Art and literature certainly fatten on the misery of war and calamities. Supposing we were freed completely of the consequences of war what would be the fate of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’? Had it been shown to Adam and Eve they would have simply rubbished it as the work of some madman. But we have been like phoenix several times reborn out of the ashes of our greed and destructive acts. We have lived so long in the midst of war, and do hold an uneasy conscience. We are repelled by the horror of a war as well as attracted by the bloodletting. Art and literature work as catharsis and as moral guides to us and sometimes show that we ourselves are guilty of what we find in others repugnant. This point is well brought out by De Sica’s ‘Ladri di biciclette.’
Based on a novel by Luigi Bartolini, Vittorio De Sica’s (1901-1974) Italian neorealist film, The Bicycle Thief is a milestone in Italian cinema. This drama of desperation and survival in Italy’s devastating post-war depression earned a special Oscar for its affecting power. Shot in the streets and alleys of Rome, De Sica uses the real-life environment of contemporary life to frame his moving drama of a desperate father Ricci trying to get a job to support his family. He lands a good paying job, but he must have a bicycle. Sometime before, Ricci pawned his bicycle to feed his family. His loyal wife pawns her sheets to obtain the money to get the bike back. He gets his bike and the job,. It involves delivering cinema posters ( Rita Hayworth flyers, no less!) around the city and pasting them on the wall. While straightening out a wall poster some one steals his bicycle. Too poor to buy another, he and his son take to the streets in an impossible search for his bike. In his desperate search to recover his stolen bicycle, he looses his decorum, his principles, and ultimately the respect of his son; he harms his marriage and his relationship to his son, perhaps irreparably; and he almost loses his son to a pedophile, to drowning, and then to speeding cars.
One of the crucial moral dilemma of a war is that it puts man’s life on the razor’s edge and for a loaf of bread he might be forced to steal or even kill. Must a man be tempted beyond what he may endure? Ricci steals a bicycle since his livelihood revolves around his own that was lost. He may not have thought of its influence on a long-range on his son. The film is a white hot moral thriller where a series of bad decisions compound on one another from bad to worse and not stopping for ninety straight minutes.
One memorable scene goes like thus: Ricci takes his son into a restaurant with the little money he has. They order a meager lunch. Sitting next to them was a wealthy family. The rich little boy was trying to show off with all the good food he had. Bruno took his mozzarella toast and made it look like it was the best meal ever—his smile back to the rich kid said it all!
Cast with nonactors and filled with the real street life of Rome, this landmark film helped define the Italian neorealist approach with its mix of real life details, poetic imagery, and warm sentimentality. De Sica uses the wandering pair to witness the lives of everyday folks, but ultimately he paints a quiet, poignant portrait of father and son, played Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola, whose understated performances carry the heart of the film. De Sica and scenarist Cesare Zavattini also collaborated on Shoeshine, Miracle in Milan, and Umberto D, all classics in the neorealist vein, but none of which approach the simple poetry and quiet power achieved in The Bicycle Thief.
De Sica shot his film entirely on location in the streets and alleys of Rome. De Sica refused to cut two scenes from the film, which were considered obscene at the time. In the first, Bruno attempts to relieve himself against a wall. In the second, Antonio finds the thief into the kitchen of a brothel. Hollywood nevertheless awarded the movie a special Oscar. (ack: G.Merrit, Sean Axmaker)