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Bicycle Thieves: The Criterion Collection

To screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, the ritual deployment of story in feature filmmaking was nothing more than "superimposing dead formulas over living social facts." He believed that reality as it existed before our waking eyes possessed at any given moment a powerful, unexplored poetry that film could capture in new and challenging ways, and he would continue believing this even after the Italian Neorealist movement he helped to popularize through his collaborations with director Vittorio De Sica was abandoned by the legendary directors who brought it into being (they being De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Luchino Visconti). Though Zavattini failed to garner significant critical success on the few occasions he directed, and he stuck with De Sica despite the filmmaker embracing a more classical aesthetic after missing commercially with Umberto D. (1952), his vision of a cinema in which the quotidian is invigorated by the keenness of perspective — becoming profound and, perhaps, stirring enough to effect real social change — was never better realized than in 1948's Bicycle Thieves (a more accurate translation than the previous U.S. title, The Bicycle Thief). Of the major works produced during this brief, but highly influential movement, only Rossellini's Open City could possibly rival Bicycle Thieves' influence, but the latter's overwhelming reception at the time of its release (it occasioned an honorary Oscar for best foreign language picture before the award was an annual bestowal) and continued high pop-cultural profile (it is, after all, the film ill-fated screenwriter David Kahane takes in on the night of his murder in Robert Altman's The Player) suggests that it remains the most vital achievement in Italian Neorealism. And one could certainly get away with calling it "The Greatest Film of All-Time" without furrowing the brow of even the haughtiest critic.

Ostensibly based on a novel by Luigi Bartolini, the six writers (four of whom received credit — it was common practice in Italian cinema to convene a gaggle of scribes to cobble together a script) essentially used the title as a jumping-off point for their own story. And, with Zavattini being the most dominant voice during this process aside from De Sica, the edict was that they construct as little "story" as possible. That said, Bicycle Thieves does play like a conventional narrative feature for at least its first half-hour as De Sica sets up the plight of a struggling laborer, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), who lands a badly needed job posting movie bills all over Rome, only to learn that he needs a bike to perform it — which is a problem, since Antonio pawned his previous one to put food on his family's table. Understanding the dire necessity of the situation (though not terribly happy about it), Antonio's wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), sells her linens to get the bicycle out of hock. All is going entirely too well as Antonio heads off to work the next morning and begins plastering posters of Rita Hayworth along the streets and walkways of the city — not the most sophisticated of tasks (though it does comment bluntly on the kind of cinema De Sica and Zavattini sought to subvert), but a godsend for an intermittently employed family man in postwar Italy. So, just as Antonio is settling into the job, his bicycle is stolen by an anonymous-looking bandit; that this occurs at about the 17-minute-mark (i.e. the point at which most conventional movies introduce their major dramatic question) indicates that Bicycle Thieves, despite its street-level verisimilitude and non-professional actors, might not be so different than any given film starring Rita Hayworth.

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De Sica, who was a popular film actor in Italy prior to becoming a director, clearly understood what appealed to mainstream audiences of his day, as evidenced by his Chaplinesque bits of comedic observation in Bicycle Thieves (e.g. the frantic chase through the church that finds Antonio's pursuers obediently kneeling each time they pass the pulpit, or the wonderful sequence in which Antonio's young son, Enzo, contends with a stringy mozzarella sandwich while keeping a curious eye on a snooty boy dining on more upscale fare at an adjacent table). But De Sica and his writers abandon conventional narrative beats once the trail for Antonio's thief goes cold, preferring instead to explore the seemingly common misery of their protagonist in order to discover what is uncommon (albeit human) about it; they even turn Antonio into a temporary villain after he strikes the cherubic-faced Enzo out of blind anger. This is where Zavattini's vision of a purely neorealist cinema is fulfilled in a way that had yet to be seen (Open City is adventurous in every aspect save for storytelling); indeed, with each passing frame one can see the groundwork being laid for subsequent masterworks by Truffaut, Pontecorvo, Wexler, and the recent dramas of the Dardennes. But Bicycle Thieves is no museum piece. De Sica and Zavattini were too clever and too compassionate at the height of their powers to date themselves, as the tears welling up in one's eye at the conclusion of this groundbreaking picture should make painfully clear. The only out-of-fashion aspect of their cinema is, sadly, their humanism — which remains honest and unflinching, as opposed to the counterfeit emotions of our era (the prime offender being 2005's noxious Crash). A movie like Bicycle Thieves is worth an entire year's release slate; if more people thought and created like De Sica and Zavattini, the societal ills they sought to assuage might recede just a little.

The Criterion Collection presents Bicycle Thieves in a superb full-screen transfer (1.33:1) with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio (including the original Italian language track and an English dub that, judging from a brief sampling, isn't half-bad). As always, the extras on this two-disc release have been carefully selected, the stand-out being Cesare Zavattini (55 min.), a terrific documentary that brings De Sica's faithful collaborator to the fore. Interestingly, this release is as much about Zavattini as it is De Sica, considering that the bulk of the accompanying 75-page booklet is taken up by the screenwriter's fascinating essay "Some Ideas on Cinema" and Andre Bazin's 1949 assessment of Bicycle Thieves and neorealism, which expounds on Zavattini's radical ideas. Also included on Disc Two are a pair of brand-new featurettes: the first a collection of interviews with surviving cast and crew of Bicycle Thieves, "Working with De Sica" (22 min.), and the second a solid primer on the movement in general titled "Life as It Is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy" (45 min.). The aforementioned booklet also features essays by Godfrey Cheshire, director Charles Burnett, and various remembrances by De Sica and his crew. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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