Bicycle Thieves AKA Ladri Di Biciclette AKA The Bicycle Thief (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (8th January 2021).
The Film

Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves; Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

Synopsis:
Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) struggles to feed his family: wife Maria (Lianella Carell) and young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola). He is offered a job putting up film posters, but is told that he must have a bicycle. However, Antonio pawned his bicycle in order to feed his family.

Maria comes up with a solution: she sells the bedsheets the couple were given as a dowry in order to buy a bicycle. With the bike, Antonio begins his work. However, whilst he is pasting posters on a wall, his bicycle is stolen by a team of two men – one running interference whilst the other takes the bike.

Antonio reports the theft of the bicycle to the police, but they tell him that there is little they can do. He vows to find the bike, and enlists his friend Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda); and with Bruno in tow, Antonio scours the city looking for his bicycle.

Critique:
What nobody really tells you about becoming a parent is the extent to which it gradually, almost imperceptibly, changes your worldview. I first watched Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves in the early 1990s, via a television screening, but hadn’t watched it in many years until the arrival of the Arrow Academy Blu-ray release which is the subject of this review.

In the meantime, I had become a parent; and as my children reach double figures and acquire greater freedom (well, as much as they can within the context of the ongoing Covid-related lockdowns, that is), I have developed a recurring nightmare. The setting is never the same, but the content of the nightmare is. I am in a situation where I lose sight of one or more of my children – but never all of them – and struggle to find them. My heart pounds; my head spins as I try to work out where they may be.

What does this have to do with Bicycle Thieves? Throughout the film, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is so obsessed with finding the bicycle that has been stolen – which he needs to work, and which therefore becomes a symbol of self-sufficiency – that he neglects his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), who tags along with Antonio on his quest. After the theft of his bike, Antonio is late collecting Bruno from the bus stop – the first sign of Antonio’s neglectful attitude towards his parental responsibilities. Later, when Antonio and Baiocco scour the market at the Piazza Vittorio, Bruno is allowed to wander about on his own, encountering a creepy man who offers to buy him a bicycle bell; the appearance of this man, clearly a child molester of some kind, is a quietly shocking moment. Luckily, Bruno is a smart boy and senses something is ‘off’; but everybody else seems unaware of this man’s patently obvious intentions.

As Antonio’s search for the bicycle develops, Bruno is allowed to wander off, taking care of himself, and in a number of sequences showing more initiative than his father. When Antonio searches for the thieves during a church service, Bruno keeps disappearing and reappearing amongst the crowd of people; Antonio shows little regard for the whereabouts of his son. When Antonio is chastised for disrupting the service, he takes out his frustrations on the boy. ‘Damn you’, he cries, and Bruno walks off, weeping. Antonio consoles him, promising to take him for a meal, and tells Bruno to wait by the bridge. Antonio searches for the thieves, and when he returns to the bridge, he sees a crowd gathered; a boy seems to be drowning in the river. Antonio is fearful, believing this to be Bruno; but it’s not. Fortunately, Bruno is still alive and safe. Antonio is so single-minded in his quest to find the bicycle, and regain his ability to feed his family (and restore his pride), that he overlooks the true prize – his young son’s company and trust.

Even more immediately, this narrative has become increasingly resonant for myself – and, I have no doubt, numerous other working parents – within the context of the nationwide lockdowns. During the first lockdown I found that I was working from home whilst my children were off school. My children, who were also at home, competed for my attention with a computer – and I discovered that my need to work and maintain a working schedule led me to overlooking my children. (Neglect would be far too strong a word, as their needs were met – but our interactions were limited owing to my work schedule and commitments.) This became a source of guilt and shame. Again, when revisiting the film for the purposes of writing this review, Antonio and Bruno’s quest, and the impact it has on their relationship, hit me in a very visceral way.

The viewer can interpolate themselves into this narrative in a number of ways – finding a ‘way in’ through the eyes of either Antonio or young Bruno – as parent or child. Seeing identification with Bruno as an entry point to the narrative is especially easy for viewers who have experienced poverty in childhood. The film contains a particularly potent sequence in which Antonio tries to make amends to Bruno by taking him to a restaurant. There, they lark about at the table, and Bruno struggles to use the cutlery – clearly, he is not experienced in dining with a knife and fork – and ultimately decides to eat his pizza with his hands. All the while, Bruno can’t help but notice a middle-class family and their children. ‘To eat like them, you’d have to earn at least a million a month’, Antonio tells his son. Whilst at the table, Antonio adds up his incomings, and tells Bruno, ‘See why we must find it [the bicycle]? Because otherwise we won’t be able to eat’.

