Essay, Research Paper: Bicycle Thief

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"The Bicycle Thief" is a deeply moving neo-realist study of post-War
Italy which depicts one man’s loss of faith and his struggle to maintain
personal dignity in poverty and bureaucratic indifference. Antonio Ricci is a
bill-poster whose bicycle, essential for his job, is stolen by a thief. Joined
by his son Bruno, Antonio vainly searches for his bike, eventually resorting to
the humiliation of theft himself. Throughout this paper, I will attempt to trace
the character through "The Bicycle Thief." The film opens with a
montage of early morning urban activities ending on a crowd of unemployed
laborers clamoring for work. Sitting to the side is Antonio Ricci. Beaten down
by despair, he has lost the energy to fight. His spirits are lifted, however,
when his name is called out for a job. Invigorated, he damns poverty. His joy
however, is fleeting, employment depends on one condition -- that he owns a
bicycle. To provide for his family, Antonio long ago pawned his bicycle and now,
in one day, he raise the price of the pawn ticket. Not knowing where he will get
the money, he turns to his wife Maria. In their stark home, the only thing left
to pawn is a remnant of her dowry and the family’s last vestige of comfort --
the bed sheets. Bravely, Maria strips the bed and begins to wash the linens. At
the pawn shop, it becomes evident that the Ricci’s misery is not unique. Their
sheets are added to a mountain of small white bundles, and Antonio reclaims his
bicycle from the rack of hundreds like it. Delighted by the prospect of a good
fortune, the couple happily ride away. Antonio picks up his instructions for the
following morning and Maria stops by to see Signora Santona, a medium who
predicted that Antonio would find a job. He gently scolds his wife for her
superstitions, but Maria holds firm to her belief in the woman’s psychic
ability. In a series intermittent domestic scenes, Antonio is portrayed as a
loving husband and an understanding father. His warmth belies the
stereotypically "macho" Latin male. He helps his wife carry heavy
buckets of water and engages his young son Bruno as a reliable helper, and
trusted him with the preparation of the cherished bicycle for the first day’s
work. Hired as a billposter, Antonio was required to affix looming images of
Rita Hayworth to the gray and ancient walls of Rome; ironically, he juxtaposes
Hollywood’s glamorous world vision to the stark realties of post-War Europe.
While Antonio struggles to smooth out the lumps under the advertisement, a thief
slips up behind him and steals his bicycle. Antonio chases him in vain, loses
him in the rush of the mid-morning traffic. Thus begins an unrelenting three day
search for his stolen bicycle. Accompanied by Bruno, Antonio combs Rome to
recover his property, which has come to represent both his livelihood and any
hope for a prosperous future. The police are of no help; they cannot be bothered
with such a trivial case. Enlisting friends, Antonio and his son search the open
air markets where stolen goods are dismantled and sold, for a trace of evidence.
In a masterful montage of human faces and bicycle parts -- frames, tires, seats,
horns, and so on, De Sica contrasts the world’s apparent abundance with
Antonio’s desperate need. The camera takes Antonio’s point of view, panning
right to left, it seeks hopelessly for a "needle in a haystack." While
waiting for a rain storm to clear Antonio spots the thief talking with an old
man. Again, he chases but loses the thief, and follows the old man into a
church, which is offering food and a shave to those want those services.
Commenting on the role of the Catholic Church in post-War Italy, De Sica
interrupts the mass with Antonio’s interrogation of the old man. As the
congregation prays, that their souls be purified and their spirits soothed on
their paths of sorrow and privation, Antonio demands the criminal’s address.
The old man is oblivious to both and only wants to know what he will be given to
eat. De Sica’s evaluation of the Catholic Church is clear. In a world in which
the recovery of a bicycle stands between prosperity and starvation, a priest’s
promise of heaven has lost his power to comfort the poor. Sanctuaries have
become soup kitchens, where well dressed women herd the parishioners like sheep,
and lawyers serve as barbers and leads the litany. While the bourgeoisie must
seduce the power to Mass, Roman women line up to spend their last lira on a
clairvoyant. When Antonio losses hope -- admitting that even the saints cannot
help him -- he too turns to Signora Santona. Hungry for a brighter future, her
