Have you seen Bicycle Thieves*? If not: You know those critics’ polls
of the greatest films of all time, that are pretty much always topped by
Citizen Kane? Well, Bicycle Thieves pretty much always places second or
third in such lists. And, it delights me to report, with jolly good
I deliberately went into it knowing next to nothing about it, other than how highly regarded it is. The film is absolutely absorbing, beautiful and heartbreaking – a street-level odyssey through post-war Rome. I don’t want to give away anything about the deceptively simple story (but you can see my attempt at a spoilerless summary in the footnote below***).
Go out in style
I just want to focus here on a single line from a single scene. At one point, the main character Antonio Ricci appears to recognise the futility of the search for his bicycle. But he decides to take the disastrous implications for his livelihood of a bicycle-lite future in good cheer. He suggests they “go out in style,” throwing off the burdens of his purgatory and offering to treat his son Bruno (his companion on this search) to a pizza. The ensuing trattoria scene is cinema at its purest and most beautiful.
This scene also says something wonderful about worry. As I have recently blogged, I am something of a worrier. So I took great heart in Signor Ricci’s words as he sits down to order:
“Why worry myself to death? I’ll be dead, anyway.”
How do you throw caution to the wind when you have nothing? Signor Ricci orders what I would presume is the cheapest thing on the menu. Wine. Fried mozzarella sandwiches.
But even as they throw off their worries in their humble feast, their poverty is brought home to them. In one of the loveliest sequences in the film, little Bruno shoots envious but friendly glances off-frame towards a snooty kid enjoying finer fare – who shoots unconcernedly superior and dismissive looks back off-frame at wee Bruno. Throughout the film, Bruno is very much the father to Signor Ricci.
Worry is waste
My friend Heather Bussing said something brilliant about clarity and about the pointlessness of worry in a recent Twitter conversation with me and Doug Shaw, sparked by my tweeted share of an FT article on the rise of the so-called ‘gig economy’ and the resulting decline of the traditional career (I strongly recommend giving that FT article a read, if this is a new topic to you). Heather said:
“Seeing things clearly so you can do (or not do) is essential. Worrying is a waste. I struggle in between.”
I struggle in between, too. I’m sure most of us do. I wanted to shared both Signor Ricci’s and Ms Bussing’s words on worry here, in the hope they might provide some clarity, some perspective on what truly matters, and what is just needless spinning of the bicycle wheels of worry (you never know, maybe I’ll even take these words to heart one day).
Gentle reader, allow me to finish with something that made me very happy. I am delighted to report that the actor who portrayed little Bruno in Bicycle Thieves is still with us. Enzo Staiola (for it is he) was a non-actor who was cast by De Sica purely on the basis of his walk. But his performance in Bicycle Thieves is extraordinary. Although his IMDB page tells us his last film was in 1977, he is still very much with us as a gentleman of 75.
Here’s Staiola at age eight as Bruno:
And here he is in his seventies, in a 2013 Italian TV interview celebrating his role as “il celebre bambino di ‘Ladri Di Biciclette’” (so I glean from the caption in the pic below. Any Italian speakers reading this, please let me know if my risible lack of Italian means I’m missing out on any lovely words of wisdom here…):
I know nothing of Enzo Staiola’s life. But he made it to 2015. He is still recognisably the Bruno of Bicycle Thieves. Whether his 74 years have been ones of worry or of choosing to go out in style enjoying a stringy mozzarella sandwich, he endures, he is alive. Worrying is a waste.
* Directed by Vittorio De Sica in 1948, Bicycle Thieves is apparently the key film of the post-war Italian neo-Realist movement (so I learnt from reading the BFI’s handy hand-out on the train home afterwards). At a time when Hollywood cinema was bigger than life and its stars exemplified by your Cary Grants, the Italian neo-Realists took what was then a joltingly realistic, in-your-face and warts-and-all approach to depicting real life. De Sica presents a street level view of the daily grind and hustles of the urban poor in post-war Rome, its trattorias, its pawn shops, its brothels and the markets where purloined bicycles might be fenced.
** I must urge any London or south east England types reading this seriously to consider going to see this film on the big screen at the BFI (Still a good few screenings left, up until Thursday 27 August. Details here). Alternatively, it’s permanently available to you as a DVD.
*** The plot: Post-war Rome. Economic devastation. Regeneration yet to kick in. Work is, to put it mildly, scarce. Poverty-stricken family man Antonio Ricci somehow finds an escape route from his purgatorial life, landing an extremely sought-after job as a bill poster. The only catch is this: no bicycle, no job – and his bicycle has been pawned to put food on the table. Signora Ricci, ever resourceful, pawns their bedsheets so Antonio can get his bicycle out of hock. He cycles off to work the next day – a Saturday – a proud man, with the unfamiliar prospect of a steady income. But gentle reader, regard the title of this film, and imagine what events might befall him on his first day. Signor Ricci and his son Bruno embark on a journey through the purgatory of devastated Rome on the Sunday, hoping to retrieve the bicycle so that he can return to work on Monday.
- All Bicycle Thieves images screengrabbed from a version I found on youtube. I make absolutely no claim to the copyright for these images, and consequently will be more than happy to remove them if required.