I first heard of Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” while I was attending a film appreciation course in Guwahati. I was a kid back then and couldn’t appreciate the simplistic beauty and sheer greatness of this motion picture which over the years has become an epitome of Italian Neorealism and has inspired film makers across the globe. Satyajit Ray himself was inspired by this film to make his much acclaimed Pather Panchali which has distinct shades of this film. I watched it as part of a self-taught film course entitled “An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Techniques”. Marilyn Fabe in her book “Closely Watched Films” sighted The Bicycle Thief to be one of the three great Italian films of the Neorealism genre. The other two being Open City by Roberto Rossellini and Umberto D. by De Sica himself.
Interestingly enough this film was made on a shoestring budget with most of its cast having no previous brush with acting. It is almost unbelievable to accept the fact that these fine actors who emote with their heart were not trained. The film was shot without the cumbersome sound devices (meaning it was shot silent) and later voice was dubbed into the film. This allowed the director to free his camera up to a great extent and made way for capturing the action in a way it was not captured before. The style we call today “documentary-style”. The director made it a point to use old stock of films which had grains to it giving the film a rugged look which further added to the realism of the film and made it a much more effective.
As was customary with the “Neorealism” genre, the film is not about the rich and opulent which was incidentally the kind of pictures that the Italian films of the Mussolini-era were about. Instead it concentrates on the lives of the most impoverished who practically have to sell their last bits to be able to survive. Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) has been without a job for a while now and the film begins with him finally landing up with a decent government job. However there is a catch. The job entails him to have a bicycle. Ricci who had pawned his bicycle for some money to be able to survive now gives off the last object of value in his house, his wife’s linens and buys back the bicycle.
Things start looking bright for him after a long time. He gets a new uniform and after a long time he is happy. However on the very first day of his work, Ricci is targeted by a gang of Bicycle thieves and his bicycle is stolen. Distraught and helpless he must now try to find his bicycle before it is ripped off and sold in the grey market. He is well aware that without a bicycle he will not have his job and thus his last shot at having what could be called a future would end. Aiding him in his quest to repossess his bicycle is his son Bruno. The film follows the tumultuous journey that the two undertake which culminates in Ricci becoming the very thing that he has been chasing for all this long.
Contrary to what a film on the lowest segment of the society entails (bereft of the glamor and panache), The Bicycle Thief is highly entertaining. As so rightly pointed out by Fabe in her book, the film is an ideal example of an exasperating thriller which primarily works as a human drama. The film constantly gives you hope and then takes it way building up the “bravura” climax in which it finally culminates. There are moments of breathtaking suspense when you feel that Ricci has finally got hold of his bike but then something happens which takes that away from him resulting in his depression as well as yours as the audience. The biggest jolt comes when Ricci fortunately catches the boy who had done away with is bicycle but a look into his house and his condition reveals that the boy is not only poorer than Ricci but also suffers from epilepsy.
Having said that, the plight of Ricci remains constant. Without his bicycle, without a job he has no future. For that while both Ricci and the audience stop thinking about what the other guy is going through. There are a few sequences which are so thoughtfully envisioned that they not only make the desired impact but also make you think about it in different ways after each viewing. The very first scene which shows Ricci nowhere near the horde of people who have gathered to apply for a job communicates his pensive mood about his own future. So when he ends up with a job, he is not elated but tensed at how he would manage to get his bicycle back. Once that problem is solved, he loses the bicycle and now is penniless without a job and any artifact of value to pawn. Thus his frustration and agony hits us two folds. The little boy Bruno (played by Enzo Staiola) works like his father’s conscience.
He at many situations proves to be more mature and intelligent than his father and saves the day for him at multiple junctures. The film ends with him slipping his hands into his father’s as Ricci walks dejectedly after his failed attempt to steal a bicycle for himself. In his gesture he comforts his father by conveying to him that he is with him no matter what. This is probably the only thing positive about the otherwise heartbreaking climax. Lianella Carell in her brief essay as Ricci’s wife hits all the right notes. She is both Ricci’s great support as well as acts as his mirror to remind him of their exact state.
The Bicycle Thief is a simple and yet absorbing tale which was achieved using resources which was 5-10% of what the filmmakers have at their disposal today. It is a burning example of the fact that the imagination and presentation of the director can never be shackled by the deficiencies of the reach and technology. The film became what it is primarily for the reason that De Sica found voice among the audiences world over who identified with him and the story that he had to tell. The Bicycle Thief is a masterpiece and a must watch for anyone who is into watching films.