The Bicycle Thieves

cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Ccarell, and Gino Saltamerenda

director: Vittorio De Sica

94 minutes (U) 1948
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Barry Forshaw

Possibly the best-loved of all Italian neorealist films is Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (aka: Ladri di Biciclette), with its non pareil use of non-actors in the central roles of a father and his son. In fact, the power of this deeply affecting film is often down to the astonishing verisimilitude produced by De Sica’s non-professionals, and it is a testament to his skill that it is impossible to imagine accomplished film actors producing better performances. Ironically, the film at one point could have turned out to be a standard Hollywood product: no less than David O. Selznick suggested that he would put up the money for the film if De Sica was prepared to use Cary Grant as the desperate father (the mind boggles at the possible result – marvellous as Grant is in the work he did for such directors as Hitchcock and Hawks, his casting in Bicycle Thieves simply doesn’t bear thinking about). De Sica built on the achievements of Shoeshine, with another plot built around an important social issue. Antonio Ricci has been out of a job for several years, and finally manages to find a position as a billposter. However, the job is dependent on him owning a bicycle. The theft of a bicycle for most people would be an inconvenience; for Ricci it is a catastrophe. The film is basically an odyssey, as Ricci and his son Bruno travel all over Rome in increasingly desperate attempts to find the stolen bicycle. Ironically, the thief is found shortly after the duo visit a fortune-teller.

De Sica handles all of this with tremendous assurance, and the life of the poor in Rome is conveyed with maximum realism. As Ricci is pushed ever closer to the end of his tether, the scene is set for one of the classic moments in cinema: in desperation, Ricci is forced to become that most despised of creatures himself – a bicycle thief. His theft of a bicycle and his almost immediate apprehension by a vengeful crowd is as powerful as anything in cinema, as is the successive scene involving Ricci’s son. Despite the air of improvisation, De Sica’s film is as carefully structured as any Hollywood product, and the organisation of the crowd scenes is astonishingly adroit. The scene in which Ricci’s bicycle is stolen is handled with the panache one might expect in a more outwardly polished product, but this is the art that conceals art: De Sica’s achievement is to render his technique invisible. Interestingly, De Sica points up the artificiality of the Hollywood product of the day by utilising a poster for a Rita Hayworth film during a crucial scene.

André Bazin was one of many critics who hailed the film as a masterpiece, and even claimed that De Sica used Communist ideology in the film. This isn’t quite the case, but there is no doubting the concern for working people that is at the heart of the film. However, De Sica has a very different attitude to his workers than that of a contemporary director of outwardly similar leanings such as Ken Loach. Invariably in Loach’s films most working people are presented as noble, with the authorities invariably as corrupt or foolish. De Sica has no such schematic illusions, and there is little sympathy between the impoverished protagonists as they struggle to obtain the few available jobs. In fact, De Sica’s film contains an implicit plea for a change in society’s values, which remains as potent as ever.

DVD special features include a solid documentary on the career of De Sica, along with some striking poster artwork.