Bicycle Thieves ★★★★½

"To eat like them, you'd have to earn a million lira a month."

The masterwork of Italian neorealism, Ladri di biciclette ["Bicycle Thieves"] was once seen as the greatest film of all time, just four years after release. While some still acclaim the picture in that high regard and others claim it's been surpassed in the last 70 years, what's probably not debatable is its beautiful portrait of humanistic values and the allegory of life and family in but a day.

Director Vittorio De Sica's drama sees a poor father looking over postwar Rome for his lone mode of transportation, his bicycle, by which he can provide for his family which scrapes by every day. Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) desperately searches for a job, and this bicycle -- before its loss -- brings his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) and son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) much joy to see a proud man have a way to provide for them. Maria had to sell her prized bedsheets just to afford it. The drama and tension of trying to find the bike after it's stolen on his first day of work -- and the thief responsible -- takes Antonio all over the city, meeting townspeople who are alternatively helpful or dismissive. However, it's the bond of father and son which drives the story here, and through crescendos of joy and despair the two must realize what's most important.

Bicycle Thieves is essentially the definition of neorealism from Italy. De Sica pretty much said it himself in his purpose in this story: "Uncovering the drama in everyday life, the wonderful in the daily news." This is precisely why the film is shot on location without sets, captured all the ambient sounds of a bustling city, and cast nonprofessional actors in even the most pivotal roles. The isolation, desperation, and loneliness of this man -- even amidst the undying love of his son and wife -- contrasts with the glory and grandeur of Rome that so many outsiders can imagine. The reality, as De Sica wished to show, was that poverty and social injustice were commonplace, and the Everyman which Antonio exemplifies parallels the struggles of all. Critic Godfrey Cheshire encapsulates this view, arguing that the film "renounce[s] 'egoism' for collective concern, envisioning a cinema of impassioned social conscience." In an essay where he discusses De Sica's "commitment to the real," Cheshire discusses a particular moment which may best portray the complex array of social structures of city life:

In what’s often regarded as the film’s pivotal scene, Antonio decides to treat Bruno to a good meal. This complex gesture from father to son is played out against the subsidiary drama of looks exchanged between Bruno and a supercilious, pompadoured bourgeois boy at the next table. One could not call this passage especially subtle, yet its haunting power and richness show us what cinema can do that novels and theater cannot.

In another deeply intellectual and scholarly piece of writing I urge you to read, brilliant film critic Brian Eggert lays out the historical time and place of the picture, and posits that neorealism itself -- a short-lived Italian movement if you strictly define it -- didn't necessarily exist just to tell authentic tales, but "was more about a rejection of Fascism, and therefore temporarily given the historical context of the changing Italy."

Intricately weaving socioeconomic, political, and religious themes into a compelling drama that will straight up murder your heartstrings, Bicycle Thieves -- despite one or two moments that border on melodramatic hyperbole -- is required viewing for any cinephile looking to find a pivotal moment in filmmaking, an inflection point in which cinema leaps off the screen to tell a story both simply rich and richly simple, with profound and powerful honesty.

Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.

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