Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Bicycle Thieves

(Ladri di Biciclette, Italian, 1948)

DIRECTED by Vittorio de Sica
PRODUCED by Guiseppe Amato & Vittorio de Sica
WRITTEN by Cesare Zavattini, Oreste Biancoli, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Adolfo Franci & Gerardo Guerrieri
BASED ON THE NOVEL by Luigi Bartolini
ORIGINAL MUSIC by Alessandro Cicognini
CINEMATOGRAPHY by Carlo Montuori
ART DIRECTION by Antonio Traverso

For some reason this is usually referred to as The Bicycle Thief. But the translation apparently is Bicycle Thieves, which makes sense, as there are two of them. The Criterion DVD has the correct title, and that’s what I own. This is another “film school” movie, another one I missed during my college days, used as an example of post-war Italian Neorealism. Categories like that put me off. I like to judge a film by its individual merits, if possible. I hesitate to watch movies I’m supposed to admire. I have admired, for instance, many films by Ingmar Bergman, but I have never loved a single one of them.

This one I love. De Sica was a leader in the neorealist movement. These guys rejected the traditionally structured stories and settings that audiences loved so much but so often had little to say about real life. So he chose a very simple story and populated it with real people; none of the main characters had ever acted in a movie before, and none of them went on to very big careers afterward. This is particularly impressive in the case of Enzo Staiola, who was eight. Take a look at child actors in contemporary Hollywood films, the stilted, corny dialogue, the self-consciousness, the downright bad acting. With a few talented exceptions, most child actors before the 1970s or so were pretty awful, and directors had no idea how to coax a great performance from them. These days they use new methods, and convincing child performances are common. Not in 1948.

The story is so simple. A man in postwar Italy gets a chance at a job putting up posters. To do it, he needs a bicycle. The family pawns their bedding to get his bike out of the pawnshop and he sets happily to work. The very first day, the bike is stolen. The next day he and his son set out to find it.

There is no way to describe what happens during that day without giving away too much. It is hopeless, then there is a ray of hope … and then … the last scenes are of awful revelation, choking sorrow and shame, and are indelibly etched in my memory.