Friday, 26 January 2018

Bicycle Thieves (Thief)

This 1948 neorealist Italian film is widely regarded as being amongst the best movies ever made. Seventy years on it would be easy to be critical of many aspects of the film's production and presentation but it still manages to hold its own. The copy I have was dubbed but also had subtitles available - which were different to the dubbing so made it too confusing! The monochrome palette sets a nice contrast to the colourful characters of the film and the grandeur of Rome.

This film has one of the cleanest and continually parabolic narrative arcs I've ever seen. It is a morality story, a fable, a modern-day parable set in in the hopeless deprivation of post-was Rome. As the broken country and people of Italy begin to rebuild themselves in the aftermath of WWII we focus on a group of men clamouring for the handout of a couple of new jobs a day. Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is chosen for a job posting cinema posters around the city - but he needs a bicycle that he no longer has as it has been pawned. The pull of a job overpowers the small matter of needing to get his bike out of the pawn shop. Money is tight and he needs to feed his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) and son Bruno (Enzo Staiola). This film runs high on machismo, testosterone and the bruised pride of a man who is unable to provide for his family in the midst of a bruised capital of a bruised nation.

In repeated close-ups, viewers are invited to feel the angst etched on the face of Ricci as his hopeless quest continues as he and his son travel all over the huge city in search of their quarry. Some see the film as a Marxist fable and an underground meeting of a communist group does at one stage feature. However, the film shies away from a simple compare and contrast of the lot of the poor with the nouveau-riches in the emerging post-war economy. This film is about people and in particular Ricci - it is both character and narrative driven.

The story features a wide range of Roman life - a spiritual fortune teller, women drawing water at a well, a church feeding the poor, a brothel, an amateur acting troupe, football, Sunday markets and neighbourhood groups pulling together to defend the guilty! It is a wonderful social study.

For me, the film invited a deeper reflection. Was it actually an anti-war film? The consequences of the aftermath were dehumanising in the extreme. Is this how we want people to live or is this simply the fruit of national collective aggression ending in defeat? Might the fascist driven outcome have been any different from a communist driven one? To my eyes, post war Rome looked a lot tidier and with many more new housing developments than comparable pictures of London, Birmingham or Southampton so soon after the end of the war. How did they manage that? Or was it simply a judicious choice of locations? Why was Ricci so hard on himself and how was he able to be so inept once given the chance he so craved? What kind of relationship did he and Maria have? What happened to Bruno - how did he grow up and develop? Why did the American release change the title to Bicycle Thief in the singular? The whole point of the film is the plural dimension of the title!

This is certainly a very good film and one to watch whatever your interest in observing human behaviour or engaging in film studies. Whether for me it would be in my top ten - I think not. Nevertheless I am glad I saw it and am happy to award it 8/10. Do watch it if you've never seen it. It will repay your investment of time.

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