Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) [DVD]
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)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1948
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)
The key to Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette), and to a large extent neorealism in general, finds its summation 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, 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 key 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 director Vittorio 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.
Special mention must be made of Enzo Staiola, a child who was literally cast off the street. Yet, despite (or perhaps because of) his lack of acting experience, his 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. 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 Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||February 13, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Finally ... finally ... finally. Among the many classic masterworks of world cinema that have been languishing in inferior DVD transfers, Bicycle Thieves has been crying out the loudest for attention. Although it’s been available on disc for years from Image, the transfer was painful to watch--soft, washed out, and taken from a print filled with dirt, scratches, and tears. Thankfully, Criterion has rescued the film from such mistreatment, giving it a fine new high-definition transfer from a 35mm duplicate negative so that you can finally see it at home and not feel like you’re watching a worn 16mm print. A significant amount of digital restoration has returned the image to a nearly pristine state; only a few vertical hairlines (barely noticeable, at that) mar the image at all. The picture is slightly grayer than some might expect, but the low-contrast approach is the intended look of the film. Detail is excellent through. The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack, is also very good, with no ambient hiss or pops to speak of. There is also an optional English dubbed monaural soundtrack.|
|While there is no audio commentary on the film, there are several excellent documentaries housed on the second disc of this two-disc set. Life as It Is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy is 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. The booklet included with the two-disc set contains new essays by critic Geoffrey Cheshireand filmmaker Charles Burnett; remembrances by Vittorio De Sica, Lianella Carell, Luisa Alessandri, Sergio Leone, Mauel De Sica, and Maria Mercader; and classic writings by Cesare Zavattini and critic André Bazin|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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