Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bicycle Thief

There was a time in New York City, especially in the late 50s and early 60s, when the films that were playing at major theatres were as likely to be, say, Citizen Kane from 1941 or the Gold Rush from 1925, as they were something contemporary. That was an amazing time for the City, when film buffs seemed to be everywhere and when you could overhear debates in coffee houses and jazz lounges about the virtues and flaws of the latest New Wave film from Paris of whether the theory that a director of the film is often its author or auteur really holds up.

I want to relive that time as much as I can, which is why I am such a fan of Film Forum, where the old, classic films continue to play in repertory. This weekend, for instance, the greatest of all dance movies - Michael Powell's the Red Shoes - is playing in a glorious new 35mm technicolor print.

Best of all, one of the signature classics from Italy's great post-war, neorealism period is playing at Lincoln Plaza, a theatre that shows great films, but invariably the most current ones. The exception they are making this weekend is for Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thief, one of the most remarkable movies ever made.

What makes it so remarkable is its simplicity and honesty. These are words we often use to describe things we like, but they apply so perfectly in the case of this film. It is the story of a man living in Rome in the period immediately after World War II. The film purposely shows many actual bombed out buildings to reinforce the terrible damage that was done by the war and to emphasize the fact that this damage continues to take its toll. The man has a wife, a baby girl, and a lively son of about 10 years of age and they are desperately poor. Out of a job for a long time, he finally secures a position as a hanger of posters, but only if he has a bicycle. He HAD a bicycle but hocked it to feed his family. Now he promises the employer he will have a bicycle for his first day of work and hurries home to his wife to figure out how to get his bike out of hock. They decide to gather up everything they can that is expendable, including their bed sheets, to trade them in for the money they need.

The next day the man proudly pedals to his first day of work with his son sitting in front of him. Both are exhilarated by this ride and cheerfully looking forward to having enough money in the household to eat reasonably well and perhaps even indulge in a gelato now and then. It probably won't surprise you to know that the man does not even finish a day's work before the bicycle is stolen, forcing him to search in vain for the rest of the day for this missing lifeline. Without that bike, there will be no job. In a near state of hysteria, he informs his son and before going to his wife, decides to seek advice from some well connected friends. They reassure him that they can all go to a bicycle market in the morning where the bike is almost certain to show up.

The bicycle market is mobbed with people and crowded with bikes and bike parts, but there is not sign of this man's bike. The rest of the day, the man and his son search for the bike, growing more desperate every hour that they do not find it. The father and son enjoy some refreshment together, but it is only a small pause in the agony they are experiencing. Now, near the breaking point and with the streets filling up after a soccer game has let out, the man steals someone else's bicycle. He does not get far, however, and is soon caught in a mob that berates and abuses him for comitting this criminal act. His son is horrified by all of this but shows great compassion for his father, as if he understands all that he has gone through, including the act of taking someone's else's bicycle to spare his own family. The film ends with the father free to go walking with his son in the streets completely ashamed and humiliated by what he has done.

What could be more simple than this tale of woe - about a man who must have a job to keep his family healthy? And what could be more honest than to end the film with the man still out of a job, still lacking that bicycle, and emotionally broken with shame over what he was driven to do? What this film captures is in some sense a dilemma that poor people all over the world face daily, but rarely has it been documented so unsentimentally and straightforwardly by a movie director. That is what makes Bicycle Thief such a remarkable work of art.

1 comment:

  1. And what could be more timely than this message in a time when so many are desperate for a job?