Ladri di biciclette (1948)
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Produzioni De Sica / Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche (ENIC)
Every decade since the 1950s, Sight & Sound magazine has polled an international group of professional film critics to assemble lists of the greatest movies ever made.
For most of the 20th century, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) dominated the lists as the greatest film of all time, but in the very first critics’ poll, published in 1952, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves was their choice for best film of all time, followed by two Chaplin movies, City Lights (1931) and The Gold Rush (1925). (Kane didn’t quite crack the top 10.)
In the most recent Sight & Sound poll, published in 2012, Citizen Kane was unseated as the greatest film ever made by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), and officially became merely the second greatest film ever made. (Bicycle Thieves was #33 on the list of 250 films.)
“Greatest films of all time” lists are notoriously contentious and usually somewhat arbitrary, but Sight & Sound is one of the few that carries real weight.
I first became aware of De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece when I was 14 or 15 (back when it was still called The Bicycle Thief in English), but I never got around to seeing it until a few days ago.
Watching a widely acknowledged masterpiece for the first time can be a difficult experience. It’s easy to overanalyze it and constantly ask yourself, “Well, what’s so great about this really?”
So when I watch one of the “great films” for the first time, I just try to let it all wash over me and not think about it too hard until the credits roll.
Bicycle Thieves is based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini. It’s the story of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a man with a wife and young son and a baby. Like most of the citizens of Rome in the post-war 1940s, they are poor and struggling, and Antonio is desperate for work. (His son Bruno, played by Enzo Staiola, is only 8 years old, but even he works part time at a gas station to help the family.)
When Antonio gets a job hanging posters throughout the city, it’s the answer to his prayers, but he needs a bicycle to do the job, and he pawned his bicycle some time ago. So his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), pawns their precious dowry sheets to get the money Antonio needs to get his bicycle out of hock, which allows him to do his job and earn a regular salary.
Antonio’s joy is short-lived. As he’s standing on his ladder one day, pasting up a poster of Rita Hayworth, his bicycle is swiped from the wall where it is leaning next to him.
The rest of the film follows Antonio’s journey through Rome with his son Bruno as they search for the bicycle, the bicycle thief, and the larger network of thieves who helped pull off the theft.
When Bicycle Thieves ended, it left me with a mixture of sadness and exhilaration that I haven’t felt since the first time I watched Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950).
Bicycle Thieves is very different from Los Olvidados, and its tragedies are less earth-shaking, but it affected me in a way that cinematic death and destruction almost never does.
The Italian neorealist movement started with Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). Neorealism rejected Hollywood-style glamor in favor of nonprofessional actors working in real locations. Although neorealist films are shot in a verité style, none of them are documentaries. While De Sica’s actors were all appearing in a film for the first time, he was a seasoned director working with a professional crew. There is even a rainstorm in Bicycle Thieves that De Sica and his crew created themselves.
As Antonio, Lamberto Maggiorani is not always likeable, but he is always relatable and always seems like a real person. Enzo Staiola, who plays his son Bruno, gives a deeply affecting performance. In the beginning of the film he’s a “little man,” and makes a lot of gestures and utterances that are funny because they seem so adult. But in the end, he’s just a child, and his wordless acting conveys so much.
What impressed me most about Bicycle Thieves was the way it used grandness of scale to tell a story of individuals. When Maria pawns her family’s linen at the beginning of the film, we watch it slowly disappear into a huge warehouse of pawned linen. Each bundle tells its own sad story. For the majority of the film, the number of people and bicycles in Rome is overwhelming. But we never stop thinking about that one, precious bicycle that Antonio and Bruno are searching for. The film ends with Antonio and Bruno disappearing into a crowd, just the way the linen disappeared into a warehouse of linen, and the way his bicycle disappeared into streets full of bicycles. The man and his son are just two tiny people in a sea of humanity, but when the film ended, their story meant more to me than I can express.