Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 89 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Italian, Dolby Digital 1.0 English dubbing
Review Date: February 17, 2007
My introduction to the world of Italian neorealism occurred one brisk fall afternoon in a film studies class I was taking. The professor showed the class two films by director Vittorio De Sica Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief (as it was subtitled on the 16mm print that was used). When I emerged from the class at the end of the three plus hours, I was thunderstruck by this different way of making films. Gone was the artifice of a typical Hollywood, British, or French confection and replaced by scenes filmed in real streets, real houses, and often with real people, not professional actors, guerrilla filmmaking as it came to be called. These movies seemed liberatingly raw and inarguably true to life. I had just learned that films could look many different ways and still affect me in very powerful ways.
Bicycle Thieves (this new transfer corrects the decades-old mistranslations of the original Italian title), like all neorealist films, has a simple story: a working class man (Lamberto Maggiotani) who is hired to paste posters for a Rita Hayworth film all around Rome has his most essential tool for his work stolen on his first day on the job: his bicycle. Unable to chase down the thief (there were actually three men in on the crime, the other two used to divert him or slow down his attempts to follow the culprit), the man and his young son (Enzo Staiola) spend an entire Sunday in a seemingly futile search for his stolen property.
The film becomes a series of incidents as the father-son team walk around the city looking for the bike in the most likely places (a bicycle flea market, a church providing shaves and food to the jobless and homeless, various neighborhoods, a soccer stadium), but at its heart, the film is just as much about the journey that the father and son take psychologically as they get to know each other, maybe for the first time. They have their ups and downs during the long day (an idyllic lunch together turns ugly later when the father slaps his son and seems to lose his respect), but the film’s most touching moments for me (among many) involved the two times the boy saves his father: first when he fetches a policeman when the father is being harassed by the thief’s neighbors as they support his protestations of innocence, and second when his presence keeps the father from being arrested when things get really desperate for the father late in the film.
And De Sica doesn’t let the simple story prevent him from leveling satiric bombs at much of what he sees around Rome that disturbs him: an obvious pedophile at the flea market who is ignored by the crowd as tries to seduce the child, the “concerned” church elders who are more interested in decorum during their service than in helping someone truly in need, the blind faith of the mother and neighbors of the thief as he protests his innocence, psychics who bilk the innocent and desperate with no guilt whatsoever. For a brief film with a simple story, Bicycle Thieves is notably rich in what it contains for a thoughtful viewer.
Criterion presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Thoughtfully, they have windowboxed the image to aid those viewers with displays which have substantial overscan to be able to see the entire frame without losing any image. Anyone who has seen the 1998 Image DVD of this film will greatly appreciate the elaborate efforts Criterion has made to rid the image of dirt and damage. True, there are still thin scratches that crop up here and there throughout the presentation, and in a couple of instances, I glimpsed what looked like the beginnings of emulsion deterioration. Still, the black and white image looks the best I’ve ever seen it, very film-like with smooth contrast and is much less digitized-looking than the Image release. The movie is almost sixty years old, and this is likely the best it will ever look. If you’re expecting the jet blacks or pure whites of the Warner DVD transfers of Citizen Kane or Casablanca, you won’t find them here, but it’s still a huge improvement on what we’ve had before. The English subtitles, newly translated for this release, are easy to read. The film is the only inhabitant of disc one, so bits are maxed out for the film’s video presentation. The film itself is divided into 19 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track is clear and strong in the original Italian. Since Italian neorealist films of this era were filmed silent with all the dialog, sound effects, and music added later, it’s no surprise that the words you hear on the soundtrack are not always what you see the lips of the actors saying. Still, hiss is absent and in general the soundtrack has been well scrubbed to take away layers of age-related noise. There is also an English dubbed track, but I must confess I only selected it to make sure it was there. I watched the film in its original language.
As with many Criterion’s releases, the producers of this set have offered the consumer a mini-film school in a box. On disc two in the set, we have an Italian documentary piece (with subtitles) filmed in 2005 with co-screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, actor Enzo Staiola (who played the child Bruno), and film historian Callisto Cosulich commenting on what working with director De Sica was like. Film scholar Mark Shiel provides an interesting and educational forty-five minute video lecture on the neorealist movement complete with clips from Bicycle Thieves and stills from many other classics of the genre. We’re treated to a fifty-five minute Italian documentary (with subtitles) on the life of editor, screenwriter, painter, actor, and director Cesare Zavattini filmed in 2003 and with testimonials from, among others, Bernardo Bertolucci and the always hyperactive Roberto Benigni. And to wrap things up, there is a 76-page booklet featuring essays on the film, director De Sica, the neorealist movement in Italy, and many haunting stills from the film (though I would have preferred if they hadn’t been tinted).
Bicycle Thieves is one of the cinema’s true masterpieces, as moving and in many ways as pertinent today as it was when it was filmed. Criterion has added another jewel to its crown of rescuing badly damaged masterworks and presenting them afresh to a public who can find much to enjoy and much to ponder within its slim 89-minute run time. Highly recommended!