Film reviews

Bicycle Thieves (1948) – Blu-ray Review

New from Arrow Academy is this release of 1948’s Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio De Sica, a key figure in the post-war Italian Neorealist movement.  To give context, there is something of the British kitchen sink drama in the style and themes of such films, with a focus on the lives of the poor.  Add a hint of film noir, and you’d on the right lines.  This release presents a brand new 4K master, which is described in an on screen graphic before the main picture.

Bonus features are short, but impressive.  ‘Money Has Been My Ruin’ is a 20-minute video essay from David Cairns (who completed a similar project on the recent release of The Man Who Laughs).  This feature is so named as De Sica was quoted as saying this late in a career that had led him to the realisation that his best work was that which made no money.  This takes us through the beginnings of the very disparate Neorealism movement, and the post-war rejection of what were known as ‘White Telephone films’: works with lavish sets focusing on the wealthy, and filmed predominantly on soundstages.

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Cairns focuses on the work of Roberto Rosselini, and the guerrilla-style filmmaking he employed during the late years of the fascist regime, thus popularising a style born of a lack of freedom.  From here we move on to De Sica, his history and his beginnings in the genre.  The narrator discusses De Sica’s career themes of man’s lack of sympathy for his fellow man, with the effect that society never coalesces as it should.  After six minutes or so, the doc moves on to this film, finding itself done with this by around 12 minutes in.  It could do with an extra ten minutes to let it breathe, let us pause over what has just been said, and to take in the visuals.  It is something of a backhanded compliment to note that profound and thought provoking things are being said here, but we cover the film itself so fast before moving on that it is being rushed at us.  As it moves on to his gambling issues and later career, it feels like it is being read, rather than narrated – it sounds rushed and a little unnatural.

‘Indiscretion of an American Film Producer’ is a 23-minute video essay by film historian Kat Ellinger on De Sica’s relationship with Hollywood producers David O. Selznick and Joseph H. Levine.  Ellinger narrates with energy.  De Sica’s acting career is covered, along with his first exposure to the actors who worked for him.  We deal with his move back to more commercial films, and how this led him to America after the collapse of the studio system, and in response to the growth of imports into the US.  We’re taken efficiently through David’s story, how he rose through the ranks, and through early efforts through Gone with the Wind, and Rebecca.  His difficult Alpha personality and his interfering are explored.

Evidently Kat has done a lot of work to establish what really happened when De Sica met Selznick, how we nearly got two different versions of this film (one in English with a different cast – Selznick wanted someone like Cary Grant as the lead).  It’s a curio, but a fun little tale of an ill-fated idea.  She argues Selznick had no real feel for European cinema.  1953’s Terminal Station was the final real collaboration between the two.  Joseph H. Levine (The Graduate, The Lion in Winter) is then covered in the last 7-8 minutes, with how he understood marketing European cinema, even if quality control was lacking on occasion.  Again, sources are extensively cited and exhaustive, down to revealing the fees paid for 1960’s Two Women.  It is an interesting tale of two very different relationships, and it is the stronger of the two documentaries on the disc.

A feature length audio commentary by Italian Cinema expert Robert Gordon (Cambridge lecturer on Italian culture, literature and cinema), author of BFI Modern Classics Bicycle Thieves, is the gold standard bonus feature on this release.  It is descriptive and contextualised to the film’s era; an era of deep social and economic depression.  It is a deeply informative, naturally presented, well thought out and scene-specific accompaniment to the film; Gordon is our guide through what we are seeing.  He is engaging, friendly, unshowy.  His work reflects decades of love, study, and consideration for this film and wider Italian culture, music, history and cinema.  He explains how the small stakes of the film are of huge personal consequence to our lead, and Gordon is experienced and knowledgeable enough to throw in references to other styles, to politics, culture, geography, history, film theory, the backgrounds of everyone involved, musical structures, shot selection discussion.  In short, everything is here. The final bonus is a trailer – over five minutes long, focused very much on De Sica’s track record and themes.  It plays almost like a prototypical infomercial.

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The film itself is presented with lovely mono sound quality, which is like being taken back in time.  For reasons difficult to explain it just feels more of a time capsule than would be the case with a lavish remastered score.  This film has to be of its time.

As for the plot, in the post-World War II Rome, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is looking for a job with which to support his wife Maria (Lianella Carell), his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) and a new-born.   As we begin, he is offered a job mounting advertising bills around the city.  He feels he cannot accept, as to cover the ground required he would need to have a bike.  With his having been pawned, Maria strips the bed and provides the bedding to Antonio to pawn to get the funds to reclaim his bike.  The sheer size of the warehouse of pawned goods speaks to a society poverty stricken after a ruinous war.

Going to work with a happy smile, Antonio is pasting one of the bills when his bicycle is stolen.  Giving chase, he is thrown off the trail by the thief’s accomplices.  Gaining zero help from the police when reporting the crime, Antonio follows every lead and idea he can think of to recover his bicycle, without which his family may well find themselves more destitute.

Eventually finding the thief, he finds that the assailant’s poverty is even more desperate than his own.  As the police arrive to explain that, without witnesses, Antonio has no case, our lead leaves the area with Bruno.  On the way home, he sees an unattended bike.  Now desperate to feed his family, the anguished Antonio is tempted to repeat the very crime visited upon him earlier in the story.  Humiliated in front is his son, he has betrayed his values to try to keep his family housed, clothed and fed.

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The bonus features, though scant, provided excellent context to a story that seems so small in scale but speaks to a society where the poorer classes have no recourse to legal or financial help – to fairness.  The police won’t help, and there simply is no safety net.  Theft is a choice merely of relative morality: when a man is starving, is taking the means to keep himself and his family out of the gutter so wrong?  There is real warmth to the characters, most of whom were picked off the streets, not actors at all, and chosen more for their look than their experience.  In this, as in timeframe, Bicycle Thieves evokes Life is Beautiful, the 1999 Roberto Benigni story of a man and his son in war torn Italy.  A timeless work, underpinned by contextual extras that add a vital dimension to our understanding, Bicycle Thieves is a fine, accessible and, in many ways, universal story.

Bicycle Thieves is out on Blu-ray on 24th August from Arrow Academy.

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