Wednesday, 31 December 2008

the bicycle thieves (d. de sica; w. zavattini, d'amico, de sica, biancoli, franci, guerrieri)

A couple of hours ago I was walking across the bridge at Goldbourne Road, when I heard a shout. A van was taking a right turn over the bridge, and had trapped the rear wheel of a cyclist. For a moment it looked as though the cyclist's leg was about to be crushed, but the van stopped. The leg was preserved, but the bike was a write-off. The cyclist, wearing all the modern paraphernalia, was suitably aggrieved. A bleak day for him, but not quite a tragedy. The theft of Antonio Ricci's bike in Rome in 1948 was a far greater personal disaster.

I am sure that vast tomes have been written about this film, so I shall try and keep my contribution brief. I'd never seen it before and am grateful to the Curzon chain, which does more than most to keep cinema alive in this city, in the wider sense of that word (alive). (There was even a showing of the critic's own short in Curzon Soho this year, possibly the cheapest film ever screened there.) There's not much better way to round off a year's movie going than watching Bicycle Thieves, despite the film's pessimism.

This pessimism is the making of it. The characters are so endearing, and the audience so wants them to find the bicycle, for some kind of natural justice to be seen to be done - for the movie world to trump the real one - that when it doesn't, the shock to our system is equitable to the shock to Antonio's, discovering himself converted into nothing better than his enemy. In spite of its wilfully simplistic tone, the film employs a clear and subtle use of narrative to achieve its ends.

It seems worth noting the connections between De Sica's film and Bunuel's Los Olviadodos, among other neo-realist works of the post-war era, if only to ask - what does this 'neo-realist' tag really mean? It's interesting to see the way in which the directors are not only trying to beard the cliches of cinema through their choice of subject matter, focusing on the disenfranchised. They are also attempting to subvert cinema's use a wish-fulfiller. People go to the cinema, so we're told, to make their dreams come true - to escape the real world and enter a pampered land where reality is put on hold, and things turn out right in the end. (Expect a glut of feel-good movies to be funded as the recession bites). This leads to the inevitable comedic ending, where resolution is achieved in spite of the odds. De Sica shows us the odds - every shot with cyclists flying through the Roman streets in the background feels like a slap in Antonio's face - and refuses to deny them. A stolen bicycle has no chance of being recovered, in the real world or the movies. His bicycle thieves aren't just stealing Antonio's means of earning a living, they're also stealing the audience's cosy assumptions of what the cinema is there for, replacing them with something altogether more disturbing (the innate thief that lurks within us all).

It's hard to imagine a film funded today in the US or the UK with the same premise to get away with such a downbeat finale (even 5 months... let its audience off the hook). Maybe that's because our cultures just don't possess the same stakes as the one De Sica depicts. (Interesting to note how like some of the South American cities post-war Rome looks.) The cyclist whose bike was crushed just this afternoon may be able to claim on his insurance, or if not he'll probably be able to replace his bike sooner rather than later. Only in a black farce would his accident lead to the loss of his job, the potential break-up with his family and a descent into crime. Stories like these are made in other countries, other continents, and we continue to believe that an ending which isn't happy just isn't doing justice to its narrative or the characters we have chosen to invest in.

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