On a Friday night in America, what most of us reach for is a little escapism: some car crashes, maybe some romance, aliens, werewolves, happy endings. Especially now, with the world's wounds gaping wider with earthquakes and political upheaval and the wearying recession.
Movie still found here.
In my household, it's a bit different. After a long, grueling work week, we clicked on the "Foreign" Netflix tab. And we came up with "The Bicycle Thief," a classic of Italian neorealism from 1948. Netflix suggested I would give it 5 stars, and indeed, the Data Mining Demons do not lie.
We made the choice partly because son was the only remaining child at home this particular Friday night, and he likes and doesn't get much in the way of Foreign. Really dedicated readers may remember my post on this topic some years ago about another classic, this one Swedish.
I will probably do some spoilers (in fake Italian, "gli spoiglieri") from this point on, so scurry off now, you ones who don't want it spoiled.
"The Bicycle Thief" is about a man who's trying to provide for his family in post-World War II Italy. That country's economy is shattered, and many are out of work. Antonio is young and good-hearted, and he has a good wife, Maria, and good son, Bruno. You're rooting for them from the very beginning. When Antonio gets a job putting up posters around the city of Rome, all seems well. The one catch: he has to use a bicycle to get around town. If he doesn't have one, he can't keep the job.
It's not difficult to figure out what happens on the first day of work: the bike is stolen. Antonio has one day off, Sunday, to try to find it. Otherwise it's unemployment again, and the family is on the brink, with Bruno and a new baby to raise as well.
So most of the action of the film revolves around this one problem, and how it might be solved. As another blogger has pointed out, the film magnifies the problem into something that is greater than it should be-- thinking about this realistically, there are so many bicycles in Rome, you'd think Antonio would be able to borrow one till his first paycheck came in.
But I was caught up in the all-or-nothing nature of the film, which takes on the pathos of something much greater and more momentous, like a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. It's in the back of your mind from the beginning that the only way out is for Antonio to make his own theft. I mean, this film is full to the gills with bicycles. Couldn't someone spare just one? But as sure as Italian men are devastatingly handsome, you know Antonio is going to have to go the same route as the thief he's pursuing.
What takes this simple story to its 5-star heights? Bruno, of course. This 8-year old kid spends the day of searching with his dad, and personifies hope. He has an unshakable confidence in his father, even as it becomes clear there's no way, no how they're going to recover this two-wheeler. The performance of this youngster is unforgettable.
Indeed, Bruno is the salvation of the film, because stories, whether Italian or American, and especially ones that don't end happily, need to have some kind of hope anchoring them. As Antonio and Bruno march into the future, you don't know what's going to happen to them. But Bruno's love-- and compassion-- for his father is intact. You see that as he looks up at Antonio, who is barely holding it together, and takes his hand. In Post-World War II Italy, you have to grow up fast.
It's said that we turn to tragedies in order to comfort ourselves with the notion that even if our lives are sad, someone else's is much sadder. I don't think that was the case this time for me. This time, I just felt for the two characters almost as if I knew them, and I wished them well. Maybe that's the point of "realism," to tell an almost documentary story about ordinary people and yet to make it seem as grand as Sophocles.
This still found at this blog.