Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) (BFI Film Classics)
Robert S. C. Gordon
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Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) Vittorio de Sica, 1948 is unarguably one of the fundamental films in the history of cinema. It is also one of the most beguiling, moving and (apparently) simple pieces of narrative cinema ever made. The film tells the story of one man and his son, as they search fruitlessly through the streets of Rome for his stolen bicycle; the bicycle which had finally freed him from the poverty and humiliation of longterm unemployment.
One of a cluster of extraordinary films to come out of post-war, post-Fascist Italy after 1945 – loosely labelled ‘neo-realist’ – Bicycle Thieves won an Oscar in 1949, topped the first Sight and Sound poll of the best films of all time in 1952 and has been hugely influential throughout world cinema ever since. It remains a necessary point of reference for any cinematic engagement with the labyrinthine experience of the modern city, the travails of poverty in the contemporary world, the complex bond between fathers and sons, and the capacity of the camera to capture something like the essence of all of these.
Robert S. C. Gordon’s BFI Film Classics volume shows how Bicycle Thieves is ripe for re-viewing, for rescuing from its worthy status as a neo-realist ‘classic’. It looks at the film’s drawn-out planning and production history, the vibrant and riven context in which it was made, and the dynamic geography, geometry and sociology of the film that resulted.
with the film. The MacGuffin has ended up telling us something about broken lives, about loss and humiliation. The bicyc1e as MacGuffin tells us something of central importance about the method of Bicycle Thieves. De Sica and Zavattini readily draw on sophistícated film-making styles - from c1assic Hollywood suspense, silent comedy, melodrama, expressionism, musical, noÍr; etc. - but deploy them for the purpose of engaging with the world through film in new ways. We will see more of this. There
rich Romans or tourists across Antonio's path - mocking symbols of luxury, of freedom, money and time - both in the final scene and, as we saw, at the Pinciana gate as he is shown how to paste up his posters. Al1 this interest in mechanical transport is, in reality, however; little more than an elaborate counterpoint to the heavy dance of pedestrian movement in Bicycle Thieves . For as long as Antonio has his bike, we hardly see him walking at al1. After it has been stolen, however, Antonio and
following fifty years. Bicycle Thieves was, then, farged in the precise weeks and months when Italy was poised on an extraordinary cusp, between the endgame of a long age of dictatorship and war, and a long postwar future of difficult, but sustained democracy, prosperity and modernisation, More locally and perhaps more pertinendy, 1948 also marked the end point of a five-year interregnum between Fascism and democracy, war and peace, lasting from the mid-war ousting of Mussolini in 1943, through
ro the following for their help in bringing this book to completion: staff at the BFI Library and Filmographic Unit; the Biblioteca nazionale and the Biblioteca Luigi Chiarini, Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Rome; the British Library; the National Humanities Center, Durham, NC; the University Library, Cambridge; colleagues and students in the Department of Italian and at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge; Rebecca Barden, Sophia Contento and two anonymous readers at BFI
and a key precursor (along with Visconti's Ossessione, 1942) of the nearealist moment, De Sica and Zavattini began forging one of the most successful film-making partnershiI)s in cinema history. Their next collaboration - Shoeshine - was a touching and tragic story of two boys living on the streets of Rome after the war; shining the shoes of American soldiers and dreaming of owning a harse. The boys end up in juvenile prison, turned against each other and crushed by a world of hostility and