Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bicycle Thieves: The Criterion Collection

My first viewing of Bicycle Thieves remains one of the most memorable for me. I saw it, like many it seems, in a college class -- and the film didn't immediately shake me, but as I walked back to my dorm it was all I could think about. Gradually I started to take in the story, characters and themes as a whole, and was able to penetrate it more easily. Finally, as I explained Bicycle Thieves to my future wife I simply broke down in tears when I got to its famous, heart-wrenching climax. The emotions in Bicycle Thieves may catch you off guard because you are not watching acting, and it doesn't feel like a documentary -- it is the definition of neorealism and everything that genre strove for.

The Criterion Collection version of Bicycle Thieves arrived on shelves last Tuesday, giving it the elite treatment it so well deserves. In what is likely the best DVD of the young year, Criterion serves up a new transfer, three documentaries and an assortment of essential essays. But the biggest change of all is made up of two words: Bicycle Thieves. Until this DVD, the film was known in North America as The Bicycle Thief, whose singularity is factually incorrect when relating to the movie. Each title will give first-time viewers a different prejudice of the film, with the singular acting as somewhat of a spoiler since it must be referring to the main character (Damian at Windmills of My Mind has a great post devoted to this topic).

The extras appear on the surface to be light by Criterion's standards (no commentaries or galleries), but the biggest gems of the lot are housed in the companion booklet. Included is an essay written by Bicycle Thieves screenwriter Cesare Zavattini during the height of neorealism. In describing the challenges posed to neorealist filmmakers, Zavattini remarks that in an American film there might be a two minute scene depicting a woman buying a pair of new shoes -- whereas in neorealism that would be a two hour movie. Zavattini isn't bluffing either, he maps out just how he would go about making this shoe purchase movie, and it explains the brilliance of Bicycle Thieves beautifully: taken on its own, the plot is nothing. French film critic Andre Bazin expounds on this idea in his essay: 'the whole story would not deserve two lines in a stray dog column.' This is why Bicycle Thieves has endured through generations and remains just as relevant in any culture today. We have all lived this movie -- a seemingly simple pratfall which cannot truly be explained to someone who has not lived it.

It's too easy to compare neorealism to today's reality television. Neorealists used non-actors and worked exclusively on location, but they also crafted stories that were neither fantastical, spectacular or exploitive. With Bicycle Thieves, the story is a crime that means nothing to the thousands of other poor Italians walking Rome's streets, but it is a journey the viewer takes with Antonio and Bruno that feels coldly realistic because of the absence of film canons. There are no motives that can be questioned or reactions that can be doubted.

Contrary to the film's style, the making of Bicycle Thieves seems all Hollywood. Director Vittorio De Sica held large auditions to find the perfect any-persons for his roles, yet found none of the main cast by this method: Enzo Staiola (Bruno) was a 'clown-faced' boy trying to catch a glimpse of the production, Lianella Carell (Maria) was a journalist trying to get an interview from De Sica and Lamberto Maggiorani had brought his son to audition for the role of Bruno. In all these cases, it is reported that De Sica instantly knew he had found his characters, and this is how the genius of a neorealist works. In Maggiorani, he saw a beaten but hopeful man who had been through the wild highs and lows that his character experiences. Staiola's clownish face and awkward build made him perfect for the young boy whose childhood never existed. Maria looked capable of projecting the pain of an Italian wife and the love of an Italian mother. All of these 'actors' would not be asked to act, but simply live their parts as they would live their own life.

De Sica was renowned for his ability to work with children, and this is best apparent with Bruno -- perhaps the film's most memorable character. We see Bruno as a man, not a boy, who provides for his family just as his father does. When Antonio brings home the bicycle that ensures him a job, Bruno is fast at work mending and polishing the bike, and even makes jabs at his father for not noticing a dent. Bruno -- probably six years old -- has some kind of job on the street, and he barely glances toward his father when he hops off the bike and gets right to work. Bruno lives in a world where he is not allowed to be a child, and he takes great pains to not act like one. Bicycle Thieves reaches new heights when Bruno's adult facade starts to wear away and begins to naturally act his age -- his response to 'how about a pizza?' is too natural to be called acting and is possibly the film's greatest moment.

