There's been lots of talk among the arts staff here about what kinds of movies people want to see when the economy is bad. It's a valid question, considering that theater attendance went up during five of the seven recessions since 1965 and January 09 box office grosses topped $1 billion (a 19% increase over Jan 08.) But it's a hard one to answer. Current box office receipts suggest movie watchers are schizophrenic about what they spend their (shrinking) dollars on. Based on the success of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," which ruled the box office for several weeks, you could posit audiences want escapist fare they can take the kids to. But then how do you explain "Blart" getting kicked out of #1 by the revenge flick "Taken," or brooding "Gran Torino," about a racist Vietnam vet, holding strong in the top 10 after eight weeks?Maybe it makes more sense to ask what movies audiences should be watching during these dark financial times, and the answer to that is simple: “The Bicycle Thief.” (Aren’t you glad this isn’t a post arguing the merits of “Mall Cop”?)
Vittorio De Sica’s simple story about poverty’s dehumanizing effect on one out-of-work father won an honorary Oscar when it was released sixty years ago (before they even had an official category for best foreign language film), and it was voted the best film of all time in a 1952 poll by Sight and Sound magazine. But in the intervening years it’s become one of those taken-for-granted classics few people bother to actually see anymore. (In the Hollywood satire “The Player,” a callow producer accidentally stumbles into a screening, then proclaims his studio should make more films like “The Bicycle Thief” before turning the conversation to the thriller next up on the studio’s slate.) The movie, a neorealist fable set in economically devastated post-war Italy, is a stunner, and its concerns feel not just relevant, but urgent, today. It opens with a tight shot of an uneasy mob massed on a stairway below a man reading out job assignments. ‘Ricci,’ he calls, but Ricci isn’t there, and the camera pulls back, across the deserted street to the other side, where Ricci sits, downcast and alone. He gets the job (putting up movie posters), but there’s a catch: he needs a bicycle. His wife, Maria, sells her wedding sheets to collect Ricci’s bike from the pawnshop, and for a moment things are looking up. Of course, the movie’s called “The Bicycle Thief,” not “The Poster-Hanger,” and it’s not hard to guess what comes next. The entire country is in the grips of a depression, and an unattended bicycle proves too great a temptation for hungry thieves.
Ricci spends the rest of the film hunting, with his son, Bruno, for his stolen bicycle. As the opening shot establishes, Ricci is a man set against society. The police, the church, customers at a fortune-teller, and even the employees of a whorehouse thwart his efforts to locate his bike. When he finally collars the thief, a neighborhood mob (including a very Godfather-esque Mafioso in DeNiro shades) intimidates him into letting the kid go. But DeSica cuts against the despair of his story with one crisp, assured image after another. He balances scenes of dizzying vitality (the clerk in the pawnshop climbing up, up, up racks and racks of bedding to deposit Maria’s sad little bundle of sheets; the flock of poster-hangers scattering across the city on their bikes with their ladders tucked under their arms) with static shots where the city seems arrested in pure contrast between darkness and light. As frankly gorgeous as they are, the visuals never feel like a glamorization of poverty, or tonally discordant with the storyline. They are too straightforward, too alive, and DeSica never camouflages or prettifies what he’s showing us. The film has the clean, straight lines of a chessboard, and the same brutal logic of a game whose outcome is determined from the start.