Ladri di Biciclete [Bicycle Thieves] (1948)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Ladri di Biciclete</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">Bicycle Thieves</strong>] (1948)

(Kanopy streaming, September 2018) The road to cinematic enlightenment is paved with the keepcases of exasperating viewing experiences, and that should give an idea of how I feel about Ladri di Biciclete. The time is post-war Italy and the mood is grim, with rampant unemployment making it a challenge to even provide food for a family. In that context, as basic a tool as a bicycle can become crucial at getting a decent job and keeping it. So when our desperate hero has his bicycle stolen, he’s off to a lengthy investigation across Rome to try to get it back before he loses his job, his son in tow. Alas, it doesn’t go well, and if you were expecting a happy ending then you have much to learn about Italian neo-realism. Fortunately, the fact that I really did not enjoy the film should not stop me from appreciating its importance in film history. Constantly cited by cinephiles, Ladri di Biciclete is one of the best known neorealist films of post-War Europe, a time during which European filmmakers were in a hurry to make movies as distinct from the Hollywood standard as it was possible to be. Hence don’t expect movie-star acting, luminous cinematography or pat happy endings—expect realism, grittiness, non-actors in lead roles and ambiguous endings reflecting how life sometimes goes. This approach was a revelation to sophisticated North-American audiences back in the 1950s-1960s, but it’s definitely not as novel today as it was back then. Modern post-post-New Hollywood fans have all seen enough realist films to last them a grim and unhappy lifetime. Still, there’s no denying that Ladri di Biciclete is an important stepping stone—it would be difficult to find someone who likes this desperate vision of Rome better than Fellini’s Dolce Roma, but Fellini’s more exuberant style was only made possible because filmmakers such as Vittorio De Sica had laid down the realistic foundation for his more oneiric visions. Considering those considerations, I’m happier to have seen Ladri di Biciclete than I was while watching it—I can cross off that entry from a dozen “must-see movies” lists and never return to it again.

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