When I was a young boy, my own parents often struggled to put food on the table: a frequently-revisited story in our household is about the time my mother couldn’t afford the pilchards to put in her already cheap-to-make pilchard curry. Watching my father work all available hours – mostly seven days a week – and still struggling to feed his family, let alone afford luxuries, meant that the first time I watched Bicycle Thieves, as a teenager, I saw the film through Bruno’s eyes. Revisiting it now, in middle-age and with my own family to feed (and in employment which pays about half the national average wage), I can see the film through Antonio’s struggles and understand his desperation to retrieve the bicycle. I suspect this understanding, and experience, of Bicycle Thieves is fairly common amongst cinephiles.

As the film opens, with see Antonio with a crowd of men who have gathered in the street, waiting for piecework employment opportunities to be announced by a clerk. A few jobs are handed out – and Antonio is offered his job putting up film posters, for which he must acquire a bicycle – but the vast majority of the members of the crowd leave disheartened. Antonio returns home to his wife Maria and tells her of the opportunity with which he has been presented – and his need to get a bicycle. She chastises him for pawning the bike that they owned. ‘Then what would we eat?’, Antonio asks her. Eventually, Maria sells the bedsheets the couple were given as her dowry (which seems like a deeply symbolic act – sacrificing their marriage to put food on the table), so that Antonio can acquire the bike which will enable him to take the job opportunity that has been presented to him.

The bicycle thus becomes a symbol of Antonio’s ability to work, and this is of course why its theft strikes so deeply – and why Antonio is so single-minded in his attempts to find it. Antonio is given training in pasting the posters; there is an undercurrent of threat here, as Antonio is warned that he will be fined (his wages presumably docked) if he leaves air bubbles.

Near the start of the film, Maria visits a psychic. Antonio, looking for her, enters the psychic’s home – which is packed with women of a similar age – and leaves his newly-acquired bicycle outside, in the care of a boy. A first-time viewer might wonder, given the film’s title, if this is the scene in which the bicycle will be stolen – something which is suggested by the glance Antonio gives the bicycle when he enters the building. This is clearly an example of foreshadowing, but it’s difficult not to think that in these early scenes, Antonio shows the same disregard for the bike as he does for Bruno later in the picture.

Antonio mocks his wife for her visit to the psychic: Maria has paid the woman 50 Lire, because the psychic predicted that Antonio would get a job. Antonio criticises his wife for this, seeing it as a waste of their hard-earned money. In the aforementioned restaurant scene, Antonio mocks Maria’s spiritualism and her belief in the abilities of the psychic: ‘We can’t find it [the bicycle] with your mother’s prayers. The Saints won’t help us’. However, shortly afterwards, in desperation Antonio visits the psychic; there is a long queue to see her. When the time comes for Antonio’s meeting with her, she offers no help whatsoever – but still takes Antonio’s money.

There is a profound irony in the job that Antonio is given – putting up posters for films with narratives whose glamour is far removed from both his own existence and the lives of those his friends and associates. (One of the posters seems to be for Charles Vidor’s Gilda, bearing the iconic image of Rita Hayworth.) Moving further from this, there is an even greater irony, perhaps, in the manner in which De Sica’s film has over the years become treated as a rarefied artifact – almost like one of the films whose posters Antonio puts up – when in the ‘gig economy’ of the 21st Century, with many workers employed on exploitative and inhuman casual bank or zero hours contracts, the reality of life for many working class people is not too far removed from that of Antonio. The struggle to put food on the table and the need to balance the demands of work with the needs of one’s family is still present and part of many people’s day-to-day reality – as captured superbly by Ken Loach in his most recent film, Sorry We Missed You (2019).

Loach, of course, is a filmmaker whose social realist pictures have borrowed from the filmmaking cookbook of the Neo-Realist directors: the use of non-professional actors, the verité-style photography and editing, the focus on narratives that have a sense of verisimilitude to them. All of these are, of course, present in De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, which is undoubtedly one of the benchmarks of Italian Neo-Realism.

Video

The 1080p presentation uses the AVC codec and is in the film’s intended aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The film runs for 89:52 mins.

