Tuesday, December 08, 2009

De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief

It was a different time. Rome’s postwar unemployed dressed better for relief than most people do for the theater today. Though dilapidated, the city’s working class neighborhoods were not defaced or otherwise defiled. Yet some darker aspects of the human condition remain constant. Indeed, the city is a cold, unyielding place for Antonio Ricci, the desperate everyman protagonist of Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (trailer here). Universally hailed far and wide as one of the greatest films of all time, De Sica’s masterwork will be re-released this Friday, marking the sixtieth anniversary of its original American release with a new 35mm print.

Getting a job during Italy’s severe depression was virtually a miracle for Ricci—a marvel foretold by his wife Maria’s fortune teller. There was a catch though. The terms of Ricci’s employment plastering posters across the city are clear: “no bicycle, no job.” Unfortunately, Ricci has hocked his bicycle to feed his family. However, Ricci is married to a strong woman, who resolutely pawns their sheets in order to reclaim his bicycle. Yet just as the Ricci family appears to have turned a corner, Ricci’s bicycle is stolen during his first day on the job.

For the balance of the film, Ricci tears through the city, frantically looking for the bicycle with his young son Bruno in tow. It might sound like a relatively simple story, but Bicycle still retains all of its visceral power and immediacy. It is devastating to watch a man lose all his hope and self respect because of an act of street larceny. While some might well be tempted to bestow new relevance on the film in light of our own current recession, Bicycle is in fact far deeper than a mere story of economic woe. Rather, it is an unflinching depiction of a callous human nature that repeatedly condones the injustices done to Ricci.

Like many other films associated with the Italian Neo-Realist movement, De Sica employed a number of nonprofessional actors in Bicycle, eliciting some extraordinary performances in the process. As Ricci, Lamberto Maggiorani achieved a state of existential intensity generations of actors like John Cassavetes would spend careers trying to approach. Perhaps even more remarkable is the utterly unaffected and ultimately heartbreaking Enzo Staiola, whose work as young Bruno may well be the greatest screen turn ever by a child actor.

Despite the vérité style of the production, Bicycle is a visually striking work. Powerfully filmed by De Sica and cinematographer Carlo Montuori, the terrible beauty of Rome becomes an integral supporting character in the drama unfolding on-screen. In fact, all the elements came together in bitter harmony on Bicycle. A winner of a Special Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (before the category was officially formalized), it is a true milestone film that everyone ought to see at least once to be conversant on international cinematic history. Starting this Friday (12/11), New Yorkers can see it on a legitimate screen when Bicycle begins a special three week engagement at Cinema Village.