Foreign films particularly ones that were being made during the Golden Age of Hollywood are endlessly fascinating to me, I know a lot about my own culture but I'll never get over people who do themselves the disservice of not enjoying what other cultures have to offer by refusing to watch anything with subtitles. And one country whose movie industry will always be of special interest to me is Italy and more specifically the great Italian Masters of Neo-Realism the most underrated movement in terms of influence on movies today. But while the most famous Director from the movement is undeniably Federico Fellini he actually only had a few movies that fell in the neo realism category (notably I Vitelloni) his breakthrough '54 hit La Strada despite often being lumped in with the movement actually came after the movement had died down and to the experienced viewer shows Fellini's marked departure from his neo-realist roots. No the real masters of the movement were Roberto Rossellini with his masterpiece Open City and Vittorio De Sica with his The Bicycle Thief. Some would argue today the latter more so embodies the genre with its lack of named actors, endearingly rough street shots and bleak but insanely compelling story which functions as a clear outline for bigger ideas more than a strict or complex narrative. The movie definitely stands as an under appreciated classic, and a powerful document of war torn Fascist Italy, a deceptively simple film that holds the mirror up to the society of its day. I guess the question today must be how well did it accomplish it? The legacies of Fascist Italy as well as the techniques of the highly innovative Italian Directors of the day have now been made clear so how does the movie stack up? Is it an over looked masterwork that deserves as much fame as any Hollywood piece from the time or is it just a historical footnote that belongs in textbooks only? Let's follow that old man and take a look.
Our down on his luck hero is Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) a poverty stricken man in Mussolini's Italy struggling to find consistent work to support his wife (Lianella Carell) and growing family of two kids. The job requires he have a bike to transport some materials around town and he is forced to sell the last of his valuable house hold commodities to purchase one. As can be expected from the title things go wrong and his bike is stolen while he's on the job and suddenly he finds he has one day to retrieve the bike or else his job will be given to someone else. He sets out with his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) and some helpful neighbors to track down the criminal who stole it but the journey will be a frustrating and occasionally dark one where Bruno and Antonio will see the darker side of human behavior both in others and by the end themselves. Not to mention as is in the nature of this kind of story, their victory by retrieving the bike is far from assured.
I have to say I really enjoyed The Bicycle Thief, maybe I'm just a sucker for bleak Italian dramas of wandering lost poverty stricken souls going throughout the ravaged country and featuring sleek and incredibly modern directing but something about it really appeals to me. Its feels nice, long and meaty despite clocking in at an Hour and Thirty but in the best way possible. It's surprisingly true to life and yet really entertaining and compelling all the while making one of the most mature statements on poverty and crime the art form of movies ever has. It doesn't seek to point at the ills of society and say isn't this rotten? Aren't there such bad people in the world? It instead dares to present a world in which people aren't given much of a choice but to steal in order to survive, which is something a lot of movies today would not have the courage to assert. Even the most rotten characters the father and son encounter are portrayed with compassion and humanism redeemable if nothing else than because they are part of a community who watch out for one another for better or worse. It's so simple and yet so impossibly bold in what it's trying to say both on a literal and symbolic level and matches any Hollywood Production for sharp production quality and certainly story. The performances aren't exactly revelatory but the fact he didn't use professional actors is readily apparent by their lack of studio good looks, and bearing that in mind they're perfectly adequate especially Maggiorani as Ricci though it's a little depressing to consider they may have been acting out a tweaked version of their lives.
If you can't tell I think The Bicycle Thieves completely holds up, and I also love that the title can be translated to either Thief or Thieves which is kind of hauntingly poetic for a title once you see the ending. There's a reason Fellini is Fellini and De Sica is someone only known to well versed art house crowds but for what he's trying to accomplish De Sica makes quite the stunning feat with Bicycle. It's one of those movies that hits every note so perfectly and functions as such a perfect mirror of the society that created it, years later it proves itself to be one of the most endearing statements in cinema. It's not one that's open to much interpretation, once you get it you get it and there's really not much you can get out of it beyond that but it has replay value in showing just how perfectly a film can get a message across a lot of politically charged movies today should take note of, point out what's wrong and have an open mind in exploring its roots but don't just start pointing fingers at other people or groups for what's wrong with society there's so many more factors than that.