Saturday, October 18, 2014

Bicycle Thieves

There is no artifice in a film like Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (Italian title Ladri di Bicyclette). When it first came out back in 1948, issues revolving around war and poverty had taken precedence to the glamour which had marked the earlier national cinema. This was when a group of dedicated young directors inadvertently, in their determination to let the camera record the travails of ordinary, poor folk in Rome, made film history: not just owing to the movement they created, but also to the other film movements that would spring up, both in the continent and elsewhere.

The story of Bicycle Thieves is simple. The plight of Antonio Ricci, in his attempt to find who stole his beloved bicycle (without which he cannot work) makes up the human drama of the plot. Very often has Italian neorealism – which is what this film adheres to – been criticised for its ennobling of individual over community. Very often has it been accused of glorifying poverty for recognition abroad.

However superficially correct these views may be, they are nonetheless hollow, not in keeping with the spirit of the movement. For it did not seek to separate the chief players of the story from the larger human canvas: instead it sought to depict that same human canvas through the travails of ordinary peasant-folk. This is where neorealism best influenced both Bengali and our cinema.

“There is not a single false note in the humanity and pity of this film”, wrote the critic Regi Siriwardena back in 1952. Indeed, in its ability to parallel Antonio Ricci’s plight with his relationship with his son Bruno, the scriptwriter, Cesare Zavattini (known for his collaboration with de Sica) weaves the larger human canvas of the film. There is a sequence which emphatically proves what Siriwardena said. It unfolds in a restaurant, where father and son dine (for perhaps the first and last time in both their lives) on spaghetti and wine. As the son munches on, hungrily, Antonio sentimentally airs his aspirations and dreams to him. “To eat like that, you will have to earn a million a month,” he tells Bruno as he looks behind him at a group of rich children.

Yet what Siriwardena said was true: there is not sentimentality displayed in Antonio’s speech, but a cruel sense of irony: Antonio ends his monologue by imploring his son to continue the search for the bicycle, and the two of them move on, trying to find what surely must have struck the viewer as being unreachable. Irony abounds in films which have displaced idealism in favour of unflinching realism, and in a film like Bicycle Thieves, we get a glimpse of melodrama and idealism only to realize for ourselves that what we’re seeing is transient, temporal: it will soon be swallowed by the overbearing ravages of dreariness.

But the humble majesty of Bicycle Thieves does not end there. The whole plot revolves around father and son: that is another aspect to the dichotomy of idealist-realist prevalent in it. The film is, after the theft of the bicycle, a chase: Antonio delves into roads, streets and lanes, sometimes encountering dead-ends, while like a faithful dog (is it a coincidence that his son’s name shares a certain canine affinity?) trots by his side, so much so that, in one instance when he is compelled to stop and relieve himself (out of necessity), the father shouts at him to continue searching for the bicycle (Andre Bazin has written on this one remarkable scene).

In the end, his father gives in: humiliated before his child when trying to corner the thief, he demonstrates cruelly to the viewer the vicious cycle of poverty in the film. Antonio, in a bid perhaps to save face, tries to send his son away, unable to tell him that he is about to steal a bicycle on his own. But he is not as deft as the youth who stole his cycle: instead he is cornered and slapped, and only the crying of a disillusioned son keeps the bike’s owner from taking him to the Police.

Irony abounds here: the thieved resorts to thievery, and gets caught almost at once. This is perhaps the most bitter moment in the entire story, so much so that at the end, when we see father and son walk, silently, amidst a bustling crowd, we know nothing of what either is thinking: hopeless, dreary, uncertain of the future, they just walk on with the gossiping crowd.

It is to de Sica’s credit that he jumpstarted this remarkable film movement with Shoeshine (in 1946) and ended it with Umberto D (in 1952). Bicycle Thieves, as his most heralded film (it has come up in Sight and Sound’s decennial list), deserves a second look even today, at a time when the nobility of human beings has been sacrificed to either needless prostitution or commercial melodrama. De Sica’s record of life sparkles today as much as it did then.