Bicycle Thieves: When lives depend on a bicycle

Director: Vittorio De Sica
Script: Cesare Zavattini
Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell
Length: 1 hour 23 mins
1948, Italy

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.

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22 thoughts on “Bicycle Thieves: When lives depend on a bicycle

  1. Wow,Ive seen neither.But I love the way you have described and integrated the 2.I am very curious about them now.

  2. Almost all the teachers in the film studies class at the university tried to make sure that I watched this movie. But like most of the movies that they had recommended to me, I never watched it. But now after reading your post I feel that I must. Have to go scrounging the bazaars of Delhi to find the VCD.

  3. Great movie, no? It’s simplicity can be compared to Ray’s Apu Trilogy yet their films convey poignant messages that you’re left moved (and awed). Watching such movies make you understand human nature more and you come out of the experience enlightened.

  4. Been silently reading South West Sun ever since it showed up on a Murakami-India-South Of The Border search. Niceness pervades.

    Welcome to “Bicycle Thief”. The movie is a wee bit maudlin, but so influential that all is forgiven. Ray was inspired by it, and if we’re not mistaken so was Majid Majidi.

  5. very well written 🙂 I have heard much abt this movie from my sister, but I havent seen it yet – will look it up 🙂

  6. Heyyyyy, AFJ’s back with a bang 🙂 Excellent review – will now need to figure out two things: a) Is the movie available at my DVD-wala, and b) How do I take out time to watch it 🙂

  7. hmm who knows.. may be i wont write anything on emotions at aall.

    Actually i am penning the emotions of pain after sepearation. not the love poems.

  8. hmm who knows.. may be i wont write anything on emotions at aall.

    Actually i am penning the emotions of pain after sepearation. not the love poems.

  9. While on the topic of black-and-white movies, wasn’t it a tragedy that TCM stopped being an option on cable? It’s been a long time, but I still miss it…

  10. The Bicycle Thief is MY FAVORITE
    FILM of all time. It has
    affected and shaped my
    core politics and sense of
    responsibiltiy to the world as
    our family.
    What struck me – is how you can
    watch this film without sound
    and it affects you just as
    deeply. No words needed.
    It broke my heart.

  11. Damn. how is everyone getting to see this movie? i’ve been dying to see it for almost one year now. cant find the bloody discs anywhere 😦

  12. AFJ :

    Sorry cannot read your review, for your initial few lines have aroused curosity in me and I would first watch the movie and then look at your review.

    I dont like to read a preview if the movie is supposed to be good. It somehow fizzles out the aura of the movie.

    I hope to grab the DVD in the nearby public library soon.

    -ATG

  13. Glad there were no hick ups. Usually happens when both of ya get together. 😛
    GET WELL SOON YOU HEAR?
    No cleaning and god knows wat!

  14. Sanchapanzo: Thank you so much! I liked the climax too!

    Educatedunemployed: Thanks! Do see the movie if you can.

    AquaM: I know!

    Soumyadip: Please see the film! Film studies class? What did you graduate in?

    Abaniko: I agree! It was very poignant and moving.

    Aklanta: Well, once you see the movie, you will know what I am talking about.

    Asuph: Thanks! But please see the movie!

    Ludwig: You do appear from time to time! Well, thanks. And your post on Majidi among other movies makes me want to see Majidi now. Maudlin?Bicycle Thieves? I think not. But then it was moving.

    Prerona: Thank you so much! Please do see the movie.

    Obi Wan: You are the best! You have to make time to watch it! About DVD, you could ask Soumyadip since he will be searching for it (in Delhi though).

    Known Stranger: Ok. Write what you want to write about.

    Known Stranger again: Ok. Write what you want to write about.

    Cheshire Cat: Of course! I miss seeing MGM movies there.

    Madelyn: I agree with you. I watched it with subtitles which were sometimes visible sometimes not. The power of cinema lies in the visualization not words. In may ways, it is anthetical to writing. Thanks for dropping by my blog. Do come by again!

    Rohit: You have? Please continue. Keep in touch with Soumyadip or Obi Wan. They are looking for the VCD too.

    Nabeel: I know! 🙂 Thanks for dropping by my blog. Do come by again!

    ATG: Sure! See the movie first.

    Zee: I am up and again. Thanks to the pampering I received from you!

    Adi: Sure! I will. I hope you will too!

    Mrignayanii: Thanks so much! Also, thanks for dropping by my blog. Do come by again!

    Abaniko: Awwww! Your so sweet! Many new entries are up as you can see!

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