Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Eleven

11 bicycle

#11 — Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

So much of the cinema of the nineteen-forties needs to be approached with the contextualizing recollection that the active engagements of World War II consumed around half of the decade-long span. It’s useful when considering the very different weight that war films must have carried — especially given how reticent filmmakers have been to build fictions that run in chronological proximity to contemporary wars in more recent decades — but it adds shading to so many films outside of that genre, even — or especially — tough-minded dramas that emerged in the aftermath of the global conflict but didn’t really explicitly comment on it. Indeed, the entirety of the Italian neorealism movement seems to be a expression of spiritual exhaustion in the face of international tumult. After years of on-edge thinking on a global scale, these films out of defeated Italy refocused on the small, even, in comparison, the miniscule. In a society smashed to pieces, it took an intricate focus to find the collective inner well-being.

Like director Vittorio De Sica’s later Umberto D., Bicycle Thieves is almost painfully small in scope and yet unearths deep profundities that feel epic. De Sica takes the calibrations of screen storytelling and complete reworks them to his own preferences. The story concerns an Italian man named Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) who is facing bleak circumstances marked by dwindling finances, a lack of opportunity in a struggling, recovering locale, and a young family in need of his support. A touch of hope is delivered when Antonio secures a job. That brightness proves momentary when the bicycle he requires to fulfill his duties is stolen. With his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) in tow, Antonio tries to solve his dilemma. There is no grand schemes nor elaborate plotting, no heightened drama as Antonio ponders whether he is desperate enough to resort to thievery himself. Instead, the film resonates because of its detailed attention to way the progression of a life is so completely out of the individual’s control. Misery can reemerge and swallow anyone whole.

De Sica delivers the film with a measured stillness and a resolute patience. He is fully committed to the ordinary in front of him, realizing that monumental challenges can exist in a simple existence just as they did a couple years earlier when the most bombastic human conflict imaginable spread across the entire globe. Everyone owns their personal context, and anxiety doesn’t necessarily adjust to suit the scale that might be determined by those outside of a situation. Beauty resides in these truths. With his stalwart camera, De Sica captures it all.

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