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Bicycle Thieves’ gets new DVD treatment

Rama Gottumukkala | Friday, March 23, 2007

Following World War II, hopefulness was in short supply across Europe. The continent was in ruins, and countries could no longer afford to entertain their citizens with escapist cinema. Out of this despair came a movement that irrevocably changed global cinema – Italian neorealism.

From the many notable films of this movement, one in particular – “Bicycle Thieves,” Vittorio De Sica’s masterful 1948 tale – has withstood the test of time. Its intimately detailed story of a father and son chasing down their stolen bicycle remains as powerful today as it was nearly 60 years ago. Tales of impoverishment, a popular topic in Hollywood and world cinema at this time, had never felt this raw or palpable.

The story of “Bicycle Thieves” is a simple one, but its deep emotions keep it from ever becoming simplistic. Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) struggles to provide for his family at a time when jobs were scarcer than hope. Against all odds, he gets a coveted position putting up posters around the city, a task that requires a bicycle. Scrapped for money, Ricci’s wife even sells the family bed sheets to buy the cycle. Hope seems just around the corner.

But when a pack of thieves steal the bike, the family’s livelihood, Ricci enlists the help of his young, impressionable son Bruno (Enzo Staiola). Together, they scour the streets of Rome in a frantic search.

The pioneers of Italian neorealism followed one mantra: “We must capture life as it is.” They used amateur actors like Maggiorani and Staiola to invest true emotion into their pieces, shooting on location in every corner of Italy and telling stories about the working class. Minimalist storytelling revealed the truest of feelings.

As with most socially conscious fare, “Bicycle Thieves” is not an entertaining film. But that never diminishes its power. Unlike the self-importance that seeps from many Best Picture winners, “Thieves” never feels like a morality play. Part of this stems from its simplicity, but mostly it’s because Ricci and Bruno captivate our emotions.

Like many films from the period, “Bicycle Thieves” has suffered in its video releases. The Criterion Collection recently released a beautiful two-disc set of the film, complete with a 75-page commemorative booklet. The first DVD of “Thieves” suffered from horrible video quality, marred by scratches, dirt and general wear. With this release, Criterion has drastically improved the audio and video quality. Although some segments still suffer from scratches, it’s unlikely the material can ever look better on a DVD release.

As for the supplements, Criterion has assembled three impressive documentaries for the second disc. Collecting interviews from actors, screenwriters and scholars, they offer a glut of information about De Sica, screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, the Italian neorealist movement and the film’s place among the best films of that era. The only regrettable omission is a commentary.

Criterion recruits top scholars to comment on some of the most significant films ever made, but not “Bicycle Thieves”. It seems incomprehensible that a scholar couldn’t be found to shed light on this film.

Critics of the movie often complain that nothing happens in “Bicycle Thieves.” What they don’t realize is the payoff to “Thieves” isn’t whether Bruno and Ricci catch the thieves. More than just a bicycle, father and son are chasing down a far more tenuous commodity in these lean times – hope. Hope for the future and for their lives, however small they may seem after the destruction of the war.

Like so much of life, it’s the journey in “Bicycle Thieves” – not the destination – that matters most.