Much has been talked about this film's cinematic excellence - by experts and enthusiasts alike - especially its neo-realist character, piercing narrative, minimal expression, astute camerawork, amateur cast, all of these on a shoe-string budget.
But to this day, all adjectives fall short and any judgement stays suspended the moment you sit to watch the film. The uninhibited delight of viewing comes way above the intellectual rigour of reviewing.
Call it Italian neo-realism, French poetic realism or any other ism, the film's story is unambiguous and the writer-director duo (the Marxist, anti-Mussolini Zavattini & the prolific, non-conformist De sica) tell it without any fuss whatsoever. On the face of it, it's a personal account of a poor man unable to cope with the demands of livelihood. All the same, it’s a universal statement on a post-war nation numbed by poverty and deprivation.
Religiously chronological in its flow, the film is devoid of any stylistic techniques, save for the subtle camera, to emphasize the moot point. Yet you relish the high points lurking in the linear narrative at regular intervals wrapped in seemingly mundane events.
The unemployed Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is chosen for the job of a poster-man that demands a man with a bicycle. Thanks to his wife Maria's (Lianella Carell) inventive sacrifice; he's able to redeem his bicycle from the pawn shop in exchange for bed sheets. However, Ricci's tryst with the prized job turns out to be short-lived - it's stolen in the course of duty.
Ricci and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) now begin their hopeless search for the bicycle on the bustling streets of Rome. In a moment of resignation, Ricci takes his weary son to a restaurant for an unexpected feast of Mozzarella and wine. Soon after the brief sojourn, they spot the thief but cannot reclaim the bicycle for lack of evidence.
In the concluding frame, Ricci lifts a bicycle himself, in an attempt to peddle the ruthless law on his feet, but he's nailed down all right. Whether as the unheard plaintiff before or as the desperate defendant now, his plight remains the same. The director provides some solace (much-needed at that) when Ricci is spared by the bicycle owner the moment the latter studies the innocent face of Bruno in the crowd. "Leave him alone, the guy has enough problems at hand", he sighs.
To this day, I am not able to escape the lump in my throat watching the restaurant scene: father and son relishing bread and wine in gay abandon, what if only for a fleeting moment...Or the concluding frame focused on the protagonist's vacuumed face - full of remorse, dejection and despair. His remarkably solicitous son is mutely comforting the visibly shaken father, the moist eyes conveying all unsaid. (The child is the father of the man) As both of them dissolve in the sea of humanity all around them, you are left wondering - how much of humanity is left in the sea?
We Indians owe to De sica, a tad more than the rest. It was "Bicycle Thieves" that inspired our own Satyajit Ray to produce rare gems with an equally amateur cast and on-location shoots....and of course, under similarly glaring economic constraints.
Pather Panchali's Durga and Apu or Bruno of Bicycle Thieves - these kids sure belong to the same family.