Bicycle Thieves (1948)

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First time with De Sica.

Out of the furnace of Rome Open City, which chewed a documentary route through a poor Roman community before jumping on the fire, three years later BT sits atop the cooling heap. As with the self-refuting Dogme 95 filmography or undefinable kraut rock canon, neo-realist procedure has fused with sculpted melodrama in a paradoxically kenotic celebration of the genre’s peerless capacity for generating empathy.

Antonio’s deadbeat Sinatra hat and limp grey jacket blown around town like empty rags, his rosy-cheeked boy Bruno in pursuit. I kept thinking of Ulysses: the sequenced narrative, the peripheral encounters and character vignettes, the summative sweep through the city (I’d love to see a roadmap of A’s real journey, if there is one and was one).

Cléo de 5 à 7 in the wandering and the unsympathetic haruspex. Why does A turn to the one comfort that he derides his wife for frittering money on? I think he has been kicked out of the habitual momentum of work (or of trying to find it, jostling and petitioning like On The Waterfront) and sees his worries full in the face. “The boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being”.

Sparing use of closeups is efficient; similar mid shots for pursuit; long shots for urban examination recalling domestic War footage and BFI archives. Mass Observation; chucked in at the deep end and nervous until we spy A in the crowd.

The market sequence is so tense in the editing (now closeups, the artificial panning across rows of possibilities – no chance); the church is infuriating (suits and sneers suppressing real secular concerns); the restaurant is heartbreaking (cf. drinking in LTT, Gambling in LBH – narratives of addiction? Certainly the excavation of fatalistic routes to crime is needed again today).

Constant consonance with comedic greats: Monsieur Hulot in A’s pursuits and near-misses, Keaton’s Cameraman in his fluster and frustration. While BTs own funny moments are deftly sequenced, (genuflecting mid-pursuit in the church; stranded between lookalike German monks under an awning in the rain) there is an uncanny comic undertone to A’s tribulations. Like the academic cliché about Kafka being a funny writer, we are sometimes positioned uncomfortably as spectators to a ‘tragedy happening to other people’.

“If only you knew what this meant to me,” he pleads with a policeman, but do we know any better? The foundation of documentary is alterity, the experience and revelation of otherness in an ethical encounter, the something “a little different” in the faces of the people we are shown. Watching BT with a friend we both remarked upon the strangely distasteful postcard beauty we saw in the Roman streets, the markets and the dappled pavements. How can we justify not just appreciating but ‘enjoying’ this story, this world? (didn’t want to get into this but it suggests itself)

I think the defiant ending is vital. A is absorbed into the public’s “passive grains without an echo”; the demolition of his future is muffled by the cushioning numbers. Rome Open City is best when its community comes together – following interlinked characters, the resistance of the wedding day. In BT A is plagued by community, hounded out of the vicinity of the man he insists is the culprit by tribalistic neighbours. When his fat friend Baiocco (kept unhelpfully thinking of Welles in Touch of Evil) has aided to no avail and sent A and B away on a lorry, he turns and walks towards us with another man; muted under the vehicle’s noise they speak animatedly but, we feel, about something else. As with nearly all of the film’s characters, we don’t see him again. BT may have been an attempt to refine “the drama in everyday life,” but everyday life (in the film, at least) sucks the drama up and streams forward as if nothing had happened.

10

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