February 18th, 2007
A classic example of post-war Italian neo-realism, directed by Vittorio De Sica and featuring a cast of non-actors. (De Sica is said to have believed that everyone can play one role perfectly, that of themself; and that is all that he asks his actors to do.)
Ricci, who has a loving wife and a loyal son, gets a job putting up movie posters. The job requires a bicycle. In an O.Henry-like touch, his wife pawns the family’s sheets to redeem the family’s bike from the same pawnshop.
This is a simple film. Ricci and his family start out believing in honest work and the basic goodness of the world. The bicycle represents a way out of poverty.
But the bicycle is stolen, and Ricci and his son spend the rest of the film on a dark quest through the murky depths of Roman street life. By the end Ricci has acted cruelly toward his son and turned thief himself.
For De Sica and his fellow neorealists the film is an indictment of capitalist society, which turns every man against his brother; but for contemporary viewers the emotional connection between Ricci and his son may seem as significant as the social message. The only bright spot in the relentless downward spiral comes when Ricci, realizing what is happening to him and how tired and hungry his son is, takes him to a restaurant he really can’t afford to eat at. There he holds forth on the meaning of life to the wide-eyed boy - “There’s an answer to everything… except death,” he says - and allows him to drink half a glass of wine.
This film feels completely simple and true, a genuine classic. Everyone who believes in the power of film should see this movie. I can’t believe I hadn’t watched it until now. But as I always say, there are so many movies and so little time!
Makes a good double bill with the contemporary Chinese film Beijing Bicycle.