Monday, July 14, 2008

The Great Movies: "The Bicycle Thief"

At the Movies with Michael5000

The Bicycle Thief
Vittorio De Sica, 1948

We had probably start by acknowledging that The Bicycle Thief is by wide consensus among the very finest movies of all time. Here's the Wiki:

The film is frequently on critics' and directors' lists of the best films ever made. It was given an Academy Honorary Award in 1950, and, just four years after its release, was deemed the greatest film of all time by the magazine Sight & Sound's poll of filmmakers and critics in 1952. The film placed sixth as the greatest ever made in the latest directors poll, conducted in 2002.
Now then. What we have here is, first and foremost, a movie that is beautifully filmed. The cityscapes are lovely, and the action provides an interesting window into Italian life during post-war reconstruction. Culturally, too, the many minor characters of the movie are wonderfully Italian; a director from any other country would be accused of gross stereotyping if she had Italians showing so much cultural idiosyncrasy. The amateur cast puts in generally strong performances, and the main character’s wife and son especially are vividly realized small roles.

Ultimately, though, this is a movie about a guy looking for his bike. The idea is to show the social and emotional impact of poverty through a very simple tale. It works, as far as it goes, but the tale is so simple that it fails to hold much interest. Beautiful street scenes and cultural tourism are all fine and good, but unless you have some narrative power you might as well be filming a travelogue.

Plot: In a time of desperate unemployment, a man’s bicycle – which he needs in order to keep his job – is stolen. He spends the rest of the movie poking around Rome looking for the bike. (This is, incidentally, a bizarrely quixotic approach to his problem, but the movie acts as though it is exactly what anyone else would do under the circumstances.) In the final scene, he demonstrates that he can’t ride a bicycle any faster than a moderate jogging pace, so maybe he doesn’t need a bike after all.

Visuals: Lovely. Exquisite use of black and white and of the streetscapes of Rome, both ancient and modernist. Lots of heroic shots of the main character that bring to mind the best of those portraits New Deal photographers took of the American rural poor.

Dialogue: In Italian, with lots of gesturing and arm waving.

Prognosis: An obligatory stop on the History of Film grand tour. I don’t really see what all the fuss is about, though.

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