Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.
This week, they dig into Vittorio De Sica’s heart-squeezing journey through post-WWII Rome in search of The Bicycle Thief, appreciating how pessimistic and PG-rated it can be.
In the #33 movie on the list, Antonio needs his bicycle for work, but it’s stolen, so he and his son Bruno must track the thief down or risk going hungry.
But why is it one of the best movies of all time?
Landon: So now we’ve arrived at Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, which was #1 on the very first Sight & Sound poll. In 1962 this movie was still hailed as an incredible achievement. I’m not sure why it’s moved back so much in the past 50 years, but I do think of this movie like Citizen Kane, that other #1, in some respects because you really have to know its place in history to appreciate what it did beyond its harrowing story about a poor man, his bike, and his kid.
My first question for you is, what did The Bicycle Thief do?
Scott: Most powerfully, it put WWII into a context that most Americans hadn’t seen. In the years prior to its release, Casablanca (with its noir romanticism) and The Best Years of Our Lives (with a complicated but generally optimistic outlook) won Academy Awards. That capped off a few years of movies that ranged from action to terse drama to agitprop, but didn’t ever get quite as gritty and pessimistic as this flick.
Landon: I agree. Some critics in Italy were initially worried the film would make Italians look bad or would be too sentimental, but I think that, especially for American audiences, knowing that other postwar nations weren’t exactly experiencing postwar prosperity like America was a big shock that was hardly illustrated here.
It’s also worth note that during the war, there wasn’t exactly much international trading of films going on, so the space after the war really started the modern international art cinema movement, where postwar masterpieces like this and Rashomon made a huge impression.
Scott: Before I continue on with the assumption — do you think The Bicycle Thief is genuinely bleak?
Landon: I do think there is considerable hope at the end, but I also felt that the movie was powerful (and, yes, bleak) because the ending is kind of arbitrary. It could have ended anywhere and you’d get a sense that life would go on like this.
When I first saw it in a film class, the projectionist accidentally played 2 reels out of order. But the funny thing is, it hardly seemed to matter, because the film is constructed as a series of episodes that move from moments of elation to despair — which is like life, but is rarely like the movies.
Scott: I’m glad that the general consensus is that it’s a terribly dark film, because it’s always struck me as the bleakest children’s movie of all time. It’s middle school appropriate, but it’s absolutely crushing. Even the thing they’re looking for is ostensibly a child’s object.
Landon: Middle school appropriate is a good way to put it. That’s a good time to learn that life is shitty and there’s nothing to do about it, even if you’re a good person. I bet it’d also be effective pro-bike lock propaganda for kids.
Scott: “Remember to lock up that bike, Timmy, or your family will be flattened under the heel of straitened circumstance!”
Landon: I feel like the realism aspect of it is something that would be continually hard to emphasize as film technologies continue to become more accessible. Using non-actors for something that isn’t a documentary and real locations for something that isn’t a John Huston film just seems like regular indie filmmaking.
Plus, this movie has a Hollywood style score and our protagonist looks like the Italian Jack Palance. But perhaps its realism will always be preserved in its biting representation of life.
Scott: Are you saying that this is the kind of thing that would require a budget but that wouldn’t entice studios today?
Landon: There’s definitely that, but its use of real locations was such a big deal and a big shift during its time, yet in many ways, aside from its content and tone, The Bicycle Thief can read like a traditional Hollywood film. The score, for example, felt very Hollywood to me. As its aged, I think it seems less like a radical piece of filmmaking compared to other films on this list in terms of its stylistic choices.
Scott: I can see that. There’s definitely a conventional ease to watching it that doesn’t come with, say, Man With a Movie Camera or L’Atalante or others on the list. Although I wonder if simply the switch to digital will squelch this level of realism. Meanwhile, Ramin Bahrani is one of the few still carrying the torch for non-actors.
Landon: Good example. I typically like to argue that there are as many styles of realism as there are films, but neorealism has certainly resonated since in a particular way.
On a seemingly small note, the film has been recently promoted in America under its literal translation, Bicycle Thieves, most notably by the Criterion release. Which title do you prefer?
Scott: Depends on whether you want a singular villain or an allegory about group violence, huh?
Landon: Well, I think The Bicycle Thief can work similarly. First you think “the” bicycle thief refers to the inciting incident, but by the film’s end the title can refer to our antihero. By the way, with Godfather II, Taxi Driver and this, we’ve had three straight weeks of Italian antiheroes.
Scott: We can’t get enough of the accents, Landon. Or their bicycles.
This one, by the way, is also the best MacGuffin in movie history.
Normally the MacGuffin exists because the Nazis need it to rule the world, or the mistaken-for-a-spy hero needs to chase the bad guys or the Nazis need it to rule the world again. Here, the MacGuffin’s loss has severe, intimate, localized meaning.
Landon: That’s the thing about this film. You know that so many people going into it think he’s going to get his bike back. The major spoiler of 1948 was “he never gets his bike back.”
Scott: That’s another thing. Normally with a MacGuffin, it’s just to get the hero on the path to some sort of enlightenment. Here, it’s because he REALLY NEEDS THAT BIKE.
Landon: It really is such an ingeniously simple device to accomplish what this film accomplishes – travel through economically depressed postwar Rome through an elusive object that represents both hope and hopelessness. The bike isn’t a device for social mobility, it’s a device necessary to survive for just a few more days!
Scott: I like that juxtaposition, too. I’d love to see a series of mountain bike and bicycle tour commercials before a screening of this one.
Landon: Or a version that takes place in an American city about an asshole driver honking behind him as he goes to work.
Funny you mention that, though. I’m sure there are bicycle tours of Rome. I never thought about the irony of that.
Scott: There it is. A double feature of this and Roman Holiday. At the very least, someone needs to mash-up Audrey Hepburn stealing poor Antonio’s bike.
One thing is for sure regarding movies about elusive objects: if Antonio found Rosebud in the end, this film would safely and forever be #1 on the list for the rest of time.
Next Time: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho