Ladri di Biciclette
LADRI DI BICICLETTE
(The Bicycle Thief)
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Production: Produzioni De Sica; black and white, 35mm; running time: 90 minutes. Released 1948. Filmed in Rome.
Producer: Umberto Scarpelli; screenplay: Cesare Zavattini with Oreste Biancoli, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Adolfo Franci, Gherado Gherardi, and Gerardo Guerrier, from a novel by Luigi Bartolini; photography: Carlo Montuori; editor: Eraldo da Roma; production designer: Antonino Traverso; music: Alessandro Cicognini.
Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani (Antonio Ricci); Enzo Staiola (Bruno Ricci); Lianella Carell (Maria Ricci); Elena Altieri; Gino Saltamerenda; Vittorio Antonucci; Guilio Chiari; Michele Sakara; Carlo Jachino; Nando Bruno; Fausto Guerzoni; Umberto Spadaro; Massimo Randisi.
Awards: New York Film Critics Award, Best Foreign Film, 1949; Belgium World Festival of Film and Arts, Grand Prix, 1949; Festival of Film at Locarno, Social Prize, 1949; Special Oscar as Most Outstanding Foreign Film, 1949.
Zavattini, Cesare, and others, The Bicycle Thief, New York, 1968.
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Jacobson, Herbert L., "De Sica's Bicycle Thief and Italian Humanism," in Hollywood Quarterly, Fall 1949.
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Leprohon, Pierre, "La Perennité du Voleur de bicyclette," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), December 1967.
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* * *
Before examining the film, it is important to point out that the oftused English language title "The Bicycle Thief" is misleading and injurious to the meaning of the film. Ladri di biciclette translates as "Bicycle Thieves," the plural marking an allegorical intention. Vittorio De Sica's film suggests a universe inextricably interrelated through perverse economic ties—the bicycle one man needs to work and support his family, another man steals to support his, and still another sells. Singulars will not do in this film. De Sica presents the story in terms of a man's relation to a crowd, but this crowd is more than just a picturesque background. It is the modern equivalent of a Greek chorus and represents both the higher and lower aspects of human character. It is an extension of the protagonist.
Ricci, the victimized worker, emerges from this crowd at the beginning of the film, called to work after months of unemployment, but his accession to the status of modern tragic hero is a matter of random choice and necessity, not of birth, self-determination, or desire. For a while, endowed with the promise of a steady salary and the ability to once again be the breadwinner in his family, Ricci is permitted to dream of material success. When he retrieves his bicycle from the municipal pawnshop, exchanging for it the family linen, the camera pans up, following the clerk as he climbs to deposit the sheets on what seems a pile of thousands of similar bundles. Ricci is not the exception—like the traditional tragic hero—he is the rule, one of thousands or more. Searching desperately all over the city, he will again encounter this societal chorus; as workers readying a strike; as the denizens of a black market; as a mass of poor people praying in a church; as a crowd lamenting a drowned child; as a gang of toughs in a crowded street protecting a local boy from Ricci's accusations; as a pack of football fans who thwart Ricci's feeble attempt to steal a bicycle himself in a rash, despairing decision to reject moral restraint; and finally, as an anonymous, everyday crowd, walking, going about their business peacefully, hopefully—the crowd to which Ricci is returned.
Ricci's relation to society, in general, and the political and economic situation of postwar Italian society in particular, is reflected by a series of encounters with crowds to which the protagonist's membership is cyclically articulated at the beginning and end of the film. In Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti offers a taxonomy of such groups: "baiting crowds" intent on blood; "prohibition crowds"; "feast crowds"; the "lamenting pack"; and the "hunting pack." Most importantly, the activities of these crowds are to be historically construed.
One significance of Ladri di biciclette, and to a larger extent that of neo-realism, then, lies in the predominance of the role of representation, not only of those inexhaustible details of everyday existence, but also of popular life in all its diversity. Still, Ladri di biciclette does not explore the area of popular, political action. Any solidarity among people in the film is a matter of personal friendship (between Ricci and the sanitation workers who help him search Rome in their truck) or that between father and son. The effectiveness of political struggle to improve the inequitable economic conditions at fault here is not considered beyond the brief glimpse of the strike preparations.
The story was brought to De Sica's attention by Cesare Zavattini, screenwriter for the film and one of the seven who adapted the novel by Luigi Bartolini; yet, no film adaptation was ever so disrespectful of its original as this one. Bartolini's protagonist is not a man brought forward from the crowd, a man like any other, he is a disgruntled and supercilious artist who opines the most reactionary prejudices about the poor. Moreover, in order to find his stolen bicycle, the protagonist gets about on a second one which apparently he kept around for just such emergencies.
De Sica and Zavattini use the bicycle as a "vehicle" to organize the narrative. The theft of a bicycle authorizes a wide search through Rome; hence, the narrative discloses itself as an odyssey structure (there are interesting parallels between Ricci and Ulysses, too). The filmmakers' immense capacity to introduce metaphor into the most everyday context and the puissance of that metaphor (we recall the white stallion in Sciusciá) becomes clear when we attempt to bracket the idea of the bicycle. For example, if we substitute a worker's tool box for the bicycle, the narrative loses much of its momentum, its mythical implications, and even part of its effectiveness as a tragedy.
Veteran actor De Sica's talent for molding the raw material of the non-professional actor is prominently displayed. He knew it would be difficult for the trained actor to forget his/her highly coded technique to become the man in the street. He felt that better results were to be obtained by teaching the non-actor just enough to serve the purposes of the scene being shot. Compare, for example, the lattitude of his actors with those of Visconti's in La terra trema. In that film, the nonprofessionals are stiff and gesturally inarticulate; their inexperience tends to stand in the way of a heightened dramatic communication. In the other hand, De Sica's actors signal physically a greater alertness and sensitivity to their immediate problems and awareness of the social and psychological conformations of their characters. Ricci was played by Lamberto Maggiorani, a factory worker who had brought his small son to audition for the role of Bruno; his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) was a journalist who had approached the director for an interview. Bruno (Enzo Staiola), the last cast member to be found, was watching the shooting when De Sica noticed him. The scene in which Ricci takes his son to a trattoria in order to make up for having scolded him involves some of the most subtly nuanced and believable expression of a father-son relationship in the history of cinema.
—Joel E. Kanoff