Films about real people
At the end of 2014, film writer and director Mike Leigh found himself at The Criterion Collection’s headquarters talking about movies while going over a few DVDs that were there. The first disc he picked out was a copy of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and mentioned how, when he was young, he didn’t know that “films that were about the real world existed”.
I hadn’t seen Bicycle Thieves at that moment, but something about what Leigh had said stuck with me. Sure, like most people, I enjoy well-made movies with logical plots that feature proper characters instead of cardboard cutouts, but when Leigh said what he said I couldn’t help thinking of two very specific films I love, and wondering if this Italian movie from 1948 would be anything like. The films I’m reminded of, Taste of Cherry and Children of Men, have left quite the impression on me and my view of cinema as a whole.
I’ve now seen Bicycle Thieves a few times, and it finds itself permanently connected to Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men in my mind as some sort of independent sub-genre. All three films are very different, Taste of Cherry is about a middle-aged Iranian man who drives around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone who will help bury him after he commits suicide, a decision he says has already been thought out and taken, while Children of Men is about the collapse of society in 2027 after no children have been born for around twenty years.
Taste of Cherry is slow-paced, and my feeling of it being about “real people” comes mostly from the powerfully-written, sober conversations shared between the film’s protagonist and each of the people he picks up along the way to his suicide attempt. In Children of Men the feeling comes mostly from Cuarón’s “wandering camera”. His signature-style, found across all of his films be it Roma, Y Tu Mamá También or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, features a camera straying off from the main action to the rear corners of a bar, an apartment complex being dismantled and even an empty room as an answering machine’s recording plays to show us that this is indeed a real place lived in by real people in the real world. One feels as if we’ve suddenly been pulled into a documentary, and not in the way that more recent films such as Moonlight and Nomadland have, which is to shoot conversations almost exclusively in close ups while employing a handheld camera.
So how does Bicycle Thieves do it? If I had to answer, and I should seeing as I posed the question, I’d say that it does so through the little details told passively in its narrative. Bicycle Thieves takes place in Rome and its outskirts in 1948, and follows the story of Antonio Ricci and his (around) 9 year old son Bruno over the course of three days. Antonio, like many men his age in post-war Rome, finds himself unemployed, until he gets lucky one day and a job opens up posting advertising bills all over Rome. There’s a catch though, the job requires he owns and uses his own bicycle for it. Antonio has a bike, but it’s been pawned off in order to pay the bills. To get it back, Antonio’s wife Maria decides to pawn the bed linens which gives them just enough cash to redeem the bike.
With his spirit lifted high by this bout of good luck, Antonio heads off to work, dropping Bruno off at the gas station where he works as an assistant. But just a bit into his first day, Antonio’s bike is stolen by a man while his associates distract him allowing the thief to get away. The rest of the film is centered on the search for the bike all over Rome.
The first big detail that jumps out at me whenever I watch the film is the first scene outside of the employment office. A worker from the office is crowded by men as he calls out the names of the people who have had job offers, but when he calls Antonio’s name it turns out he’s not there like everyone else. Antonio is revealed to be sitting on the other side of the road across from the employment office. The film goes on to show that Antonio’s not the sort of person to live with his head in the clouds, so what we’re seeing isn’t someone who doesn’t pay attention, instead we’re seeing a dejected man who’s probably used to being let down every day outside the employment office. This may be our first day here, but it sure isn’t his. There’s never a line to draw attention to this either, Antonio never goes “Oh boy, I sure didn’t expect a job after coming here all these days in a row”, we’re informed of this situation subtly through his actions and reactions.
This level of attention to more passive storytelling is present throughout all of the movie, like a moment in Piazza Vittorio when our protagonists believe they’ve spotted the frame of their missing bike being repainted by a stand owner. They never accuse the stand owner of robbery, and he never outright replies that he’s not a fan of being called a criminal, instead we see it happen, we see how they feel based on how they react. We’re also informed that this probably isn’t the first time they’re indirectly accused in this manner, judging from the owner’s wife’s furious intervention in the conversation. These are real people trying to make it by, trying to minimize their losses in life amidst the oppressive economic circumstances that their country has to endure at such a trying time in its history.
There are never any on-the-nose speeches about the themes of the film, nor do characters just slip into monologues about how they feel instead of showing us. No, we get a real story about real people.
One final thing about the film, the level of technical competence is admirable, there are many scenes that require an absolutely perfect level of coordination of many actors like their visit to Piazza Vittorio, the rain-soaked scene at Porta Portese and the end climax moment just as people exit a stadium after a football match between Modena and A.S. Roma. The audio has of course aged a bit, but beyond that, the acting, writing, directing and the sheer quality of the storytelling make this film a timeless classic, much like Citizen Kane or Ikiru, there are moments when you genuinely go “wow, this movie could’ve come out yesterday”.
Bicycle Thieves is beyond impressive, not just because of the actors’ incredible talent or the precise and subtle direction, but also due to its delicate handling of some of life’s more unfair aspects. It serves as a window into a very specific moment in time, while still remaining universal, a simple story, told simply to very powerful effect. I think of it at least a few times a week, and I don’t really see that changing any time soon. There are so many more things I want to say about Bicycle Thieves, but I refuse to spoil it any further for those who might’ve taken an interest in reading this but haven’t yet seen it. I urge you to go check it out for yourself.
Luis Gonzalez is a lawyer from Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (Caracas, Venezuela) currently working in private practice and is founder and co-editor of The Explorer. You can find him on Twitter at @lagm96.