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31 Days of Oscar® - 2/5
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The Bicycle Thief

The Bicycle Thief

Antonio Ricci, an ordinary man who has been unemployed for two years, receives a job putting up posters throughout the city. The catch is that he needs his own bicycle in order to keep the new position; his wife sells her dowry linens so he is able to take his bicycle out of hock and start work. During his first day on the job, the bicycle is stolen; together with his son Bruno, he is faced with the seemingly hopeless task of recovering it on the crowded streets of Rome.

As has often been pointed out, the original Italian title of Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1948) is Ladri di biciclette, or "Bicycle Thieves," the plural indicating that there is more than one thief in the story. This distinction is crucial, for the story is framed in the specific social context of an economically devastated post-war Italy, where thieves proliferate. The emphasis on the daily struggles of ordinary people is a key concern of Italian neo-realist directors, who wished to portray reality in a more faithful manner than the era's dominant escapist studio product, whether it came from Hollywood or Italy's own Cinecitta. Other typical characteristics of neo-realism include location shooting and the use of non-professional actors. It is impossible to overstate the international impact of the Italian neo-realist movement and The Bicycle Thief in particular. Spanish, Soviet and even Indian directors (especially Satyajit Ray) incorporated neo-realist principles in their work; the movement's continued influence is evident in Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! (1988) and much of contemporary Iranian cinema.

At the same time, it should be stated that neo-realism does not necessarily entail a pseudo-documentary approach or a lack of style or plot, as some critics have suggested; The Bicycle Thief was thoroughly planned and quite expensive to shoot by Italian standards of the time; compare its production values to another neo-realist film, Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1946), for example. In addition to having to hire and coordinate extras for the elaborately staged scenes involving large crowds, De Sica used fire hoses to create the rainstorm in the central section of the film. The scene in which Ricci's bicycle is stolen involved no less than six cameras shooting simultaneously. The film is also beautifully crafted from a stylistic standpoint, never more strikingly than during the scene where Ricci and his son scour the market for parts from his stolen bicycle; here De Sica's direction is distinguished by fluid and dramatically pointed tracking shots.

One of the most distinctive features of The Bicycle Thief is its use of non-professional actors. Lamberto Maggiorani, who plays Antonio Ricci, was originally a factory worker; his tall, angular frame and high cheekbones made him an effective choice for the part, his very physique suggesting the wounded dignity of an ordinary unemployed man. Lianella Carell, who plays Ricci's wife, was originally a journalist whom De Sica met when she asked him for an interview. Enzo Staiola, who plays the son Bruno, was found watching the shoot.

De Sica explained his preference for non-professionals in the following manner: "The man in the street, particularly if he is directed by someone who is himself an actor, is raw material that can be molded at will. It is sufficient to explain to him those few tricks of the trade which may be useful to him from time to time; to show him the technical and, in the best sense of the term, of course, the histrionic means of expression at his disposal. It is difficult--perhaps impossible--for a fully trained actor to forget his profession. It is far easier to teach it, to hand on just the little that is needed, just what will suffice for the purpose at hand." According to film historian Peter Bondanella, when De Sica was searching for a producer to finance the film, David Selznick said he would back the project if Cary Grant were cast in the lead role; if it seems absurd from today's standpoint, it nonetheless illustrates the fundamental difference between Hollywood and the neo-realist approach.

De Sica no doubt owed his success at working with non-professionals to the fact that he was an accomplished theater and film actor in his own right. He made his first film appearance in The Clemenceau Trial (1917), acted for Tatiana Pavlova's The Stage Company, and later founded his own theatrical company ZaBum. By the 1930s he became the most popular leading man in Italian cinema, thanks to his roles in the romantic comedies of Mario Camerini, including I'll Give a Million (1936) and Mister Max (1937). This genre, commonly known as the "white telephone" film, flourished during the Fascist era and for subsequent generations of Italian filmmakers came to exemplify the petit-bourgeois banality of Italian cinema under Mussolini. Even after De Sica became established as a director, he continued to act regularly: "I Must Act to Pay My Debts," as the title of his interview for the British magazine Films and Filming, puts it succinctly. His aristocratic features made him an obvious choice for roles such as the Baron in Max Ophuls' Madame de... (1953) and Major Rinaldoi in A Farewell To Arms (1957). One of his most remarkable roles, however, was that of the con man impersonating a general in Roberto Rossellini's General Della Rovere (1959).

De Sica's first significant film as a director was The Children Are Watching Us (1942), which was also his first collaboration with the screenwriter Cesare Zavattini; although the film still relies heavily on melodrama, its concern with social issues and its focus on children anticipate their second collaboration and first true masterpiece, Shoeshine (1946), part of the initial wave of neo-realist films along with Rome, Open City. Umberto D. (1952), based on another Zavattini script and perhaps the pinnacle of neo-realism in its attempt to convey the texture of everyday life, ended up a box-office disaster, marking the last gasp of the movement. De Sica's next film was an outright star vehicle, the Selznick production Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953), with Montgomery Clift and Jennifer Jones. While his subsequent output was uneven, De Sica did produce several standout works including: Two Women (1961), a wartime drama starring Sophia Loren; the hit comedy Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, and the Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language film of 1971, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970), a subtle examination of anti-Semitism during the Fascist era.

A modern-day Renaissance man, screenwriter Cesare Zavattini (1902-1989) started as a law student and journalist before becoming established as an important novelist in the 1930s. Before collaborating with De Sica, he wrote screenplays for two of the leading directors of the era, Camerini and Alessandro Blasetti, among them the aforementioned I'll Give a Million and Blasetti's Four Steps in the Clouds (1942). In addition to his projects with De Sica, he wrote the screenplays for other important neo-realist films such as Luchino Visconti's Bellissima (1951) and Giuseppe De Santis' Rome 11th Hour (1952). In the course of his lengthy career he also gained notoriety as a humorist, poet and painter. In 1982 he directed his sole feature, the pacifist allegory La Veritaaaa..

With The Bicycle Thief, Zavattini and De Sica are attempting nothing less than to create a new kind of tragedy out of everyday life. If the classical tragedy has tended to focus on the fall of a great man, in The Bicycle Thief it is an ordinary man who falls; Antonio Ricci's fateful choice does not cause him to lose his kingdom, but rather his dignity. The screenplay, while episodic, maintains strict temporal unity, taking place over a single weekend; at the same time, it is meticulously constructed in its accumulation of meaningful details. For example, the make of Ricci's bicycle is "Fides," thus linking it to the theme of religious faith that runs just beneath the surface of the story. While the plot of a classical tragedy typically unfolds around the consequences of the tragic hero's choice, here we examine all the circumstances that shape the protagonist's choice. De Sica and Zavattini present us with a philosophically profound, wholly modern view of human life: the world Ricci inhabits is one in which individuals must struggle to exist and maintain a sense of self-worth against the overwhelming indifference of the crowd, the church and the institutions of the state (as represented by the employment office and the police). In that respect, The Bicycle Thief arguably counts among the most significant works of art of the twentieth century.

Producer: Umberto Scarpelli
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay: Cesare Zavattini with Oreste Biancoli, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi and Gerardo Guerrieri, from the novel by Luigi Bartolini.
Cinematography: Carlo Montuori
Editor: Eraldo Da Roma
Production Designer: Antonio Traverso
Music: Alessandro Cicognini
Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani (Antonio Ricci), Enzo Staiola (Bruno Ricci), Lianella Carell (Maria Ricci), Elena Altieri (the lady), Gino Saltamerenda (Baiocco), Vittorio Antonucci (the thief).

By James Steffen



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