clients come to her as they once did to the church, confessing their problems.
She in turn, provides them with metaphoric and cryptic answers. She tells
Antonio that he will either find the bicycle now or not at all. She sounds like
a charlatan but when Antonio and Bruno step into the street, the thief
miraculously appears and the chase is on again. The criminal turns out to be a
pathetic epileptic, just as destitute as Antonio. The police can offer no help
without witnesses and evidence, so Antonio surrenders his fight without pressing
charges. Hopeless, Antonio and Bruno wander aimlessly through the city streets,
finally resting outside a soccer stadium. Hundreds of bicycles are parked
outside. The crowd pours out, and Antonio is mesmerized by the sounds and sights
of the cyclists riding by. In desperation, he dashes to steal a lone bicycle. He
is immediately caught, threatened by his captors and humiliated in front of
Bruno, compassionately, the owner allows Antonio to go without pressing charges.
In tears, father and son are swallowed by the crowd walking silently into an
uncertain future. (McGills Survey Of Cinema, p.1) It was the thematic richness
in the "Bicycle Thief." I am aware that there has been a lot of
complex criticism regarding this film, and much of it has been of diverse
nature. For one thing, De Sica exposes a variety of psychological and emotional
losses, i.e. the simple story of a stolen bicycle. At the same time, as Antonio
meets frustration at every turn, he losses his confidence and his self respect
and feels completely isolated. However, he is rises above the earthy, so to
speak, when he refuses to press charges on the thief. In the next major move of
the film, he is quick to attempt to steal someone else’s bicycle. Humiliation
is his only reward. At the same time, there is yet another facet of this film
with has to do with father and son relationships. It is actually the emotional
center, and in my view the one around which the entire story unfolds. De Sica
has claimed that his primary intent was poetic rather than political, and the
film has been praised as anti-Facist and pro-Solidarity. Indeed, the stark
realism of this backdrop reveals the results of years of war and impoverished
living. The comments made about society as well as politics are inescapable, but
are not overt. When De Sica began directing in the early 1940’s he had already
established himself as a successful leading man on both stage and screen.
Following his directorial debut, with a few sentimental comedies, De Sica
collaborate with screen writer Cesare Vazattini on "I Bambini Ci Guardano"
(1943); "The Children Are Watching Us," and embarked upon an artistic
partnership that would last throughout the 1970’s. He seems strongly
influenced neo-realistic style, and in addition to the "Bicycle
Thief," they contributed to other films as well. (McGills Survey of Cinema,
p.2) In view, the "Bicycle Thief" has much to do with a clashing of
cultures. There are transcending messages, i.e., politics and social decay which
appear in this movie, but are not necessarily the immediate intent of this film.
At the same time, it could also be argued that poverty is a central theme,
because one man (and his entire family) depend upon the ownership of a single
bicycle - - one which he is not able to get after it had been stolen from him.
In emphasizing the need to honor the individuality of each culture, one Satyagig
Ray saw no reason for closing the doors to the outside world in his
films/community. Indeed, opening doors was an important priority of Ray’s
work. In this respect, Ray’s attitude can contrast sharply with the increasing
tendency to see his own culture (India) or other cultures, i.e. European,
Spanish, Asian, etc., in highly conservative terms, for purposes of preserving
them from the "pollution" of western ideas and thought. He was also
willing to enjoy and to learn from ideas, art forms and styles of life from
anywhere, in India or abroad. Ray heterogeneity within local communities. This
perception contrasts sharply with the tendency of many communitarians, religious
and secular, who are willing to break up the nation into communities and then
stop dead there: "Thus far and no further." The great film maker’s
eagerness to seek the larger unit - - to talk to the whole world - - went well
with his enthusiasm for understanding the smallest of the small, i.e. the
individuality, ultimately, of each person. (Mamartya, p, 27)

"The Bicycle Thief; Ladri Di Bicilette," McGill’s Survey of
Cinema, 15 June 1995 Mamartya, Sen, "Our Culture, Their Culture, Satyagig
Ray And The Art of Universalism," Vol. 214, The New Republic, 1 April 1996

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