Bicycle Thieves ★★★★

My Personal Criterion Task: Film 47/100
Criterion Spine: #374

My favorite scene in Bicycle Thieves is early on. Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) has just gotten a new job. The masses outside the employment agency are annoyed because there are few jobs. Unfortunately, the job requires a bicycle and he'd had to pawn his. So he and his wife scramble to pawn linen to get money to reclaim the bike. The pawnbroker takes the linen and we see him go to place it on the shelves. He climbs a ladder and when the ladder runs out, he climbs the shelves. Up, up, up he climbs and up, up, up the camera pans. Shelves stuffed with white bags. Is everyone hurting? No, of course not. But the common man is. Those shelves go on forever. The line at the employment office goes on forever. The church offering free meals in exchange for a sermon is packed.

These are not healthy times.

Antonio is not in a healthy place. Did he want to pawn his bike? Of course not. We don't know how long he's been out of work, but in a time where bicycles are the most common form of non-public transportation (and perhaps even more common than that!), it's not the first thing you want to pawn to make your monthly ends meet. It's pretty far down the line. Now he doesn't have linens. There's not much left.

For Antonio, this job is everything. A lifeline from total destitution. He has a wife counting on him. He has a son counting on him. And when that bike gets stolen, Antonio can see that job crumble away.

The beauty of Bicycle Thieves is in showing this desperation. It's a hard story. Desperation isn't an easy thing to watch. We see a veritable sea of bicycles on the screen, like the metaphoric needle in a haystack, and we feel the immense improbability of finding this bike. When Antonio stares at bikes piled against bikes at markets, along the street, passing by him in a mass of traffic, you can see that desperation etched around his eyes.

It's hard to call Bicycle Thieves enjoyable because it's so entrenched in this desperation that it's a far cry from uplifting. However, it's a well constructed narrative that's communicated with great acting performances and some great lines. (I wrote down my favorite: "There's only vegetables here. We're not looking for that.") A great example of what cinema can achieve as an artform, but maybe save it for a day when you need something a bit bleaker in tone.

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