The Bicycle Thief (1949) USA
Ladri di biciclette (1948) original Italian Release
(May Contain Spoilers)
Italian Neorealism refers to films produced in Italy after WWII from roughly 1945 through 1952. The screenwriter Cesare Zavattini is often credited as being the “father” of this film movement. He challenged Italian filmmakers to discard plot, work with untrained actors, move out of studios and film on location, and authenticate their work by stealing dialogue and stories from individuals they encountered in the streets. The movement died out after only a few years for at least a couple of reasons. First, audiences at the time were not enthusiastic about films in which “plot” was subjugated to showing day-to-day details of everyday life. Second, most of the neorealism films were banned, by the Italian government, from being exported to other countries because it was argued that they depicted the country in a negative light.
If you want to watch just a single film from this movement, my recommendation is The Bicycle Thief, written by Zavattini. It is an exemplar of Italian Neorealism and as such it emphasizes the day-to-day activities of its main characters. Nevertheless, it has an engaging plot; in fact, one that is so powerfully sad that each time I watch it I am tempted to turn it off in the middle to save myself the agony of watching the tragedy play out again. (I confess that I am a sucker for those kinds of sentimental tragedies when they are done well).
The acting is so absolutely superb that it is hard to believe the stars are not professional actors. The actor playing the father character reveals, via nothing more than simple posture changes, the transformation from “apathetic out of work husband and father” to “proud breadwinner, husband and father” to “a man in crises who fears losing everything again” to finally “an ashamed thief who fears he has lost forever the respect of his son”. The child actor who plays the son does a similar superb job, mimicking his father’s gestures and actions in a manner that reveals perfectly his “pride in his father” early in the film, his “concern for his father later”, and “the fact that he will never be able to see his father in the same way again the rest of his life after the closing scene”.
There are many individual scenes that I simply adore in this film: The son polishing the bike in the apartment as they get ready for the first day of the father’s new job; the father and son riding the bike to work on the first day; the father and son having a “kind of last supper” at a resturant. There are two scenes that stand out in my mind as depictions of “the kindness of strangers”. The first is the man working in the pawn shop who gives the wife what she asks for her linens even though (as demonstrated dramatically in a wonderful scene a few minutes later) he has about as much need for another set of linens as he does for another hole in his head. The second is the man in the final scene, who could have sent the bicycle thief to jail, but with a single look into the eyes of the son realized that the father was going to be paying a heavy price the rest of his life, and the additional punishment of going to jail would serve no useful purpose.
I gave this film a sentimental rating of 5 out of 5.