Day 364: ‘When a Bicycle Means Freedom’ 2018

Day 364
Friday 29 June 2018   10.32pm
‘When a Bicycle Means Freedom’   2018

Ladri di biciclette (1948)
A Vittorio De Sica Film

The beauty of growing old, and experiencing decades of living through all kinds of situations and conditions, is that maturity enables one to comprehend more of what one sees and hears. The Bicycle Thieves is one of those films which has always been highly regarded and most film students get to see it because it represents an important period and style of filmmaking. But aged eighteen, what could I possibly have made of it, coming from my lower middle-class Australian upbringing? What did I know about post-WWII Europe or Rome? What did I know about the fear of not being able to support a wife and child? What did I understand about desperation and the difficulty of finding work in the mid-to late 1940s? I lived at home; studying at a university was free when I got my Bachelor of Arts, and I only worked in between high school and university and the period between each year at uni; there was always food on the table and both my parents were working.

I remember watching The Bicycle Thieves as part of my film course and feeling a huge disconnection. I didn’t understand any aspect of it. I must have been so stupid at that point in life. So naive. I realised I was learning a lot about literature, plays, novels and poetry. Also, about Psychology. And music. I didn’t study the normal French, German, Italian or Latin at high school. I studied Japanese. I didn’t read any plays, novels and poetry that were written in French, German or Italian. Only music cut across all the borders between a hundred different countries. I didn’t study history at school or university. I didn’t know anything about the First or Second World War except that we, the Colonials, won and that America wiped-out Nagasaki and Hirsohima with an Atom Bomb.

So, when I studied Cinema, and came across movies with people speaking languages I didn’t understand, it mostly didn’t make much sense to me even with subtitles, and I didn’t have the initiative to investigate the history surrounding the films I was watching. Film was an entertainment. It was either good or bad, fun or boring, or – in the case of the French New Wave of the Sixties – weird. I could see why Citizen Kane was great like I could understand why The Rite of Spring was great. But Fellini, Bergman, Godard, Kurosawa, Ozu, Eisenstein, Bunuel: it was all tedious or boring. Back then, with The Bicycle Thieves, I wondered if it was a documentary. I couldn’t fathom how a camera could be there, in these great crowd scenes, with cars and buses and trams, recording it all. Instead of impressing me, it just confused me. I couldn’t understand why a film about someone stealing someone’s bicycle could be a great film, or even an important film. Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur were great films. Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind were great films.

Thirty five years later, my eyes were opened, as I gave The Bicycle Thieves another opportunity to impress me. And it did. Enormously. In fact, while it seems simple on the surface, it’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking and a tremendous accomplishment. To put a camera where De Sica put his camera, and film a new kind of realism on celluloid, was amazing. It ranges from scenes with hundreds and hundreds of people on the streets of Rome to just Ricci and his eight-year old son, Bruno, on the streets. While there are a number of scenes which are scripted and staged with actors, a lot of the scenes with Bruno and Ricci, seem not to be staged. It’s as if De Sica hid his camera and just had his actors, Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola, walk out and mill around with hundreds of other people who were unaware they were being filmed. The look of the film, more than anything, moving from intimate to epic, is what grabbed my attention. There was not a frame that was boring or uninteresting and De Sica’s handling of his actors is so skilful that it is easy to forget that anyone’s actually putting on a performance.

A great film. An extraordinary film.