As some of you may have noticed, I did not post on my usual Monday this week. My life is a little topsy-turvy at the moment as we are spontaneously moving out into the country, and with all three of us still adjusting to my new work situation. Don’t fear, though, I will be back posting twice a week after things shift back to normal. However, the extra time allowed me to conceive of a new series titled “Films that Inspire.” I will use this series as an opportunity to talk about some movies that are very important to me. They are movies that deeply affected me and my worldview, while also shaping my personal film journey. All of us have films that not only opened our eyes to the complexities of human experience, but also to the potentialities of the medium. Through this series, I will share those films with you.
Some of the movies I will talk about are almost universally praised, and some will be more obscure. Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio De Sica, belongs to the former category, as its importance to film history is pretty undisputed. If you took a film class in college about post-World War II and/or Italian cinema, odds are you watched Bicycle Thieves. It is a hugely important film with a simple story and straightforward visual style that makes it perfect for cinema neophytes. It was the movie that really opened my eyes to classic international cinema, as well film movements linked to real historical events and time periods. In the case of Bicycle Thieves, that film movement is Italian neo-realism, which was created in the fecund soil of impoverished, urban Italy after World War II. After watching Bicycle Thieves for the first time, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I had just watched the greatest film of my life. While I don’t still think this, it is one of those films that will stick with me forever, and which I hope to watch with my children someday.
I have included some analysis below regarding overarching themes, as well as some breaking down of scenes and plot points. Enjoy!
Bicycle Thieves has all of the core components of Itialian neo-realism, from the cinema verite black and white, the winding and intersecting paths of an urban landscape, the subdued sentimentality, and the point-of-view of the disenfranchised, with a heavy emphasis on children and the elderly, and powerful allusions to the holocaust. However, it doesn’t carry the political weight of a film like Rome Open City or The Battle of Algiers (not technically neo-realism, but highly influenced by it and often put into the same conversation). It also isn’t quite as surreal and strange as some of Felini’s early work like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. All of this is to say that Italian neo-realism isn’t a clearly defined subset of films, but rather a continuum of common themes and traits that take place in a particular time period. What makes Bicycle Thieves so special, however, is that it transcends the temporality of its historical moment, and taps into something deeply emotional and universal.
The same can’t be said for other films in other epochs, such as the French new-wave. Godard’s Breathless is a very interesting movie, but it finds its worth and value in its historical significance. Without that context, it loses so much of what makes it a great film. Bicycle Thieves will always be valued as long as it is able to be seen. The story of one man’s desperate search for a single bicycle amid the tumult of city life is a philosophical insistence of the value of the individual even as it is swept away and ignored. One of the most powerful scenes is when the protagonist, his son, and a group of friends go to the Saturday market to look for the stolen bike. We see hundreds of bikes and bike parts that look exactly the same, but that one particular bike is nowhere to be seen. Through this scene, De Sica shows how the individual is incredibly important and lost at the same time. Throughout the film we are introduced to those associated with the bike, including the thief himself, and get brief glimpses into their own unique lives. The results are powerful and illuminating. It is for these reasons that Bicycle Thieves endures and is routinely included in countless “Top Ten Films of All Time” lists.
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the somewhat recent English title change from The Bicycle Thief to Bicycle Thieves. There are important thematic resonances to this, but I will leave that be for now. Please, watch this wonderful film and, as always, express your thoughts and feelings in the comments.