I’ve now seen Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece The Bicycle Thief twice in my life. I’m not sure how many more times I’ll be able to bear it. It’s too real; reality is too heartbreaking; and, as T.S. Eliot drily observes, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” But since I’ve made it this far, I may as well encourage everybody to see it at least twice, particularly if you can catch a showing of the restored 35mm print at the Bijou from Oct. 1-7.
Ladri di biciclette (literally Thieves of Bicycles) is about an unemployed man who gets a job that requires a bicycle. He and his wife sell the sheets off their bed in order to buy back his old bike from the pawnshop. During his first day of work, as he’s pasting up advertising posters for a Rita Hayworth movie, the bicycle is stolen. The whole movie is simply the man and his young son Bruno wandering the streets of Rome, trying desperately to find the one thing he needs to provide for his family.
Though Visconti’s Obsession (1943) is considered the first Italian neorealist picture, and Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1946) brought the movement to prominence, De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948) is the quintessential expression of neorealist principles: a simple story about everyday life shot on location using nonprofessional actors. In the rubble and confusion of post-war Italy, De Sica and company hoped that an aesthetic of truth would inspire a more just and compassionate politics.
For the lead role De Sica zeroed in on Lamberto Maggioriani, a factory worker who had brought his sons to audition for the role of Bruno. He liked Maggioriani’s hands, which were eloquent of manual labor. De Sica couldn’t find anyone appropriate to play the son and so started without one. On the first day of shooting, he spied a round-faced urchin with a weird nose and expressive eyes, who was peeping in on the proceedings. Providence supplied him with both his main characters.
Film buffs sometimes lapse into sloppy thinking about neorealism, contrasting highly constructed Hollywood fantasies with neorealism’s supposed lack of artifice. But The Bicycle Thief contains as much artifice, in its way, as Cover Girl. De Sica uses nonprofessional actors not because they don’t act, but because they’re better actors for his purposes than those who are highly trained. A factory worker is already expert at playing a factory worker.
At its best, classic Hollywood produced fantasies that did justice to our aspirations and anxieties. At its best Italian neorealism produced a kind of blues that did justice to the injustices we suffer and inflict. A visceral feeling, a kind of lump in your stomach, builds steadily as you watch The Bicycle Thief. The last scene, one of the handful of perfect movie finales, mixes almost unbearable sadness with an image of authentic love.
The Bicycle Thief is strung without fail of moments that feel real in the unaccountable way of life, as if suddenly glazed and shiny with the rainwater of consciousness. Scene upon scene unfolds, as organically and haphazardly as the weekend. Of course, the scenes have been carefully arranged by the moviemakers, subordinated to a plot and shot multiple times; but in the end, each feels alive individually and yet contributes to one indivisible whole.
Perhaps the directors of the Bijou had our own country’s rising unemployment in mind when they put The Bicycle Thief into the schedule. If so, they’re to be commended for more than just their good taste. Starting in the 1950s, as people moved to the suburbs, and highways circumvented towns and inner cities, poverty grew invisible to the middle and upper classes. Now, in 2010, as our poverty rates rise like floodwater, it’s scandalous how invisible the poor have become in our politics, which is ostensibly all about helping the struggling middle class.
The political aspirations of the Italian neorealists were overly idealistic and probably even misguided, but their aesthetic instincts were impeccable. A healthy culture is capable of looking at itself from head to toe, taking stock of its humanity and measuring just how short it falls of its examined ideals. Our politics will continue to be a mess if we don’t listen to the tones reality is giving off all around us.
Come to think of it, I think I will see The Bicycle Thief one more time on that restored print.