Sometimes a quiet voice has more impact than a bellow. For instance, I will never shed any tears watching a Transformers film, yet I was deeply moved after seeing Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, a black and white Italian film (Hang on now) which won the 1950 Bafta for best picture. It is a special movie, because it takes what would be trivial subplot in a mainstream film and elevates it to Wagnerian levels of drama.
We are familiar with a gleaming and marvellous Rome. Here, it is naught but a ruined ideal. World War Two has stripped Italy’s economy to its brittle bones, the mottled cobblestones glisten with fermented desperation, and well paying jobs are as scarce as gemstones. Antonio, a downtrodden father, just happens to come across a vacancy putting up posters. But this godsend comes with one caveat: He can only work if he owns a bicycle. His wife,Maria, pawns their best bed linen to pay for one. It is a reasonable course of action, especially since they have a newborn child to tend to.
But Antonio is incurably thoughtless, having failed to develop the survivalist instinct required to withstand poverty. The bicycle, along with the hope it represents, is stolen on his first day. Perhaps his euphoria made him forget that there were others just as impoverished as him. Antonio and his resourceful yet sensitive son, Bruno, bravely begin to search for the bike.
Director Vittorio De Sica spearheaded a movement which came to be known as Italian Neorealism. It was about as far from shimmering Hollywood as you could get. These films dedicated themselves to exploring destitute ecosystems, to empathetic portrayals of people barely crawling above the poverty line.
One of the movement’s trademarks was not to enlist actors, but to instead use normal people who did not receive their training in the studio, but learnt their trade on the street. Although they had no previous experience, the performances, for my money, shone with a greater intensity than any star could hope to emit. An instance when Antonio angrily strikes Bruno stings your soul with its unvarnished truthfulness.
The film also appears to be emotionally and structurally perfect. Under De Sica’s steady hands, the story gracefully slaloms between moments of gutting tragedy and ascendant joy, before skidding to a tremendous and heartbreaking halt that hits you like a thunderclap. De Sica never has to raise his voice to make a point. Through his thoughtful and honest look into a family crippled by poverty, we see all we need.