The presentation is from a new 4k restoration based on the original negative, with footage unusable/missing from that negative (owing to photochemical damage) composited into the presentation from two further sources: an archival print, and a dupe negative made in 1997. Most of the missing footage came from the dupe, with a handful of frames patched in from the print.

This beautifully-photographed film (every composition is superbly composed) is presented excellently on this Blu-ray release. The 35mm monochrome photography is captured in a presentation that has excellent contrast levels: the midtones are rich and nuanced, tapering off into deep blacks, and with balanced highlights. The level of detail is very pleasing, and the presentation retains the structure of the film source – with no harmful evidence of either sharpening or noise reduction. The presentation is carried to the disc in a robust encode, and the result is a very satisfyingly filmlike presentation.

NB. Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.


Audio

Audio is presented via a LPCM 1.0 track, in Italian with optional English subtitles. The track has depth and range, and the subtitles are easy to read and with no detrimental errors.

Extras

The disc includes the following:
- Audio commentary by Robert Gordon. Gordon, who wrote the BFI Film Classics volume on Bicycle Thieves, offers an excellent commentary for the picture. He talks about the manner in which Neo-Realism attempted to offer a more ‘raw’ and ‘contemporary’ way of capturing issues in Italian society. Gordon discusses the shooting locations and reflects on De Sica’s filmography, exploring some of the filmmakers’ methods.

- ‘Money Has Been My Ruin’ (20:01). David Cairns narrates a video essay that attempts to contextualised Bicycle Thieves by considering its relationship with Neo-Realism more generally. Cairns reflects on Roberto Rossellini’s importance in defining the key traits of Italian Neo-Realism, and then looks at De Sica’s career, situating Bicycle Thieves within the paradigms of Italian Neo-Realism – reflecting on the manner in which De Sica’s filmography may be considered a reaction against the telefoni bianchi pictures of the 1930s. Cairns discusses De Sica’s body of work and his filmmaking methodology.

- ‘Indiscretion of an American Film Producer’ (23:32). This video essay, narrated by Kat Ellinger, examines De Sica’s work as an actor before extending into a discussion of the director’s relationship with Hollywood – specifically with producers David O Selznick and Joseph E Levine; Selznick wanted De Sica to direct an English-language version of Bicycle Thieves, with the suggestion that Cary Grant take the role. (How an English-language version of such an Italian film about poverty and material/familial/social hardship, with Hollywood stars, could have worked is something which boggles the mind.) The De Sica-Selznick relationship led to them working on Terminal Station together in 1953.

- Trailer (5:05).

Overall

Bicycle Thieves remains a visceral experience whose depiction of poverty and the challenges faced by low-income working families is still utterly relevant. In some ways, we see the danger of examples of Italian Neo-Realism (to cite just one example) being reframed as purely aesthetic objects, sidestepping the manner in which the films themselves were reactions to a rarefied type of cinema (and the approach taken to it by critics). It’s difficult to watch Bicycle Thieves and not be moved by the plight of Bruno, particularly – though as noted in the main body of this review, it’s a film which probably takes on a different meaning at various points in the viewer’s life.

Arrow Academy’s new Blu-ray release contains an excellent presentation of the main feature. This is easily the best presentation of this picture that I’ve encountered. The contextual material is good – particularly the commentary by Robert S Gordon, who wrote the BFI Film Classics monograph about Bicycle Thieves. It’s a shame, however, that there isn’t any input from some of the personnel involved in the film. (Criterion’s US Blu-ray release contains an excellent little featurette featuring interviews with Enzo Staiola and the film’s writer, Suso Cecchi D’Amico; Arrow’s previous Blu-ray release contains Carlo Lizzani’s documentary about Cesare Zavvatini and Sandro Lai’s 2001 documentary about De Sica.) That said, the presentation’s the thing, and it’s damned good.

Please click to enlarge:
vlcsnap-2021-01-08-23h00m51s576
vlcsnap-2021-01-08-23h00m59s839
vlcsnap-2021-01-08-23h01m03s627
vlcsnap-2021-01-08-23h01m07s602
vlcsnap-2021-01-08-23h01m55s292
vlcsnap-2021-01-08-23h02m04s214
vlcsnap-2021-01-08-23h02m17s375
vlcsnap-2021-01-08-23h02m21s010

 


DVD Compare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.fr, amazon.de, amazon.it, amazon.es and amazon.se.