Friday, October 12, 2012
Bicycle Thieves is a deserved classic of the Italian neorealist movement. Made just a few years after World War II, Vittorio De Sica's melancholy masterpiece starkly captures the poverty and desperation of the post-war years. The film is all about the lack of jobs and money that afflicted so many working class families during the long, slow years of post-war recovery, with Europe in ruins, its economy struggling to rebuild and leaving many people floundering. Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is one of these struggling men, out of work and unable to provide for his wife Maria (Lianelli Carell), their son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) and a baby. When he does stumble into a job, it comes with the caveat that he needs a bicycle, and he pawned his bicycle long before to get food for his family. He buys the bike back and is excited to finally be working again, but on his first day on the job, the bike is stolen and his hopes are dashed.
De Sica quickly establishes just how vital this bicycle is to this family's future, to Antonio's ability to provide for his family. The bicycle, which had been hocked to pay for food, is bought back by selling the sheets off their bed; every one of their meager possessions can potentially be traded to feed the family. A job is a near-miraculous stroke of luck, since the work is handed out by lottery with just a few jobs randomly distributed among eager crowds of men waiting for their chance to work.
Since the bicycle is necessary for this job, it is absolutely essential to the family, and De Sica creates nearly overwhelming tension in the scenes after they've retrieved the bike, simply by tracking and zooming so that the bicycle inches out of the frame, its form cut off as the camera moves. Every time the bike is out of view, one expects it to vanish for good, that the next time the camera tracks back to where it was, it will be gone. It's unnerving, this subtle formal play with the boundaries of the frame, because the bike has become a symbol of the family's economic stability, and its absence from the frame provokes an almost unbearable tension, particularly when Antonio leaves it sitting against a building, guarded only by some kids playing in the street, and walks inside. When Antonio comes back out again, De Sica frames the shot of him descending the stairs tightly, so that it seems as though the bike is no longer sitting in the doorway where he'd left it, until the camera pulls back a little and the frame expands so that the bike's handlebars poke into the shot at the bottom edge.
When the bike is stolen later, Antonio and Bruno head out into the city in a nearly hopeless attempt to find it. De Sica uses this very simple story, this desperate search for the bicycle, as a way of exploring the poverty and desperation of working class families in Italy. The film's cinematography is stark and bleak, suggesting the dreary existence of these people, most of whom have no steady work, no security or stability. De Sica frequently places Antonio and Bruno in long shots where they blend into the crowds in open-air markets or on streets crowded with laborers riding bikes to work. There's nothing exceptional about their lives, they don't stand out, and their search for the bicycle is no different from the desperation experienced by so many other families. In some ways, they're not even the worst off, as evidenced by the scene in which Antonio pursues an old man (who he thinks knows the thief) into a religious shelter for the extremely poor, where the mostly old residents are locked inside to attend mass before they can get some free soup.
De Sica's compositions are bleakly realistic, but they're also formally rigorous, with a striking sense of framing that's especially obvious in the way he explores the widening divide between father and son as they search together for the stolen bike. Bruno frequently trails behind his father, ignored as Antonio remains focused solely on the search. The irony is that he needs the bicycle, and the job, so much because they will allow him to provide for his family, but in his singleminded obsession with the search he loses track of his son again and again. In De Sica's wide shots, the boy is often separated from Antonio by a broad gulf of empty space, Bruno falling in the rainy gutter or nearly getting run over by traffic without his father seeing a thing. The desperation and poverty of their situation is creating this disconnection between them, making the father/son relationship secondary to the necessities of struggling for food and shelter and money.
That fractured paternal relationship is the film's real tragedy. Bruno is the film's most sentimental, moving figure, and the film's only source of sporadic comic relief, as when he opens up a confessional's curtain and gets smacked on the head by the angry priest inside. Just as often, though, his innocent face is clouded with melancholy, as in the heartbreaking scene where his father takes him to a restaurant and he looks jealously at an upper-class boy whose family is eagerly eating many dishes and courses, while Bruno feels guilty about wasting their scant money on a small order of bread with cheese. His touching, naturalistic performance is especially startling since Staiola, like the rest of the cast, was an amateur who had never appeared in a movie before. Bracing, beautiful, and almost unbearably sad, Bicycle Thieves is a moving portrait of the desperate, narrowly focused struggle that life is reduced to when abject poverty is so omnipresent and so difficult to escape.