So says Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), the amoral producer in Robert Altman’s The Player. So unassailable is the popular opinion surrounding Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves that Altman uses the film as shorthand for the kind of untouchable classic that Hollywood could so easily ruin.
Closely associated with Italian neorealism, even defining the ‘movement’ for some, Bicycle Thieves tells a relatively simple story of a working class man, Antonio Ricci (Lamerto Maggiorani). Antonio’s bike is stolen and, unable to work without it, he desperately searches the streets of Rome, trying to find this simple item that represents a lifeline for him. Accompanied by his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), Antonio’s search becomes an seemingly unending quest to which there is no happy resolution. Carrying a significant emotional intensity the story of this man searching feels epic in its importance and as the film reaches it’s somewhat bleak climax one surely has to be made of stone not to have become entirely wrapped up in the plight of Antonio and Bruno.
One of the reasons Bicycle Thieves continues to be considered such a classic piece of cinema and why it is such a perfect film for Altman’s purposes is the simplistic but utterly compelling storytelling on display and it is this that plays such a large part in ensuring the audience is so deeply involved in the film. It is the way in which screenwriter Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio De Sica weave a story that ignores no minor detail that ensures we are 100% invested. Whilst often praised for its ‘realism’ and its methods of production, shooting on the streets, non-actors etc, it is actually the careful, skilful and entirely deliberate writing and direction that make it so compelling.
The film is not simply filled with happy accidents from hours of ‘documentary style’ filming. The short pause whilst Bruno eats in the restaurant, the slow tracking shot across the bikes in the streets of Rome, the low and close shots of all the men jostling around Antonio in the film’s final scene; these expertly constructed moments are all part of the reason Bicycle Thieves works so beautifully. The hands of master storytellers are busy at work.
The neorealist approach is also crucially important though and it carries with it a serious social and moral message, one that also never over simplifies the situation, despite the film’s minimal plotting. Although it never feels too much like Zavattini and De Sica are smuggling this into their film, it is more or less in the forefront, it is certainly impressive in the way in which the ‘message’ part of the film is so effortlessly included in what is essentially an entirely populist film.
Bicycle Thieves is without doubt a masterpiece and one that deserves pride of place in any DVD or Blu-ray collection.
This new HD transfer from a recently restored print is incredibly clean looking and far exceeds any previous experience I have had with the film both on DVD and at the cinema, where I have admittedly only seen very poor quality prints projected. Some of the clarity of this new restoration does appear to be down to a large amount of DNR but this does fall within reasonable limits. Some grain is lost as a result and the film is quite smooth looking but in this instance the benefits of the DNR out-weigh the negative effects. The LPCM mono Italian audio included with the release is a little tinny sounding but it is very clear and a marked improvement over previous DVD releases.
The disc comes with a reasonable selection of extras including a commentary by Robert Gordon and two documentaries that focus on legendary screenwriter Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio De Sica. The commentary from Gordon is engaging and filled with interesting details but unfortunately this is a film where any fan of it will most likely already be aware of most of the information imparted. The documentaries provide further information on Zavattini and De Sica but more from an autobiographical rather than critical point of view.
The review copy supplied included Blu-ray and DVD screeners only but the final release includes a four panel reverseable sleeve and a booklet with a new essay from Michael Brooke.
Bicycle Thieves is available to buy or rent as a dual format release now.
Film – [Rating:5/5]
Blu-ray – [Rating:4/5]