Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci, Giulio Chiari, Elena Altieri, Carlo Jachino, Michele Sakara, Emma Druetti, Fausto Guerzoni
Written by: Cesare Zavattini, Suso D'Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, Gerardo Guerrieri, based on a novel Luigi Bartolini
Directed by: Vittorio De Sica
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Italian, with English subtitles
Running Time: 93
Date: 24/11/1948

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Chain Reactions

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Those faces. I never forget the faces of the man and the boy, the ones who wander all over Rome looking for the all-important bicycle. I could pick those faces out of a lineup. To date, I have seen Ladri di biciclette only twice, once over 20 years ago on a 16mm print and again this month at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco on a new 35mm print, and the faces were the same.

The details of the story, however, seem to change. I read three reviews of the film (by Roger Ebert, David Thomson and Pauline Kael) and they all had different takes on it, and even wrote about differing details within the story itself. It's such a simple story, yet it seems to be really happening. It's so organic that even journalists can't quite agree on who sold the bicycle to the pawnshop or how the man gets his job in the first place. It's as if the story has been passed around for so long that only its essence remains the same.

Vittorio de Sica -- who was also known as a handsome actor -- directed and Cesare Zavattini wrote the screenplay (credited along with an army of other writers). The man, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), and the boy, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), were amateurs who had never acted.

The story begins as Antonio gets his first job in some time, but the job -- pasting up Hollywood movie posters (for Rita Hayworth in Gilda, creating a huge clash between fantasy and reality) -- requires a bicycle. Unfortunately, Antonio has hocked his bicycle. His wife hocks the bedsheets to get the bicycle back (one shot has the pawnshop clerk climbing high up into the rafters to place the sheets on shelves already overstuffed with them), and Antonio is off to work.

But anyone who has bought a ticket for this movie knows that Antonio will lose his bicycle. And so he begins the desperate quest to get it back, checking the black markets, visiting a seer, and even chasing the thief himself. (Catching the culprit, it turns out that Antonio cannot prove that he is guilty.) In one great scene, Antonio puts on a show of bravery and marches into a restaurant with Bruno, ordering food and wine. It's the one time we see some joy in their faces, even if it is quickly replaced with a reality check.

The movie ends with the famous sequence in which Antonio steals a bicycle for himself, but is immediately caught. (Antonio's previous cries of "stop thief" were ignored, but this time they are heeded.) Here, again, writers disagree on what this scene means. One review claimed that Antonio has disgraced himself in the eyes of Bruno. Bruno walks alongside his father, looking up at him with tears in his eyes.

I'm not sure "disgrace" is the right word here, but certainly Antonio has crossed a line from which he can never return. At this point, I should discuss the title, which translates directly to Bicycle Thieves, although the film was released in America and has always been known as The Bicycle Thief. The Criterion Collection released the new DVD in 2008 as Bicycle Thieves, but this new print is still subtitled as The Bicycle Thief. Modern-day reviewers prefer the plural, and difference is crucial, as the plural refers to the actual thief, to Antonio himself, and to everyone in Rome who is out of work and desperate enough to steal a bicycle.

Bicycle Thieves has long placed on all the lists of the greatest movies ever made -- and also gets credit as the lynchpin for the Italian Neo-Realism movement -- and for those reasons it tends to get a little backlash. It's refreshing to actually watch the film and remember how delightfully easy it is to watch. De Sica isn't so much interested in bashing us with his messages and ideas as he is establishing a world occupied by a very specific man and boy, with a very specific story to tell. It plays more like a campfire story than a sermon. It's one of those movies that has suffered a bit from its "masterpiece" status. It is a masterpiece, but you will enjoy it anyway. (The movie opens December 25 for a run at the Roxie Cinema.)

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