Antonio is a man who understands the weight of this terrible day, when reclaiming his bicycle will make him the father and husband he strives to be, while coming home empty-handed takes him back to the despairs he felt only one day prior as a penny-less provider. The more dead ends Antonio finds, the more driven he becomes in his quest, and the more he realizes that there is no way out of his existence. The circle Antonio finds himself in starts with the police who can't try to care about his problem and ends with the thief community that vigorously supports their own and makes their members nearly invincible by providing infinite alibis. Antonio finds himself retreating to the one place where he is allowed to exist -- his home -- before trying in vain to get in a desperation punch to the world that robbed him, and failing just the same.

The new transfer of Bicycle Thieves is a richer, crisper image than previous incarnations, easily handling the chaotic rain sequence and showing the movie's deep focus well. The mono soundtrack is about as good as it can be, and an English dub is now available.

The extras on Disc 2 include 'Working with De Sica,' an assortment of recent interviews with surviving Bicycle Thieves collaborators, presented in anamorphic widescreen. Included in this bunch is none other than Staiola, who recounts the shock of being selected by De Sica, and screenwriter Suso Cecchi d'Amico, who talks vividly about how the ending was her original idea. 'Life as It Is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy' works as a near-lecture from genre scholar Mark Shiel, who gives rich insights on the history of the art, and how it affected the world cinema. While this feature is interesting, it is also somewhat disappointing to have Shiel being the only participant. 'Cesare Zavattini' is the most impressive of the DVD extras, it is a 2003 Italian-made documentary on the life of the Bicycle Thieves screenwriter. Many of the heavyweights of Italian (including Bernardo Bertolucci) weigh in on Zavattini, and we learn about his life from beginning to end. As a whole, the three digital supplements are impressive not only for their individual insights, but also in the fact that their information almost never overlaps.

The accompanying booklet (lavishly bound and printed) is a fascinating collection of contemporary analysis, period theory and remembrances from cast and crew. Zavattini's writings on neorealism provides a look at the genre from an individual who was driving it, and Bazin's exploration contains a wealth of keen talking points, including this knockout: 'It is our intelligence that discerns and shapes it, not the film. De Sica wins every play on the board without ever having made a bet.' The final entry is a collection of memories from those involved in the film, ranging from De Sica himself to none other than Sergio Leone -- who at age 16 (!) played one of the German priests in the rain scenes and also helped behind the camera. All of the collected memories were originally published in the 1997 Italian book Bicycle Thieves.

All in all this is another home run from Criterion, which continues to raise its high standards and gives this treatment to a monumental and timeless film.


Damian Arlyn said...

Believe it or not, at the time I wrote about the different English translations of the film's title, I had NO idea that Criterion was about to release it on DVD. It was actually the fellow who posted the comment on my blog that first brought this to my attention.

I'm not even completely sure why I picked now, of all times, to research the film's title and write about it. I think it might be because our local college film professor Jon Lewis (yes, from This Film is Not Yet Rated) shows it in his class every year around this time and the students who happen to miss the showing invariably come to our video store asking for it (since Jon is kind enough to promote our store in his class). Get enough young people asking you if "The Bicycle Thief is in" and an equal number of young people asking if you have "Bicycle Thives in," and, trust me, the subject will be on your brain.

Anyway, thanks for the "shout-out." Great post too. I haven't seen the film in a few years but reading your words made me want to watch it again. We'll probably add the new Criterion edition to our collection while retaining the crappy Image Entertainment release we already have. That way, when folks ask, I can say that we carry both The Bicycle Thief AND Bicycle Thieves.

Adam Ross said...

Just hope that they don't think they're getting a sequel with "Bicycle Thieves"!

Corvallis is a great town to have a video store, I went to college in Ashland where we were lucky to have D.J.'s Video, with its odd organization of movies and eccentric employees.

Damian Arlyn said...

Just hope that they don't think they're getting a sequel with "Bicycle Thieves"!

You know, that wouldn't at all surprise me.

I will never forget the day I received a phone call at the video store (this was shortly after Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake had hit video) and a young female voice asked if we had Psycho. Since people often like to revisit the original whenever a remake is done I asked her if she wanted the original or the remake. There was about three seconds of silence and she said (I swear I am not making this up): "It's a remake?" :(

Corvallis is a great town to have a video store...

You are right, sir. We're the last independent video store left in the area and we're surviving.

I went to college in Ashland where we were lucky to have D.J.'s Video, with its odd organization of movies and eccentric employees.

I've actually heard of that place. My sister went to Southern.