Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette) – Vittoria de Sica Italy 1948; Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 23 Dec 08. Ticket price: £6-65
Retrocrit: seeing as thinking
There is one shot that takes place in the first reel of Bicycle Thieves (BT) that serves as a concentration and encapsulation of the film’s creative endeavour and as a visual realisation of its creative concerns.
Maria Ricci hands her husband Antonio her wedding dowry, their quality cotton and linen bed sheets, to take to the pawnbrokers, so that he can use the money to redeem his bicycle. He hands over the bundle of bedding to the ledger clerk in exchange for 7500 lira. Going through the building on his way to redeem his bicycle he passes a doorway that leads to the cavernous interior of the pawnbroker’s storage area. As Antonio stops and looks in the film cuts to a point of view shot. From Antonio’s point of view we see a huge set of storage shelves, perhaps ten or more meters long and nine stacks high filled with nothing other than bedding. A figure enters the space with the bundle of bedding that Antonio has just pledged; using the foot rests attached to the mountain of shelving the figure climbs up this huge structure and deposits the Ricci family’s wedding dowry in a space on a shelf near the top.
The characteristic feature of this shot is the way it is executed and editorially structured to represent the point of view of Antonio. Antonio doesn’t say what he sees. He does not tell us what he thinks. The premise of the movie is: we see what he sees. And in seeing what he sees we are given an opening into his state of mind as he carries on with his business at the pawn broker. We are present with Antonio, experiencing his thoughts and ideas, even though they may perhaps be unformed. We, audience, in seeing as Antonio sees also have thoughts, perhaps also elusive and unformed about what we are seeing. And in this tacit dialogue with Antonio the film allows us to experience a state of mind and related emotive responses that are triggered by the world of the pawn shop. The stimulus of this world engenders different sorts of thoughts. For instance from one point of view there is some reassurance that the vast bureaucracy that comprises the pledge business looks after your property and knows where to locate it when you come back to get it out of hock. Another thought triggered by the experience is the overwhelming nature of need served by this business, which reflects the desperate situation of the country where thousands of people are reduced to having to sell their bed linen. The thought occurs that the individual is simply one amongst millions struggling to survive; an insignificant cell in a body of poverty and social deprivation. Yet for all that an individual in the world making sense of the world.
Bicycle Thieves is about thoughts and states of mind that are engendered through visual and audio situations in the worlds that are discovered uncovered and explored through the course of the movie. The psychological linkages are weak in the sense that it is the audience through what is framed by the camera and who through the medium of the main character, have to make connections between thoughts ideas emotions and actions. The determining elements in the film are weak and the audience cannot be certain about their understanding of what they see; though BT’s structure of opening up worlds, allows them the privilege of entering into open dialogues of possibilities through and with the characters.
By contrast in a recent Italian film Gomorrah (G) by Matteo Garrone, all the connections are strong. The characters and the situations allow of no ambiguity; they are simply stereotypes with the usual strong linkages. The meaning of Gomorrah is simplistically located within the action; in the main the banality of gangsters killing gangsters. In BT the worlds do not impose themselves, they insinuate themselves into the viewers consciousness through medium of the point of view of the actors. which allows a number of potential meanings to be construed. The housing estate, the pawn shop the markets the church the faith healer the restaurant are all worlds about which the audience can make their own evaluations. But we do so tempered by the state of mind of Antonio and Bruno. We will bring our own prejudices to understanding these worlds; but in BT they are never locked down as clichés in the main because their salient features take meaning from the particular point of view of Antonio and Bruno. In G worlds are presented in a quite other manner. The architecture for instance is presented not through the eyes of the players but as a determining background to action which establishes buildings and locations as having significance. The film bestows signification upon the depicted brutalist architecture, which becomes a sign pointing to a particular cause and effect: brutalist buildings create brutal conditions create brutal people. Lacking in Gomorrah are any mechanisms for linking the characters thoughts and ideas and states of mind to the situation in which they find themselves. The poorer for it, G is simply little more than a sausage machine churning out action image sausages.
BT under de Sica’s direction (and there are also seven credited writers) is a strip of action exploring through a period of some 48 hours Rome in 1947. In a way there is no story just a human situation which allows some of the many worlds of Rome to be opened up to us through the instrument of a human dilemma. Central to the enterprise is not the social setting of the film, the hard condition of the working class, or its use of non professional actors and actual locations. What is central to BT is the way it is shot to release a dialogue between the players and the audience in which the state of mind of the players and the meanings and emotions felt are central and the use of worlds not as signs, but as sources of pure audio and visual experience.
When I left the cinema I met some friends who commented that the film had a sad ending. The last sequence in BT shows Antonio’s unsuccessful attempt to steal a bicycle, witnessed by his young son Bruno. He is caught red handed: a humiliating experience but one from which Antonio escapes without police involvement. The final shot shows the rear a large crowd of people moving slowly away from the camera. The crowd: everyone ultimately in Rome is part of this huge shuffling moving social body of people. However I didn’t think that you could construe sadness from this final sequence. Or at least not a sadness that might have lasting and defining impact on the relationships in the film. The reason being that BT had woven far too complex a pattern of reciprocating ties between Antonio and Bruno, for Antonio’s failed theft to be understood as having only one meaning in relation to emotional construct, either in relation to his own psyche and state of mind or the relationship between him and Bruno. Without going down the path of imagining other possible interpretations that might arise out of the incident of the failed theft (for instance a deepening of wisdom and compassion in Bruno for the situation of his dad) all that can be said is that the films ends at this point and nothing more is shown. But in the course of the film we have learnt something. And so perhaps have the characters.
There are many intensely enjoyable vignettes throughout the movie; characters glimpsed from other worlds: the lovers by the river, the wife of the suspected bicycle thief in the market screaming at Antonio that she didn’t ask him his shoe size so why should he ask her the serial number of the bike; the rich boy in the restaurant. But one small piece of action I particularly enjoyed was the incident when Antonio sets off from the apartment to go to work. He tries to take Maria by surprise with a kiss but she fights him off with vigour and energy. When she has stopped him they face each other, look each other in the eye and then kiss, with passion. Maria is the type of woman who will only accept a kiss on her own terms: terms of equality.