Pictures that experiment with form frequently have that quality because of the distance they open up between moviegoers and themselves.
Bicycle Thieves does the opposite.
Maybe that’s why it has fallen steadily in rankings of the best European films.
When Sight and Sound debuted its once-every-decade poll of the greatest films of all time in 1952, Bicycle Thieves placed first. In 1962, it fell to seventh. And by 1972, it had dropped out entirely, never to return.
The reason is simple.
Bicycle Thieves is difficult in the wrong way.
Although artfully assembled, the film works hard to bring us closer to its tale. We are too immersed in the action to reflect on the aesthetic decisions that made it great until we see it a second or even third time.
Unlike many classic European directors exalted today, De Sica avoids drawing attention to himself. He wants audiences to care about his characters more than they care about him.
That’s what makes Bicycle Thieves difficult viewing the first time. Few films do a better job of facilitating identification with their protagonist.
We become so invested in Antonio Ricci’s plight that every setback hurts. The longer he and his son search for their stolen bicycle, the sadder we get.
Despite the film’s gritty setting in a working-class Rome far from tourist destinations and the gravity De Sica achieved by avoiding the use of professional actors, Bicycle Thieves veers dangerously close to the sentimentality of Hollywood melodrama.
This helps to explain the film’s diminished standing in the pantheon of cinematic classics.
Whether they realise it or not, scholars and critics overestimate those directors who cultivate an icy aloofness. Because the repetitive consumption that characterises their own professional duties inevitably has a numbing effect, they prefer work that mirrors their relationship with culture.
Bicycle Thieves is too direct, too simple.
The fact that De Sica was a communist plays a role as well.
Cinema targeted at common people tends to make intellectuals anxious, particularly when their sense of self-worth depends on recognising what makes them special.
But the fact that Bicycle Thieves isn’t trying to reach the elite is precisely why it remains such an effective film for communicating the basic injustice of modern society.
I often hear that young people look down on any film over a few years old. Black-and-white films, in particular, are said to annoy them.
When I used to teach Bicycle Thieves to undergraduates, however, they repeatedly remarked how “relatable” the film is.
In other words, despite the distance opened up by its lack of colour, unfamiliar setting, and language barrier, they still had no difficulty identifying with its protagonist and his son, just as audiences in post-war Italy did.
There’s a reason why so many directors working far from the industry mainstream adopt De Sica’s approach to storytelling instead of Eisenstein, Godard, or Kubrick’s.
As remarkable as those latter directors may be, their work struggles to warm the heart.
Another underrated quality of Bicycle Thieves is that the narrative is easy to follow. While that simplicity might inspire sophisticates to raise an eyebrow, it cuts through the endless piles of “content” in the contemporary mediascape like the proverbial knife through butter.
It helps that, like other landmark films of Italian Neorealism, Bicycle Thieves was primarily filmed in real-life locations rather than a sound stage.
Today’s audiences have a keenly developed sense of artifice, which makes anything that doesn’t feel faked resonate powerfully.
While Bicycle Thieves does not directly reference the recent war, its impact is everywhere.
This is nobody’s idea of Rome, not even the people who live there.
The opening sequence is a great example. The camera tracks a city bus as it reaches the terminus of its route. On the left, a public housing project looms incongruously. On the right, a hardscrabble landscape communicates the mindset of its working-class inhabitants.
This is the edge of the city, both literally and figuratively.
Mussolini’s grandiose plans to return Rome to its imperial glory required clearing away neighbourhoods near the city’s centre. Just as was the case with Baron Haussmann’s massive reconstruction of Paris during Napoleon III’s reign some 75 years previously, the people displaced by this project were the ones who lacked the clout to protect their interests.
Before we meet De Sica’s protagonist, we see dozens of men like him, desperate for work, swarming a government official with few positions to offer.
This is not a set. And they are not actors.
Ricci himself was played by Lamberto Maggioriani, a factory worker who ended up getting laid off from his job when filming was complete. His stoic face somehow communicates the struggles he had faced before making Bicycle Thieves and the ones he would face afterwards.
Although De Sica does not draw attention to himself, frustrating cinephiles who hold tenaciously to the concept of the auteur, his filmmaking is also more complicated than it initially seems.
Bicycle Thieves may lack the self-reflexivity of more formally daring films. But it achieves more than adequate compensation for it at the level of content.
The reason why the film’s protagonist needs the bicycle that gets stolen is because it has landed him a job wheat-pasting movie posters around the city. We see them in the office where he picks up his supply. And the camera lingers on the one he is putting up when the thieves strike.
That poster features the iconic image of Rita Hayworth from Gilda (1946), one of the greatest Hollywood films of the era but also one of the coldest.
Hayworth’s eponymous character is a classic femme fatale, threatening the men in her life with figurative castration whenever she opens her mouth.
In the context of Bicycle Thieves, however, the image of Gilda speaks to a different kind of emasculation. The sort that befalls a man who must retrieve the bicycle he pawned for food to make enough money to keep his household afloat, only to lose that bicycle and, with it, his opportunity to get some distance from the grinding poverty of his neighbourhood.
He can’t afford to be cold because he is cold. And hungry, like his son.
Ultimately, the greatness of Bicycle Thieves derives from its refusal to turn away from the basic necessities of existence, even if that means foregoing the chance to be aesthetically innovative.
It’s a political decision as much as it is an artistic one.
In this regard, De Sica paved the way for directors like Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers, and John Sayles, all of whom prioritise political concerns at the expense of self-aggrandising gestures.
If Bicycle Thieves refuses the injunction to make art for art’s sake, it’s because De Sica recognised that art matters more when it serves a different purpose.
Photograph courtesy of Wasfi Akab. Published under a Creative Commons license.