Tuesday, 24 January 2012
The Bicycle Thief - Vittorio De Sica
Inspired by the serendipity of a free month on Netflix and a 'foreign' movie reviewing meme on a couple of good blogs I follow (here & here) I decided I would watch some films and write something about them. I thought that I would pick a 'classic' I had never seen to start the ball rolling.
The classic is The Bicycle Thief (a.k.a. Bicycle Thieves). The film is set on the grim streets of post war Rome. Men swarm up an anonymous looking stairs in a high rise building as the credits roll and then fallback as a cigar smoking functionary emerges, descends and calls for Ricci. Someone has to run over to get Ricci who is not paying any attention. When he gets over he is told "You'll hang posters", handed a slip and told to go to the employment office. Disbelievingly he says "My god, a job." But there is a catch. He will need a bicycle and his is in the repair shop and money will have to be found to redeem it.
Money is short - clothes are worn out, seams are popped and shoes are worn down. The men who aren't called are angry that they are 'left to rot'. The scene brought to mind On The Waterfront - the jobs in the hand of one man who can lord it over many. At first Ricci just curses his bad luck - he won't be able to redeem his bicycle and so the job shall not be his. But his wife is more resourceful and by taking the sheets off their beds manages to raise enough to pay for the bicycle.
Ricci at the start, seems to project a fragile machismo, his wife and son seem more resourceful, more like survivors. He seems to carry the shame of not fulfilling his role as breadwinner. But the redemption of the bike seems to signal a redemption for him and the glow of pride starts to soften his features and bring out his strength. The same pride and love is evident on the face of his wife and child. The young boy polishes the bike with immense pride, noticing a small dent that wasn't there before. The next morning he sets out with his father - both dressed in overalls.
On his first day at work he is pasting up pictures of Rita Heyworth, and the gulf between his life and 'the movies' is emphasized. But this film doesn't look down on the lives of people struggling to survive. it shows us the epic in the everyday, and could easily be seen as a companion to Joyce's Ulysses. (Main action in one day, journey and return, father & son - Bloom as surrogate father for Dedalus)
Ricci's bicycle is stolen and he has to get it back in order to hold on to his "miraculous" job. The day following the robbery is Sunday and Ricci and his son set out to find the bicycle, firstly with help but finally on their own. They pound the streets - going to markets, mass, a brothel and outside a football stadium. Crowds of people are by turn helpful and inimical to their search. We see bicycles filling the streets like shoals of fish, innumerable parts covering the market stalls. Surely the search is impossible...
The dynamic between father and son is wonderful. The vulnerability of the son is highlighted by the presence of traffic, a child molester and the intermittent threat of violence as they try to find and confront the bicycle thief. I don't want to say much more for fear of revealing too much but if you haven't seen this it's time you did. A testament to the dignity and fragility of the human spirit.