And so it was that one fine Sunday, I was destined to watch one of the greatest films of all time 58 years after it was made in sunny dusty tropical Chennai so far away from anything that the director would have imagined. AquaM and I that is. (She is the only one that I know who is enthusiastic and crazy enough to watch movies on a Sunday morning rather than laze around in bed!) By some strange twist of chance, I had two passes for the screening of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). But it wouldn’t have mattered to us; we were very intent on going even without passes. AquaM went on Saturday to see a movie with Slovakian subtitles! Entirely by accident, she assures me.
I have loved watching black and white movies ever since I was a kid. The first English one that I can recall is Ballad of a Soldier (1959; directed by Grigori Chuckrai) and it is one of the most lyrical movies I have ever seen till date. There are several Hindi and Bengali black and white movies that I totally love. And today, I feel like the world has revealed something new to me. My biggest fear was that the movie wouldn’t live up to my expectations. I had heard so much about how this movie had inspired Satyajit Ray. About how it is one of the masterpieces of Italian neo-realist cinema et al. In short, I carried more baggage to this movie than to any other movie. As it turns out, I worried unnecessarily; the movie was so amazing that I cannot get it out my head.
Let me try though. The time is Italy right after the Second World War. The economic situation is bad and jobs are scarce. Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is just another man on the street who needs a job to survive. By a stroke of luck, he gets picked amongst many others by the Employment Exchange people who give him a job (to paste film posters on city walls). The catch is that he has to have a bicycle to be able to work. He is in a quandary and asks for some more time to report to work. He goes home and tells his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell) the situation. The only bicycle he had has been pawned to feed the family of four. So his wife sells the sheets off the very beds they sleep in. Ricci gets his bicycle and all seems to be well; at least for the moment. The very first day on the job and his bicycle gets stolen. So, father and son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) search the streets of Rome for the lost bicycle. As the day progresses, his chances of finding the bicycle grow slim. So he decides to steal one after an overwhelming moral dilemma. And he gets caught. But he is let off to face another unforgiving day in this world.
Almost every frame had some sort of poetry in it. The lead actor Lamberto Maggiorani looked like Clint Eastwood with much better acting abilities. His face brought out the constant state of unease that the protagonist lived under. But the actor whom I thought was the best the 6 or 7-year-old Bruno played by Enzo Staiola. The gamut of emotions that his face and body exuded was amazing. I had to constantly remind myself that this was a child actor. Of course, comparisons with Ray’s Apu trilogy where he used child actors were inevitable. I could see many many similarities with Ray’s movies. For starters there was the music. The music is not there all throughout the movie. But when it appears, you notice it. And it’s so very similar to the way Ray treats his protagonist Feluda in Joi Baba Felunath. Then there are the exceptional chid actors both directors use. Then there were the close-ups. I was thinking all the time that I could totally see where and how De Sica had influenced Ray.
When the movie neared its end, I cried. (I cry at regular Hindi movies and this one was so realistic!) It was so moving. The bicycle was like the metaphor for their life. And it was stolen from right under their noses. The movie portrays the unfairness of life. Cinema is about the visual and so the dialogue was kept to a minimum except where it was required. For example, the day father and son go looking for the stolen bicycle. My logical doubt was how did they just go looking for it while they have work. Almost immediately, they get onto a truck and it starts raining. And I get my answer. The driver of the truck tells no one in particular, “It always rains on Sundays.”
This is my first De Sica film and I have resolved to see more of his work.