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The Boston Phoenix Cycle of Life

The Bicycle Thief still steals the soul

By Peter Keough

DECEMBER 7, 1998: 

After a half-century of high tech, high concept, mass marketing, and billions at the box office, movies have yet to take to heart the lessons of Vittorio de Sica's 1948 The Bicycle Thief. A basic story, told with purity and passion, simplicity and subtlety, drawing on the fundamental truths and troubles of humanity, can steal the soul.

Some have learned from it. The recent Iranian cinema, in particular the films of Abbas Kiarostami, aspire to de Sica's precise minimalism, telling their own tales of beleaguered children, of quixotic quests after mundane objects, adding their own filigree of self-conscious detachment. And the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, his "Dogma 95" perhaps a less serious movement than Italian neo-realism, achieved in this year's The Celebration another kind of father-and-son reunion vibrant with immediacy and myth.

For the most part, though, the intervening decades have overlooked the kind of seemingly trivial story that Cesare Zavattini, the film's screenwriter and de Sica's most inspired collaborator, described as being beneath any newspaper's reporting. Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), an unemployed father of two in a post-war Rome of gaping vacancies, soul-searing tenements, and sullen crowds, is offered a job posting bills. He needs a bicycle, though, and to redeem his own from the pawn shop, his wife, Maria (Lianella Carnel), must violate the sanctity of their connubial bed and sell their sheets.

So far so good. Triumphant in his uniform cap and overalls, Antonio sets to work with his young son, Bruno (a waif-like but sturdy Enzo Staiola), but as he posts his first bill, for the Hollywood film Gilda, a youth in a German forage cap (that and a bevy of German seminarians seeking shelter from a rainstorm are among the few war references) swipes his bicycle. Misled by a witness, Antonio chases the wrong man down a tunnel, the thief escapes, the bike is gone, and life, far from being realistic, neo or otherwise, becomes an absurdist nightmare.

The common myth about neo-realism, originating with Roberto Rossellini's Rome: Open City, a film about partisan resistance shot on the heels of the Nazi retreat, is of threadbare, guerrilla filmmaking spontaneously capturing life -- or history -- as it happens. De Sica's film, on the contrary, was well funded and carefully planned; he turned down an offer from David Selznick because the mogul insisted on using Cary Grant -- and to imagine Grant in the role of Antonio is to realize that icon's profound strengths and limitations. Although the actors were all amateurs (Maggiorani was a factory worker who had suffered bouts of unemployment), they were all carefully coached and rehearsed by de Sica, himself one of Europe's finest actors. And though the film was shot on location, each scene was meticulously composed, its close-ups, depth-of-field vistas, and fluid tracks fitted into a calculated whole.

For the goal was to bring to life other myths, the archetypes underlying the flux and alienation of contemporary society. Antonio is a quester, and though the brand name of his bicycle, Fides (faith), may not carry the cachet of Citizen Kane's "Rosebud," it's a fitting emblem of the misdirected faith of the age that material possessions can provide happiness, and that justice consists in their rightful distribution. Instead, this faith brings on the debasement of the mob that twice almost does in Antonio, the futility of striving that leads only to dead ends and more trouble, and the mockery of piles of catalogued artifacts and possessions -- the bundles of sheets in the pawn shop, the shelves of dossiers in the police station where Antonio fruitlessly reports the theft, the rows of bicycle parts in the black market where he searches for the remnants of his property.

Another kind of faith is represented by Signora Santona, the neighborhood sibyl who embodies the vagaries of fate and the powerlessness of self-determination. When his wife climbs the stairs to pay the Signora for having predicted her husband's new job, Antonio scoffs, but he's lured after her, leaving his bicycle behind, vulnerable. He asks a child to look after it, and this time it's spared.

Later, however, as his search for the missing bicycle grows more desperate, Antonio grows more alienated from Bruno. He slaps the child once, and as they walk the street the distance between them becomes more pronounced. In the end, the film partakes of another myth, that of Orpheus in the Underworld, with Antonio losing not his inanimate property but his own flesh and blood. He turns back, his face bearing the sublime agony of many painted Christs but not the comprehension, and he's swallowed up by a crowd of shades, still holding his son's hand. It is a consolation, not a redemption, as is this film, which elevates our fate to the realm of clarity, pathos, and art.

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