You Ain't Seen Me, Right? – Bicycle Thieves (1948)


2nd September 2011

You know that list of ‘Films You Really Should Have Seen But Haven’t Got Round To Yet’? Well, You Ain't Seen Me, Right? is the weekly feature that frustratingly adds to it with movies you’ve never heard of.

You Ain't Seen Me, Right? is brought to you by Daniel Palmer, of Part-Time Infidel web fame. His eyes automatically shift to different aspect ratios as and when the occasion calls for it.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)
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Bicycle Thieves

In the ruins of post-war Italy, a group of critics-turned-filmmakers set out to assess the damage of the country’s humbling on its most vulnerable citizens. Italian Neorealism was a cry of frustration at the prevailing hardships, as well as a repudiation of the lavish ‘Telefoni Bianchi’ films that predominated throughout the ‘30s. The neorealists captured life in the raw and freed themselves from the old methods, using non-professional actors and actual locations; an approach that lent films like Rome, Open City (1945) and Germany, Year Zero (1948) an enduring, much imitated vibrancy. Vittorio De Sica was one of the major figures of this short-lived but hugely influential movement; making two of its defining works, Umberto D (1952) and this elegiac allegorical tale.

Desperate for any kind of work, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) gets a job putting up posters on the streets of Rome. Antonio secures the job on the understanding that he owns a bicycle, which he recently hawked to feed his wife and two children. Selling the family linen, Antonio redeems the bicycle, only for it to be stolen on his first day. With the police indifferent to his plight, Antonio sets off with his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), to track down the bicycle; the quest to retrieve it and regain his dignity driving Antonio to extremes of frustration and desperation.

Why don’t you run along now, Billy. And next week, remember to bring three things from your mother’s dresser.

De Sica put his inexperienced cast at their ease, holding back and allowing them to thrive in their surroundings; using long shots and gentle pans to show everyday life unfolding without disrupting it, fashioning beautifully detailed compositions augmented by Alessandro Cicognini’s mournful score. Carlo Montuori’s cinematography highlights Rome’s decaying grandeur, the crumbling, bullet pocked buildings as ground down as their inhabitants; making full use of the dramatic light and shade rendered by the city’s broad boulevards and narrow streets.

Aged only seven at the time, Staiola delivers a performance of startling maturity; he and Maggiorani have tremendous chemistry, there is a comfort between them that legitimises their onscreen relationship. Antonio is a downtrodden, melancholy everyman trying to make the best of the slender hand he has been dealt, for whom the bicycle symbolises hope and opportunity, offering an entree into a world of possibility. Maggiorani - who was a factory worker prior to starring in the film - does a sterling job of tracing the character’s moral quandary, exhibiting a raw emotional intensity that feels totally untutored and thus utterly genuine; particularly in the final scenes, which build to a stirring crescendo and are amongst the most moving in cinema.

Bicycle Thieves remains one of the most potent studies of poverty and the adversarial mindset it imbues, making a powerful statement without lapsing into dogma. De Sica had a gift for telling simple, affecting stories with compassion and social awareness; elucidating the wider context of everyday acts, showing the economic instability and political ferment in a personal light. Bicycle Thieves is an important historical document, as well as an exceptional piece of filmmaking, succinctly outlining the iniquities of a broken society.
Just goes to show – bikes can be important macguffins too. More from You Ain't Seen Me, Right? next week.

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