World Cinema – Bicycle theives

This is yet another attempt for the love of cinema.
Am heading a new column “Beyond Kollywood” in behindwoods and hope to feature path breaking movies from regional langauages and around the world.

The bike was his messiah, his ticket to a career and an escape from his impoverished lifestyle. If you thought I was talking about Pollathavan, the Dhanush starrer that catapulted Vetri Maaran to fame and fortune, you are wrong. This is the plot of Bicycle Thieves, an Italian blockbuster directed by Vittorio De Sica in 1948.

The story unfolds in the post world war II era when Rome is rife with unemployment and poverty. A father, brilliantly portrayed by Lamberto Maggiorani secures a job plastering posters of Rita Hayworth for which he has to have a bike. Unfortunately, he has just pawned it to get a few days worth of food. He returns home to his wife and children cursing his luck or the lack of it. The wife, as always, quickly decides to get rid of their linen in exchange for the bike. He reports to work bike in hand and is enrolled. On his first day, the cycle is stolen in broad daylight. He gives chase but the thieves are too quick for him. Dejected, he seeks help from a friend who reassures him and takes him to a black market. Unable to find his bike there, he manages to spot the thief on his own. Does he get his bike back from the thief or is it too late?

Even for a first time viewer it is easy to spot the parallels to our own Tamil cinema. There are battles waged in front of the water tap, couples arguing yet calmly pawning the sheets for money, child labor and people bickering to get on to a bus and black markets. Sica’s masterpiece captures the raw emotions of poverty and tragedy brilliantly that everything else plays second fiddle. Devoid of color, this black and white drama paints the isolation, frustration and the gray areas of life vividly. The movie does not bank on star power with the lead played by a factory worker and most of the cast being untrained actors. But what it relied on was a solid plot, seamless storytelling and brilliant screenplay.

Cinema is primarily a visual medium. This is asserted in the movie where dialogues flow only when required. People crowding in front of the employment exchange, the pawned sheets added to a mountain of other items, a husband’s love for his wife as he cycles with her on the handlebars, people queuing to see a seer and a young boy’s love for his bicycle are all conveyed without a word spoken.
The entire movie covers a couple of days in the life of the protagonist yet we manage to invest in his life effectively. The story flows organically right from the first shot to end credits. No scene is wasted and the screenplay is taut. We feel his joy when he gloats about extra pay, the frustration on losing his cycle and the shame when chased by a mob. It is a coming of age movie that weaves real life drama without exaggeration or item numbers.

The background score adds momentum to the visuals and manages to convey the mood effectively. The despair and anxiety the father faces as he struggles to quiet his conscience yet cannot break free of the temptation to steal is amplified by the music. Will he cross over from good to bad? Will he give in to his poverty or hold on to his principles? A million questions crowds his mind and the wretched day of his life ends with people telling him it is his lucky day.

The movie was a pioneering effort in Italian neorealism depicting the psyche and conditions of Italian people. The irony of life is captured poignantly. Bicycle thieves is an inspiring film and noted film makers quote it as a landmark in movie making. Satyajith Ray having watched this in London returned home with a determination to direct. Anurag Kashyap manned the lens after viewing this classic. Like music, movies also transcend barriers and break free from the clutches of language. All we need is an open mind and an eye for good cinema. Bicycle thieves is a lesson for every film maker to watch and learn.

Edited version can be found here.

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