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The Bicycle Thief [Ladri di biciclette] (1948)


Widely regarded as one of the great films of all time, The Bicycle Thief is easy to avoid because even a brief recitation of the plot is so depressing.  In impoverished post-War Italy, men line up every day to see if the government has any work for them to do.  Ricci is told that there's a job for him, but it requires a bicycle, so his wife has to pawn her good linen in order to redeem the previously pawned bicycle.  As Ricci and his wife depart the pawnshop a clerk climbs several stories to add the linens to an immense stack, showing that their situation is hardly unique.  Despite this ignominy, Ricci is obviously overjoyed to be able to provide for his family and to redeem himself in the eyes of his precocious son, Bruno.

Ricci's job consists of hanging posters and he needs the bicycle to transport a ladder around town.  But on his very first day the bicycle is stolen by what appears to be a pretty experienced small gang.  The remainder of the film follows Ricci and Bruno as they desperately search for the bicycle and the thief.  Ricci does eventually catch him, but the thief's friends swear that he is innocent and a cop persuades Ricci that his word won't hold up against all these others.

Ricci takes Bruno out for a dinner that they can ill afford and this poor father and son are contrasted with the wealthy family eating at a nearby table.  As the two trudge home, Ricci spots another bicycle, leaning unattended in a doorway.  He sends Bruno on ahead and then sneaks back to steal it, but is caught and humiliated in front of his boy.  Not exactly a feel-good flick, huh?

The film is probably the archetypal example of neo-realism, which eschewed fictional adventure in favor of the dramas of every day life.  And it was understood in its day, and still is by many today, to be some kind of criticism of social inequality.  The suggestion being that in a more just society, wealth would be distributed more evenly and men wouldn't be reduced to this.  Yet the movie was also chosen for National Review's list of best conservative films, so what gives?

It seems fair to say that, regardless of the filmmakers original intent, what is portrayed on screen is one of the fundamental reasons that Marxism failed so completely : Marx assumed that men resented laboring and found it degrading, but in Ricci we see illustrated the great truth that men define themselves in large part by their work; not only are they not alienated from their labor, they are desperate to labor.  Nor does Ricci appear to be a man who wants a handout from those who have more than him.  Ricci does not seek equality; he seeks dignity, the dignity that earning a living will grant him, particularly in the eyes of his son.  He appears to be a man who simply wants a job, and who is destroyed when opportunity is snatched from his grasp.

I said at the beginning that this is a film you want to avoid because it's depressing, but nothing can prepare you for its violence.  No, not blood and guts violence, but psychic violence.  In its own humble way, this is a slasher pic, but instead of a knife-wielding maniac slashing co-eds, a thief slashes the soul of an essentially decent man and reduces him also to thievery.  The violence hear is done to the soul of a man, a man who is destroyed as his son looks on.  It is extraordinarily painful to watch, but watch it you must, at least once--it is a great, great film.

(Reviewed:08-Mar-02)

Grade: (A+)

Websites:

See also:

    -FILMOGRAPHY : Vittorio De Sica  (Imdb)
    -Vittorio De Sica (Sony Online)
    -Vittorio De Sica (Filmedia)
    -INFO : The Bicycle Thief (1948) (Imdb)
    -INFO : The Bicycle Thief (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (J. Hoberman, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (Joe Baltake, Sacramento Bee)
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (Doug Pratt DVD Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (Kevin Thomas, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (Bob Graham, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper)
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (Arthur Lazere, CultureVulture)
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (Andrew Chan, Film Written)
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (Harvey O'Brien PhD.)
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (Jay Hardwig, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (Stephen Brophy, The Tech [MIT])
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (Zoe Grainge, Edinburgh University Film Society)
    -REVIEW : of The Bicycle Thief (Acquarello, Strictly Film)
    -MOVIE LIST : National Review Best Conservative Movies : #12 : The Bicycle Thief
    -MOVIE LIST : The Fifty Best Catholic Movies of All Time : Crisis completes its list of the perennial Catholic classics. (William Park, The Crisis)

GENERAL :
    -REVIEW : of Beijing Bicycle (James Bowman, American Prowler)
    -ESSAY : Good Work, Well Done: a Psychological Study (HOWARD GARDNER, February 22, 2002, Chronicle of Higher Education)

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