It’s been a bit as I’ve been trying to get caught up on a few other things, but finally, here we are with another look at one of the films on Sight and Sound’s most recent Top 250 All-Time Greatest Films list. Today it’s #33, Vittorio De Sica. Also, for those just joining us, you can find a full introduction to what the Sight and Sound Top 250 list is, and a look at the complete list of the movies on it, along with links to the ones I’ve already written about here. And, if you want to be sure not to miss any of these posts, be sure to head on over to the Facebook page and give it a “like”or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I post anytime one of these – or anything else on the blog, along with just random other links and thoughts that may not make it into full posts – goes up.
Let’s start today with a quick note about the title of this film. The original Italian title is Ladri di biciclette which translates to Bicycle Thieves, which is the title I’ve used above and will throughout this write-up. However, upon its initial release in the US, the title was changed to the singular The Bicycle Thief, and it is still referred to in that manner in some circles, and there are those who feel that the singular title, though a mistranslation, is actually more impactful, given the events the movie portrays, especially the ending. It’s an argument I can see, and in a way agree with, but nonetheless, I’m going to stick with the original.
With that out of the way, let’s move on to the movie itself. Simply put, this is an incredible moving and heartfelt film, which depicts the desperate struggles of a man who faces some incredible odds and seemingly no-win choices in his effort to get and maintain a job in order to provide for his family, and does a tremendous job of asking the question of just how far he will go in order to do that.
Set in post-war Italy, a time of deep depression, when everyone was still feeling the impact of the war, and jobs were incredibly hard to come by, Antonio Ricci is offered a position putting up posters throughout the city of Rome. The only catch is that in order to both get and maintain the job, he must have a bicycle to make his way through the town. While he does own one, it is in the pawn shop, but he promises the employment agent that by the time he is to report to the job in the morning he will have it with him. Not knowing exactly how he will retrieve it, he returns home, where his wife, realizing the rare opportunity that this represents in the long run, promptly strips the beds of its sheets and linens so that he can take them to the pawn shop in order to get enough money to recover the bicycle. At first reluctant to even consider the deal, the pawn broker finally relents and Ricci is able to get his bike and reports for work the next day as he has promised. Unfortunately, not long after he has begun his work, the bicycle is stolen, which leads an increasingly desperate Ricci, accompanied by his young son Bruno, to attempt to track down the thief and recover his bicycle before his manager finds out and gives the job to someone else.
From this point on the movie becomes a desperate search through the streets and alleys of Rome, leading Ricci not only into areas of the town into which he should not go, but also to having to examine his own morality and ultimately to face the question of whether or not he, himself, in order to provide for his family, must also become a thief.
Upon its initial release, the film was somewhat divisively received in its native Italy, as it was thought by some to be a negative portrayal of Italians, but that viewpoint was quickly dismissed by those who recognized the true beauty and impact of the film. In America, it received an honorary Oscar at the 1950 Academy Awards ceremony, having been voted by the Academy Board of Governors as the most outstanding foreign language film released in the United States during 1949 – since at that time there was no regular foreign language award – and its screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini, was nominated for Best Writing, Screenplay. It’s also interesting to note that in 1954, in the first Sight and Sound Top 250 list, Bicycle Thieves actually topped the list at #1 before being displaced ten years later in the second poll by Citizen Kane, which held the top spot from then until the most recent poll when it was finally deposed by Alfred Hitchcok’s Vertigo.
As far as my own reaction to this film, I found it to be an incredibly moving portrayal not just of the inner and outer torment that Ricci is forced to undergo, but also how it affects not only his own life, but his viewpoint of the world around him and his relationships with and outlook towards his fellow man. Also, central to the conflict and question of his relationships is how it will affect his son and how, in the end, that relationship will also affect both his thoughts and his actions.
There really is a lot to like about this movie. By shooting only on location and using only non-professional actors, director De Sica is able to present a kind of realism (this was, after all, a part of the Italian neorealism movement which had begun only a few years before with Roberto Rosellini’s 1945 film Rome, Open City) that gives the film even more power and believability. It also speaks to De Sica’s directorial skills that he is able to pull such nuanced and powerful performances from his cast, especially 8-year-old Enzo Staiola who plays Tony’s son Bruno, and not only steals pretty much every scene he is in, but provides a huge part of the emotional heft of this film. (Reportedly, Staiola was cast when De Sica noticed him watching the film’s production on a street while helping his father sell flowers.)
At this point, I could go on and on about just what makes this movie great, and well deserving of its place in the Sight and Sound honor roll – if anything, I’d personally rank it even higher, but then, the numbering really isn’t that important when you’re discussing a wide range of films and where it lands at the top of the list is so dependent upon the vagaries of the voting in any given year, but instead I’ll simply say that I highly encourage you to seek out this film and give it a try even if you think you’re not inclined to like watching a black and white film with subtitles, because the story and De Sica’s interpretation of it is one that transcends both time and language.
Here’s a trailer: