour, human compassion and understanding. There are many examples of this, but the one that is most delightful in its weaving of complex and contradictory emotions is the famous and apparently inconsequential scene in the restaurant, where father and son sit down to their meal, unbowed and undefeated by the turn of events. Not even the lavish extravagance of the rich family at the table next to them spoils the moment, and father and son hold no bitterness or grudge for the inequitable hand that fate has dealt each of them. Rather, it fuels Ricci’s determination to overcome the setback, and he sits down and works out just how much he can do for the family when he gets his bike and his job back. Moments later, the reality of the situation and the necessity of what he must do crashes back on him.

Much of the power that comes from moments like this is down to the filmmaking choices of Vittorio De Sica, to say nothing of the enormous contribution of the legendary neorealist screenwriter Cesare Zavattini. Largely abandoning conventional narrative drive, the film is nonetheless elegantly and delicately structured, designed for simplicity in order to let the underlying strengths of these essential human traits and truths stand out all the more starkly. Moreover, it is filmed almost like a documentary, out there on the streets where the dilapidated housing blocks are contrasted with the folly of Mussolini’s monuments of bridges and football stadiums that tower over the people. The streets speak for themselves, as do the faces of the performers. Not actors, but real people who clearly have endured circumstances similar to those depicted in the film, their very bearing, demeanour and expression speaks more than any dialogue or attempt by actors to perform these situations ever could. Appropriately then it’s these marvellous all-too-human faces that dominate the cover and interior artwork of this Criterion Collection edition of Bicycle Thieves. The most significant events that happen in Bicycle Thieves are those that take place inside the characters, and in the memorable faces of Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola you can see everything that it means to be human.

Bicycle Thieves is released in the United States as part of the Criterion Collection as a 2-disc set. Both discs are dual-layer, the set is in NTSC format and it is encoded for Region 1. The discs are held in a fold-out digipack, slipcased with a beautifully illustrated 78-page booklet of essays.

Criterion’s transfer is of the usual high standard, but there are inevitably a few minor problems with a print taken from a 60 year old negative. On the positive side, the black-and-white tones are excellent and the image remarkably sharp, showing tremendous detail. While the image has been restored to remove almost any trace of marks or dustspots, inevitably some damage remains, notably a troublesome persistent long tramline scratch that can be seen through a large part of the early scenes, and occasionally later on in the film. The tones look a little bright in places, whites often glaring, suggesting that there may be some contrast boosting applied here. There is also some minor flutter in one or two places, but largely, the transfer is quite stable. Sadly, still applying their window-boxing practice, Criterion insist on surrounding the image all around with a black border. In some respects, the print used here is certainly an improvement on the current UK edition (reviewed here by Anthony Nield), but not significantly I feel. At the same time however, it’s hard to imagine that the film could look much better than it does here.

The original Italian mono soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0. It’s inevitably a little rough and distorted, but it probably always was. The clarity of speaking voices therefore is not great, but again, probably as good as it could be. Background noise has certainly been reduced, but not at the cost of losing detail in the background sounds and the music score.

An English dub is also included. Not a new recording, it would seem to be from the period the film was made. It’s not really an option – the translation is very loose and seems to be more concerned with matching lip movements than accurately translating what is being said. Moreover, everyone speaks broken English with an Italian accent.

English subtitles are in a white font and are optional. They are generally very good, handling some difficult turns of phrase and idiomatic use of language well.

Criterion extra features can often be needlessly and tediously academic, but I have no complaints this time with the approach taken in the choice of supporting features for Bicycle Thieves.

Working with De Sica (22:41) is a pertinent and informative feature on several aspects of the film. Bicycle Thieves screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico talks about the genesis of the script and how it was reworked, film critic Callisto Cosulich provides a fascinating insight into the history and context of the film and its importance in the world of cinema, and Enzo Staiola – Bruno in the film – recalls how he was chosen for the part and how he worked with De Sica on the set. Superb.

Life As It Is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy (39:55), would appear from its title to be rather long and academic, particularly as the subject is much more concisely covered on the Masters of Cinema release of Shoeshine. Mark Shiel however makes this a very accessible and informative feature, looking in-depth at how the movement came about, its characteristics, directors and writers, its growth and its influence, comparing it to the Hollywood style of the period. Comprehensive, informed, interesting and unpretentiously delivered, this is excellent.

The long feature on Cesare Zavattini (55:39), made for RAI television is the same one used on the Nouveaux edition of Umberto D. Using interviews with Bertolucci, Benigni, Bellocchio and acquaintances and colleagues from the artworld, newspapers and humour magazines, Carlo Lizzani’s film presents a fine overview of ‘Za’, a larger than life character who couldn’t be defined or restricted to working in only one medium. The quality of the print is better here than Nouveaux’s version and it has removable subtitles, but it seems to have a shorter running time.

Rounding out the set is a superb booklet with fine essays and reminiscences on the film, notably by Godfrey Cheshire, Cesare Zavattini, André Bazin and Sergio Leone – who even appears in as an extra in one scene of Bicycle Thieves. It is illustrated with many promotional stills and captures from the film.

The very simplicity of Bicycle Thieves can be deceptive, the subject and setting – poor people struggling to survive on the post-war streets of Rome - leading some viewers to search for allegory, social commentary or even a plot. There’s no need to look at anything too deeply – everything that is great about Bicycle Thieves can be read on the faces of Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola as Antonio and Bruno. Just watch the faces.

The sheer power of the approach used by De Sica and the neorealists is also quite evident and its influence persists in modern day Chinese and Iranian cinema, some of the most progressive and challenging cinema in the world today. Apart from the obvious tributes to Bicycle Thieves in Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle and Marziyeh Meshkini’s Stray Dogs, the recognition of the power of the immediacy of what can be captured in simple life situations of personal and political turmoil can be seen in the films of Jia Zhang-ke (Still Life, Platform) and Jafar Panahi (The Circle, Offside), using real people in favour of actors, dispensing with schematic dramatic situations for the everyday concerns that are much more relevant to people’s lives – and often being all the more dramatic for it.

Criterion’s new edition of the film is superb, presenting the film as close to perfect as it could possibly be, and rounding it out with a superb set of relevant and interesting features. For a set to be so complete, the lack of a commentary may seem like an omission, but truly none is required, and it’s to Criterion’s credit that the package isn’t marred by an unnecessary step-by-step dissection of a film that is simplicity itself (though it hasn’t stopped them before, it must be said). Bicycle Thieves is a film that speaks directly to the viewer’s heart, needing no intermediary to explain what is brilliantly evident on the screen.

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