Monday, 1 December 2008


NB If you’re worried about plot spoilers for a 1948 film, they follow! And yes there is more to spoil than ‘someone’s bike gets nicked.’

The Cine-City Festival is back in Brighton for another year, and (among other delights) has given me the chance to finally see De Sica’s acclaimed drama Bicycle Thieves. As it turns out, this film is just as good as everyone has always said it is!

Of course, as a totem of Italian post-war neo-realism, it’s also a magnet for brickbats. It’s been criticised by some for not being ‘realist’ at all, with accusations that it’s even “manipulative.” But these are arguments against some absurd caricature of neo-realism rather than the style itself. (Though it doesn’t help that the genres defenders, such as Bazin, often made almost as foolish claims.) It’s abundantly clear that De Sica isn’t concerned with finding something ‘real’ and pointing a camera at it. ‘Realism’ is an artistic genre, and hence a form of artifice, as much as any other. To turn his sense of cinema into a criticism is the height of ludicrousness. A measure of the film’s success is that, even when you know it’s based upon a novel (by Luigi Bartolini) you find it almost impossible to imagine it as such – so pure is the sense of cinema it exudes. Similarly it’s sometimes claimed that the storyline is not as casual and free-flowing as it looks but actually conforms to a narrative structure. Again, this is not a criticism but a compliment with an identity crisis.

De Sica’s talent is not to dispel cinema’s devices but know which ones to keep in. Cross-cutting, for example, is rarely used here – the focus is almost all upon our protagonist Ricci. When he pawns his own bedclothes we see the pile of linen in the brokers, testament to how many have come to the same step. But we see the size of this pile via a reaction shot - through his eyes. Similarly, we learn almost nothing of the actual thief – where he’s put the bicycle, his relationship to the old man. We don’t even know if his fit is fake or not. We only know of him what Ricci does. Cross-cutting is minimised not because it’s not ‘real’ but because it would mitigate against seeing this world through Ricci’s eyes. The weaving camera shots give us the feeling the film is being shot in long takes in real time, even though this isn’t actually the case.

The Forties Rome we see feels almost like another planet, not only the palpable poverty but also the astonishing labour-intensiveness of life –fleets and flurries of workers continually pass us by, such as the army of street-sweepers that descend upon the morning. It adds weight to my hypothesis that, as a modernist art form, cinema has some inimical connection to the urban environment. (Alas, the Cine-City festival has now almost given up honouring its name as a festival of city films.)

It’s perhaps interesting to note that, upon release, the film was often criticised from the left. (Though the scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini was a Communist Party member, De Sica was not.) “As a form of social criticism,” claims Aristides Gazetas, “[it] never attempts to examine the root causes behind the poverty, nor criticize the ‘system’ that creates the injustices and inequalities.” Tomasulo even insists that "at best, the film is reformist; at worst, it legitimizes the ideology of bourgeois liberalism." De Sica was accused of propounding nothing but empty humanism, eight reels of weepy sympathy rather than an ounce of constructive suggestion.

To this charge, that the film’s chief deficiency lay in offering no ‘solutions’, it’s tempting to reply facetiously. Perhaps Ricci should have caught his thief, then united with him against a system which exploits us all. They could then have refused to put up their Rita Hayworth posters until the capitalist edifice crumbled around them. However, this criticism does illuminate what the film is doing to a greater extent than those who simply complain it’s not ‘really real’.

It’s true that, while Ricci faces problems which are typical of his time, he is still individualised. He is different from the types which inhabit Eisenstein films, who often feel as if they’ve stepped down from the geometric forms of Soviet propaganda posters. And this emphasis on him as a man, like you and me, is vital. Compare the plot to an outwardly similar story, Will Eisner’s acclaimed newspaper strip Ten Minutes, published the following year. (A semi-accurate summary of it is here.) Like Ricci, Freddy is hard pressed by life and in a moment of weakness resorts to crime. Both acts are presented as out of character, and neither ends well.

But Eisner emphasises this moment, closing in on the point where Freddy finally gives in to his weaknesses. He’s like a bridge which breaks the first time a heavy truck passes over it. The truck may have precipitated the break, but the problem was a structural flaw in the bridge. De Sica and Zavattini, conversely, contextualise the moment. Because we have inhabited Ricci’s reality up to this point, we understand his temptations. The very causes of his hesitation cause us a sense of dread, as it is all too credible to us that he’ll try to steal the bike. As Zavattini said, “that man is bearing what I myself should bear in the same circumstances.” To use Tomasulo’s terminology, it is Eisner’s work which “legitimises the ideology of bourgeois liberalism” (an abstract ‘morality’ devoid of context), De Sico and Zavattini have other fish to fry.

The whole of the film expands from the agony of that moment, including Ricci’s subsequent capture. (Which by then feels fated.) We are invited to consider what we would have done in the same situation. Any ‘solutions’ then offered would not only by necessity feel pat, but would crush the poignancy of this moment. As it stands the film is not closed and didactic, but open and troubling. It’s emphasis is not on the possibility or otherwise of living any other way, but the impossibility of the way we live now. As Zavattini said: “It is not the concern of an artist to propound solutions. It is enough to make an audience feel the need, the urgency, for them.”

It’s also arguable that the film is making a concrete point, albeit a harsher but more worldly one – that to survive in this world a poor man needs to be part of a gang. The fleets of uniformed workers come in here. Workplaces in Italy then were normally associated not only with a union but a political grouping, all who worked there were expected to join the grouping to enhance collective strength. A smart worker whose political inclinations lay elsewhere would learn to shut his mouth.

We first see Ricci sitting apart from his peers, having to be called over to hear about the job he’s won. Later he catches the titular bicycle thief but is unable to confront him when the lad’s neighbourhood comes together to defend him. Even his final desperate attempt to steal a bicycle himself come to naught from, unlike the original thief, having no accomplice to throw pursuers off the scent. (Admittedly he does at one point raise a posse in search of the stolen bicycle, who even seem to represent Leftism as much as anything does here. But this withers away.) Ricci suffers, what Bosley Crowther called “the isolation and loneliness of the little man in this complex social world”. He is a man with only his own determination, which he finds to be not enough. Perhaps such savage honesty is more productive than abstract calls for class unity.

More Cine-City reports to follow...

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