Classic Film for Movie Night: The Bicycle Thief

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'Singular emotional juggernaut...contemporary films can only dream about'
By Mark R. Gould

Director Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (also known as The Bicycle Thieves) is a powerful 1948 film shot on the streets of Rome in documentary style with many non-professional actors. The tragic film portrays the heart breaking poverty of post World War Two Italy, and the toll it takes on an unemployed father of two. It is a seminal example of the influential Italian neo-realism movement.

The film was so impactful it received an Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Honorary Award in 1950, and, just four years after its release, was deemed the greatest film of all time by the magazine Sight & Sound''s poll of filmmakers and critics in 1952. The film placed sixth as the greatest ever made in Sight & Sound''s latest directors' poll, conducted in 2002, and was  ranked in top 10 of the British Film Institute list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.

This is the latest entry in our series, Classic Films for Movie Night.

"Bicycle Thief  has become one of those venerable masterpieces that people pay lip service to but never revisit out of fear that it has somehow become dated. And that would be a terrible mistake,” writes Kenneth Turan, the respected Los AngelesTimes critic.

“For this killer of a film not only hasn't lost a step since it won a special Academy Award and helped pave the way for the foreign language Oscar category, it's even more involving now than it was then, a singular emotional juggernaut that has the kind of unrestrained power contemporary films can only dream about.”

Writer Leo Charney describes the plot this way: “Lamberto Maggiorani plays Antonio, an unemployed man who finds a coveted job that requires a bicycle. When it is stolen on his first day of work, Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) begin a frantic search, learning valuable lessons along the way. The movie focuses on both the relationship between the father and the son and the larger framework of poverty and unemployment in postwar Italy.”

“That this slender tale ends up having the emotional resonance of classic tragedy may sound preposterous, but that is what happens. The Bicycle Thief places us right there, allows us to live what turns out to be a shattering experience with these people, lets us feel for them in a deep and profound way that is almost beyond describing,” Kenneth Turan wrote after viewing the film recently.

De Sica did not want to work with stars.  "I needed the spontaneity of untrained talent," he said at the time of the film's release. "There is freshness in their response to simple realities that was right and valuable to these pictures."

“Seen from the perspective of today, it is the spareness and restraint of the film in general and the performances in particular that make The Bicycle Thief such a powerful experience. That and something more. For this film manages to appeal to the better angels of our nature in a way that only deepens as we grow older along with the film,” writes Turan.

De Sica said at the time: "We are so tired, we have lost any feeling of responsibility toward anyone but ourselves and, when we cut ourselves off from our brother, we prepare our own destruction."

During a prolific career that spanned 55 years, De Sica (1901-74) directed 35 films and acted in more than 150. Born in poverty, his career as an actor began in 1918.  De Sica's subsequent roles throughout the 1930s established him as a romantic leading man who was especially deft at light comedy. He made films throughout his life, and often appeared in prominent roles  in films produced by the major U.S. studios.

movie posterSome of the best known films he directed include: Shoeshine (1946), Miracle in Milan (1951) Umberto D (1952). In 1960, Sophia Loren won the Oscar for her role in  De Sica’s Two Women. He made many films with Loren and was one of her favorite directors. Author Sam Shaw, in Sophia Loren: In the Camera Eye noted "De Sica taught her [Loren] the craft of acting. Secrets of interpretation, restraint. It took a director like him to get the talent out of her." Loren agreed, claiming "the second man of my life is Vittorio De Sica." Among their best collaborations were Marriage Italian Style (1964), and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1965), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

The last film he directed was The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Check out your local library to learn more about Vittorio De Sica and the neo-realism movement.

Cinema of anxiety: a psychoanalysis of Italian neorealism
by Vincent Floyd Rocchio, University of Texas Press,(1999). 

Italian neorealism and global cinema
by Laura E. Ruberto, Kristi M. Wilson, Wayne State

Italian film in the light of neorealism
by Millicent Joy Marcus, Princeton University Press, (1986).

Italian neorealism: rebuilding the cinematic city
by Mark Shiel, Wallflower Press, (2006).

What is neorealism?
by Bert Cardullo, University Press of America, (1991).

Italian neorealist cinema: an aesthetic approach
by Christopher Wagstaff, University of Toronto Press, (2007).

Filming the Nation: Jung, Film, Neo-Realism and Italian National Identity
by Donatella Spinelli Coleman, Taylor & Francis, (2011).


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Apocalyptic White Heat and the Career of James Cagney
Classic Film for Movie Night: Notorious



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