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Bicycle Thieves: Saying it like it is
Spell Vittorio de Sica, and it reminds us at once of his all-time classic work, "Bicycle Thieves". Hailed as a landmark in the annals of cinema history, this Italian film made in 1948 is simplicity personified, both in form and content.
Lamberto Maggiorani (Antonio on the screen) is delirious with joy at having found a job as a bill sticker in Rome. But his happiness soon turns into sorrow when his bicycle is stolen, for his employment depends on it. The search that the man and his young son - played admirably by Staiola (Bruno for the viewer) in a heart-wrenching performance matched by, as far as I can remember, only by Satyajit Ray's child actors - undertake to get the bicycle turns into a moving odyssey at the end of which the victim himself becomes a thief.
Most critics have raved about "Bicycle Thieves", calling it a great piece of art. Barry Norman, whose BBC programme on cinema became a legend of sorts, says that "in this deceptively simple story, De Sica gives us the very essence of the 1940s Italian school of neorealism, a movement that started as a protest against and a rejection of the glossy, State-sponsored films of the Fascist era. The object of neorealism was, to borrow Hemingway's phrase, 'to tell it like it is'; to make the audience confront the supposedly real world..."
De Sica shot "Bicycle Thieves" on actual locations and by using a largely non-professional cast. The dialogue is kept to a beautiful minimum. Yet, communication is extraordinarily With effective, gestures and more pronounced forms of action conveying all that needs to be told. The black and white images trick us into believing that here is a documentary unfolding, but the drama that pops out of every frame belies this.
A powerful cocktail, I would say, that narrated De Sica's concern with rare feeling. He always said that his cinema was a struggle "against the absence of human solidarity in war-torn Italy, against the indifference of society towards suffering". "Bicycle Thieves" in particular is a bitter cry against Mussolini's atrociously foolish ways that ultimately brought defeat and shame to the nation.
This could have easily been a grim picture, but its romantic warmth and sympathy for the downtrodden (the father and son here) push it into a preciously higher realm. It is a great study of a tiny, or call it trivial, incident that has the power to reveal society's blemishes in all their ugliness.
De Sica was a master of neorealism, and a pioneering sponsor of the non-professional actor. Nothing can be a better example of these than "Bicycle Thieves".
(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated December 1 2000)