02 December 2009

Il Mio Viaggio in Italia -or- My Journey Through Italian Cinema (Part Seven: The Bicycle Thieves)

Nothing is as pure and beautiful as truth. It may go down hard, it may have rough edges that make it uncomfortable, but it is without tarnish or imperfection. The ugly, the distasteful comes from lies and distortion. There is no beauty in deception, just artifice masking an empty vessel.

Perhaps this explains the enduring beauty, 60 years on, of Lardi di Bicicilette (1948) aka The Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio De Sica.

It seems on the surface such a simple story, even too simple to be the basis of a film. Unemployed man gets job that requires bicycle. Gets his out of hock. Happily starts job. Bike stolen. Devastation. Looks hither and yon for bike and/or thief with help of little son. Despairing, steals one himself, is immediately caught but released.

It is the very starkness of the story, the realness of it, that make The Bicycle Thieves so irresistible and allows it to work on so many levels. It is the quintessential example of neo realist film making that came out of Italy beginning in the mid 1940's. Famously, De Sica used no professional actors (though Cary Grant and Henry Fonda were both considered for the lead) and every frame was shot on location in Rome.

Lamberto Maggiorani in the lead brought an everyman face that is the Latin equivalent of Gary Cooper. The son, Enzo Staiola, is cherubic and heart breakingly authentic. To me it's their relationship that is most indelible about the film. A child who loves his father unconditionally and wants to believe him regardless of circumstances juxtaposed with a father who loves his child unconditionally and wants desperately to live up to his son's faith. The boy dutifully and gladly follows his dad everywhere helping any way he can. It is a metaphor for all children and their devotion to dad, especially those like Antonio who are both forthright and have a sense of fun.

In one scene Antonio temporarily abandons the search and takes his son to a restaurant for a lunch they cannot afford. But they both deserve something for their efforts. They revel in their meal far more than the well-to-do family at the next table, for whom the repast is just another lunch. But in another scene a frustrated Antonio slaps his son. We feel bad for the boy whose devotion to papa is challenged by the man himself. But we also feel for the father, driven to an act he clearly and quickly regrets.

There is no uplifting ending to The Bicycle Thieves, only father and son forlornly walking home increasingly just part of the crowd. Tacking on a "happy ending" would have rang false to a story that was all about truth. Truths such as the reality that the police could do virtually nothing for Antonio. Truths about the scarcity of jobs and the demoralizing effect of unemployment. Truths about how a job is not just a means of earning money, but an identity and sense of purpose. Truths about how quickly one's circumstances can shift and how one act of thievery can have a ripple effect. Truths about how good intention, dogged determination and faith are not necessarily rewarded. Truths then about life. Life can be full of disappointment and pain, but in the living of that life there exists opportunity. We may eventually find redemption. We may find hope. We may even find our bicycle and another job. There are no certainties, as The Bicycle Thieves reminds us. But there it is. Life without guarantees, just us to make of it what we will. All best pursued with the aid of loved ones. It is in the reflection of others souls in our hearts that we are truly blessed.

The Bicycle Thieves has earned a place in the pantheon of "Greatest Films" lists, even topping the prestigious Sight and Sound's debut list in 1952. Watching it today I was struck by how often I was moved by moments within it. Antonio's realization that his bicycle has been stolen evoked so strongly the same feelings I've had when a possession has been stolen. His desperate often quixotic search felt familiar to any of us who have tried in vain to recover something stolen or missing. And looking at people who have their bikes, who have jobs, who have plenty of cash, recalls any trace of envy, covetousness or jealousy I've ever had.

This then is the mark of great cinema, of great art. To be moved. To relate. To see truth in all its magnificent clarity and beauty.

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