As a child growing up in the 90's, my movie viewing history consisted mostly of Disney animated films and cliche summer blockbusters. If the movie did not have a copious amount of explosions, guns, or colorful animation, I likely did not watch it. Films released before my time, particularly the ones shot in black and white seemed to lack what most people crave in movies still today: entertainment.
It was not until the past couple of years when I began to appreciate and enjoy watching older films, starting with classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Godfather, and eventually black and white films. I found the stories in these films to be much more captivating than the ones I was used to viewing. Craving for animations and action sequences were soon replaced with films that told great, sometimes simple, stories, that were often less concerned with special effects and heavy plots, and more about interesting characters, believable worlds, and strong themes.
Bicycle Thieves, one of the first black and white films that I have watched, opened my eyes to how films can function as works of art rather than entertaining pastimes. The film, directed by Vittorio De Sica, an Italian filmmaker, tells an emotional, tragic story of a father and son searching for a stolen bicycle. Yes, the plot sounds overly simplistic, but the film is nothing short of a masterpiece. I'd like to focus on two aspects of the film, the story world and characters, that I feel make it an exceptional piece of work.
Note that there may be spoilers in the commentary.
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Bicycle Thieves, which takes place in post-Word War II Rome, relies on imagery and character actions rather than dialogue to illustrate the world. It is filled with shots of ordinary citizens living in the city and going about their daily business.
For example, scene S1 depicts a group of men gathered next to an apartment building looking for jobs. They appear to be desperate for work, even angered and envious when when they find out that Antonio Ricci, the protagonist, is offered a job. The next scene (S2) shifts to a group of women in line, waiting to gather water from a pump surrounded by a barbed fence. They hold large buckets so they can carry water back to their homes. Scene S4 shows men biking around the city. These introductory scenes of Bicycle Thieves vividly paints what the socioeconomic environment of Rome was like without characters explicitly calling it out: many men were unemployed, there was no running water in apartment buildings, women often were outside pumping out water, and citizens often used bikes as a form of transportation.
Shot S3 is a more symbolic representation of Rome and her citizens. A pawn broker, who purchased bedsheets from Antonio in exchange for a bicycle, is shown walking up a ladder that leans against an infinitely high shelves that are layered with bedsheets. This is a ingenious and comical way of portraying the socioeconomic landscape without the use of dialogue. It instead relies purely on imagery and the audience's interpretation of it. As the scene concludes, we are left asking, "How many other people like Antonio and his wife pawned their bedsheets?"
Scenes S5-S8 are further examples of scenes that focus on everyday citizens to illustrate and help set the context of Bicycle Thieves's story world.
Where the supporting characters help establish the socioeconomic environment, the primary characters, Antonio and his son Bruno, drive the narrative forward. Their relationship is particularly interesting because as the story progresses, we start to better understand who they are and the relationship they have as father and son. Similar to the story world, the film does not rely on dialogue to reveal character details.
As a disclaimer, the descriptions below are my personal interpretation of the characters. I believe that films are subjective and often intentionally left ambiguous, and therefore open to multiple interpretations.
- Beliefs and values: Does not believe nor respect religion; a father/husband's primary responsibility is to financially support his family.
- S1: Across the room, a cross is shown visible on the screen. Just based on this shot, we know that the family is religious. But could the cinematography of this shot convey further details about the characters? Antonio is shown distant from the cross, which is blurred in the background. Perhaps this reveals a more obscure and complex relationship man has with religion.
- S6: Antonio looks for an old man who was seen interacting with the bicycle thief. He follows him inside a church but not without causing a large commotion. Antonio, who seems totally oblivious to the service in session, shows a lack of respect for religious institutions.
- Weakness: Stubborn; not very perceptive of his surrounding; aggressive; neglects his son
- S1: Walks past his wife carrying large buckets of water instead of helping her.
- S3 & S6: On multiple occasions, Antonio fails to protect his son from danger.
- S5: Antonio acts aggressively against the thief, even threatening to kill him.
- Need: Antonio needs to accept the circumstances and come up with another solution to support his family. His role as a father goes beyond financial support.
- Desire: To find his stolen bicycle; to fulfill his role as a father and not let his family down
- Beliefs and values: Looks up to his father; takes pride in helping out his family.
- S1: Bruno helps clean his father's bicycle before he leaves for work.
- S2: He plays a role in making money for the family as a gas station assistant.
- Weakness: Is unable to differentiate between what is morally right and wrong.
- S3: Bruno stands between his father and a police man. He seems to be contemplating on what is right and wrong.
- S4: Stands with a group of men who live in the same neighborhood as the thief. They criticize his father of wrongfully accusing the thief. Bruno appears to be hesitant whether to leave the group of men or follow his father.
- Need: Bruno needs to take a stance on what is right and wrong.
- Desire: To help his father look for the stolen bicycle; to love his father and follow in his footsteps.
- S5 & S6: Bruno holds his father's hands, in one scene pleading for the men to not take him away, and the second to remind him that despite his father's failings, he still loves him.
Antonio & Bruno's relationship
- S1: Antonio rides a bicycle with his son. They look at each other with excitement. Things are looking great up to this point.
- S2: Antonio hits his son in frustration. Bruno backs away crying and hides behind a tree.
- S3: In the aftermath of the incident in S2, Antonio and Bruno walk distant from one another. A direct contrast from S1.
- S4: His father feels guilty for hitting his child and wants to make it up to him. He treats his son to a meal at a restaurant.
- S5: Bruno is once again separated from his father, but this time among a crowd of men who denounce Antonio of accusing the wrong person.
- S6: Antonio walks ahead of his son, unaware that his son was almost hit by a car.
- S7: Antonio rarely looks down at his son during most of the film. However, near the end of the film after he is caught trying to a bicycle, he looks down at him, defeated and filled with guilt and shame. What a tragic way of revealing the subtleties of a father-son relationship during struggling time.
- S8: Bruno grasps his father's hand, reminding him that his love for him has not changed.