One of the things I promised myself I’d rigorously do once the new year began was watching something new everyday. This was prompted partly by the feeling of being left out whenever conversations turned to ‘OMG this movie is AWESEOME’ or ‘I think he lost it after Pulp Fiction’, and partly because I discovered that I was a more a hoarder than a doer. Over the past year I’ve been hoarding movies and TV shows that I tell myself I will watch but almost never do.
I regret to say that I didn’t live up to my promise. Such it is with New Year Resolutions. Anyway, an afternoon of forced inactivity decided me – I watched The Bicycle Thief today and as always with such movies, I realized I had mixed feelings.
My cardinal mistake was in having heard of the film at all. You hear that such and such film is a classic and that its one of the best movies ever made and it fills you with expectations. I don’t say The Bicycle Thief was a bad movie – au contraire, it was wonderfully real and wonderfully poignant and it moved me to express myself vocally more than a few times.
My trouble with the movie was that I wished things would move quicker. I suppose this is what happens when you’ve recently watched something like What Happens in Vegas. Things happen just too quickly and too conveniently in that movie – but that is grist for another post. Getting back to The Bicycle Thief – I realize, upon reflection, that the pace is part of what makes the movie so very real. Fate, and only fate, is the prime mover in The Bicycle Thief. The protagonist, Antonio Ricci, is not a hero – he doesn’t make things happen, he doesn’t go out and right his wrongs. He tries, but there’s only so much he can do and that’s how it is in real life. You might want a cabbie at Nariman Point to take you Churchgate Station, but he refuses. It’s a ride that’ll take 10 minutes. But what with arguing with this man or hailing another cab willing to take you to your destination, it’ll be 30 minutes before you get there. That’s how life really moves – s.l.o.w.l.y.
So here we have poor Antonio Ricci, trying to support a wife and two kids in depressed, post World War II Italy. Jobs are hard to come by and after a year of waiting, Antonio finally gets employment putting up posters in the city. The only proviso – he must have bicycle. To get his bicycle back from the pawnbrokers, his wife pawns their bedsheets. And as luck would have it, his machine gets stolen on his very first day of employment. The film then tells of his attempts to get his stolen bicycle back. The police won’t take his complaint seriously, so accompanied by his young son and a few friends he heads off to a market where hot goods are dismantled and sold. Then he attempts to question an old man he saw conversing with the thief. He even goes to a fortune teller. And when he finally finds the thief, he can’t do anything, because the thief’s neighbours turn nasty even as the malefactor denies all knowledge of the bicycle. Disheartened and desperate, Antonio finally attempts to steal a bicycle himself. And here, ironically enough, he’s quickly caught and humiliated before his son. The last scene, shows father and son, tears streaming down their faces, walking off into an uncertain future.
This movie is already much discussed for its realism and how the director Vittorio De Sica shot on location in Rome and used non actors (the lead actor Lamberto Maggiorani was a factory worker). What I’ll highlight are some of the portions I liked. One was the scene where he tells his wife that he can’t take up his job without a bicycle and how they don’t have the money to get it back from the pawnbrokers. Preoccupied with his rant he doesn’t even notice that his wife is struggling with two buckets of water. Then there’s the scene where she angrily marches into the room where he’s sitting dejectedly and, taking matters in her own hands, strips the bed of the sheets and washes them so that they can be pawned off. One scene that made me laugh out loud was where Antonio is tracking the old man through a charity mission’s church while service is in progress. The church officials chase after Antonio because they feel he’s disrupting the service, but everytime they pass before the altar, they piously stop to take the Lord’s name. Life, in all its harshness, has such moments of levity.
One of the saddest things about the movie is the sight of ravaged Rome. The city is shown in all its grimness – crumbling buildings, weeds growing rampantly along the Tiber waterfront and muddy streets. You can see what the war has reduced the city and its people to. On one level, while we’re sympathizing with Antonio, you can also understand why the thief did what he did. The scene shot in his neighbourhood is very telling – from his one room house (which he shares with his mother and two siblings) to the number of unemployed and unoccupied young men just hanging around (in a world with a flourishing economy I doubt such a crowd would’ve gathered so quickly in the middle of a workday). It all tells of a poverty that is, perhaps, even more wretched that Antonio’s.
At the risk of sounding grandiose, I would say that more than the story of one desperate man, it is the portrait of a nation paralyzed by poverty. That, I suppose, is what makes this movie so remarkable and so poignant. In Antonio Ricci, one can see the whole of Italy. And to think a story with such layers and so many meanings is told in so simple and direct a fashion that one’s first reaction upon seeing the film is ‘Why is this movie thought to be so great?’ Stupid me.