Director: Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay: Vittorio De Sica, Oreste Biancoli, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi, Gerardo Guerrieri, Cesare Zavattini
Based on a Novel by: Luigi Bartolini
Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Elena Altieri, Gino Saltamerenda, Giulio Chiari, Vittorio Antonucci
Running Time: 90 min
BBFC Certificate: U
Vittorio De Sica was an interesting figure in the Italian neorealist movement. Neorealism was developed by critics writing for the ‘Cinema’ magazine who decried mainstream Italian movies, particularly the ‘Telefoni Bianchi’ (‘white telephones’ – light comedies attempting to replicate similar Hollywood productions) that dominated screens at the time. De Sica, however, was a stage and screen matinee idol that was starring in many of these types of films. As he grew older and the war took its toll on the country though, De Sica must have become disillusioned with the throwaway fluff he was working on, as he began to explore more serious films as a director. Like John Cassavetes in later years, De Sica would continue to act in mainstream films but used these roles to earn money to help fund his more personal work as a director.
De Sica’s breakthrough was Shoeshine, which attracted a lot of attention overseas, including that of the Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, who was keen to finance the director’s next project. De Sica was planning to make The Bicycle Thieves (a.k.a. Ladri di biciclette) so presented that to Selznick, but after ridiculous casting suggestions such as Cary Grant and Henry Fonda in the lead role, the collaboration never came into fruition. Instead, De Sica raised the money himself with the help of some friends and the film went on to become one of the most well-known examples of Italian neorealism as well as a much-beloved film in general. It even topped the renowned Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films of all time in 1952 and has regularly featured in the list ever since (though not always in the top 10).
Arrow Academy have released the film before on both DVD and Blu-ray, but with a new print becoming available they’re re-releasing Bicycle Thieves again on both formats with a beautifully remastered presentation. I love the film but have only seen it on an old DVD release, so thought I’d check it out.
Bicycle Thieves surrounds the struggles of Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), an out-of-work father who is finally given a job putting up posters around the city of Rome. The job requires a bicycle, however, and Antonio’s has been pawned in order to feed his family. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) takes the sheets off their beds as well as some spares and they pawn these to get the bike back. All seems well but, on Antonio’s first day on the job, his bike is stolen. So, the next day, which luckily is a Sunday, he goes out with his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) to try to find it.
It’s a simple premise, but De Sica makes it devastatingly effective. It’s clearly and concisely set up, showing how important the bike is to Antonio and his family. This, aided by the title, leads to a gripping tension as the first act goes on, as you know the bike will be stolen at some point. Every time you see it left unguarded against a wall, you presume it’s going to be taken, but De Sica holds the act back a little, to keep you on edge. The weight and helplessness of the situation is maintained throughout through overwhelming numbers of bikes filling and passing through the frame at regular intervals. We’re also given several glimmers of hope throughout the film when we see the thief or think we’ve seen Antonio’s bike, but these hopes are continuously dashed as the story moves on.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. De Sica’s past working in mainstream films taught him that the audience responds to laughter, so he injects small doses of comedy here and there to prevent the film from becoming dour. There’s also a lot of warmth and humanity in the relationship between Antonio and Bruno, as well as Maria, to a lesser extent. Some have criticised this aspect of Bicycle Thieves as being overly sentimental, using the boy’s puppy dog eyes as well as a lush, Hollywood-style score to milk tears. However, I believe De Sica exercises enough restraint to avoid lurching into saccharine territories.
De Sica adds some other studio-style touches to the production. Though shot on location and with largely non-professional actors like the rest of the neorealist films, he doesn’t use handheld cameras or static shots, instead using fluid and graceful dolly (and possibly crane) shots. Carefully framing his compositions on top of this, the film is beautifully presented.
The actors do a fine job, despite most having no experience in front of a camera. De Sica largely cast them for how they looked and would work with them to eke out a performance later. He does a fine job in that aspect but the looks remain important. Carell, for instance, has incredibly expressive eyes and Staiola has the aforementioned ‘puppy dog’ look on top of a plucky attitude. Maggiorani, who was a factory worker by trade, is also excellent as the film’s anchor, conveying emotional intensity in a subtle fashion.
All of this finely crafted technique is utilised by De Sica not only to tell the moving story of one family’s struggles though. He makes it quietly clear that this is merely an example of a nationwide problem. This is done through memorable shots that demonstrate the scale of the issue. At the start, for instance, we see a crowd of men waiting to hear what jobs are available that day. Likewise, when Maria and Antonio are pawning their sheets there is quite a queue and we see a huge tower of sheets in the storeroom that the clerk perilously ascends. The final shot cements this point when we see Antonio and Bruno walk among a swathe of similar-looking people through the streets of Rome. It was a difficult time for Italy (and much of Europe) with unemployment rife and political turmoil making people’s lives a misery (sounds familiar), and the neorealist filmmakers wanted to present this on screen.
Overall then, it’s a taut, gripping and ultimately moving masterclass in economy and simplicity. Painting a damning portrait of the state of Italy at the time it’s a beautifully made classic that fuses the intensely personal with the social. This has been done a lot over the years, both before and since, but rarely this eloquently. It truly deserves its lofty status and holds up magnificently well over 70 years on.
Bicycle Thieves is out now on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. I’m afraid I don’t have Arrow’s previous Blu-ray release to compare, but I can say that this version looks fantastic. Due to the multiple sources used in the restoration, there are a couple of softer shots here and there, but largely this is a detailed picture with lovely textures and no notable damage. Audio is solid too.
There are a few special features included:
– Brand new 4K restoration from the original camera negative
– Original uncompressed PCM mono Audio
– Feature length audio commentary by Italian Cinema expert Robert Gordon, author of BFI Modern Classics Bicycle Thieves
– Money Has Been My Ruin a brand new video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns on Vittorio De Sica s career and filmmaking
– Indiscretion of an American Film Producer a brand new video essay by film historian Kat Ellinger on De Sica’s relationship with Hollywood producers David O. Selznick and Joseph H. Levine and the version that never was
– Original trailer advertising De Sica s films, featuring Bicycle Thieves star Lamberto Maggiorani and Francesco Golisano presenting Miracle in Milan
– Optional English subtitles
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Vince McIndoe
– FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Booklet featuring writing on the film by film historian Michael Brooke, archival writings by Zavattini, De Sica, and contemporary reviews, illustrated with original stills and artwork
Robert Gordon’s commentary has been retained from the previous release and it’s very good, with a nice mixture of analysis and background. It’s a shame two documentaries from the 2014 Blu-ray have disappeared, but they’ve been replaced by two illuminating essays from the ever-reliable pair of David Cairns and Kat Ellinger.
I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet to comment on that.