Field Report: The Bicycle Thief screening @ The Academy Theater

I was fortunate enough to attend a special screening of The Bicycle Thief at the Academy of Motion Picture and Sciences theater on Monday, May 16th. Martin Scorsese introduced the film, speaking briefly about his personal relationship to it growing up as an Italian American and also about why he believes it figures prominently in the history of cinema. Additionally, he referred to the Italian neo-realism movement as his favorite moment in cinema’s century of existence. “It was a cinema of redemption” he added. Scorsese ended his remarks with a quote from Orson Welles about another film of De Sica’s, Shoeshine. He felt it equally applied to Ladri di biciclette. “It was as if the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared, it was just life.”

Deleuze spoke of neo-realism and European postwar films as the beginnings of modern cinema. In his Cinema volumes, he outlines how the sensory-motor schema of his movement-image, breaks down at this very point. He attributes this breakdown to a reflection of shifting notions of existence in Europe and in this instance, Italy. People were “floating”. There is rampant poverty and a general existential dilemma that could not be wholly solved by religious faith. This is all evident in The Bicycle Thief in the landscape and in the interactions between characters.  Ricci does not have a simple or immediate solution to the problems presented to him and the plot does not continue forward in disregard.  Watching the film again for the first time in eight years, I noticed that it didn’t strike me as the long-winded mid-century European piece that I had been expecting. And it is not to say that I would have disliked it even if it were, but I had prepared myself for it. The surprising thing is that it clocks in at only 93 minutes, there are relatively quick cuts, a scarce amount of long takes and the conventional classic dissolve transitioning between scenes.

The film moves, for the most part, like conventional early Hollywood cinema and the spot on humor of the child’s brilliant performance isn’t much of a departure from it either. But while the film doesn’t have the exemplary long takes and more obvious any-space-whatevers that an Antonioni picture with Monica Vitti or Jack Nicholson roaming around the city or a desert would, it certainly shares a relation to these films. The principle relation, that lends itself to other similarities, is the main character’s disorientation and thus, the stifling of the plot. In short, the plot, at moments, takes a back seat to the emotional space of the characters. This leads to the “tiredness” and “waitings” that Deleuze pinpoints as key to the time-image. Ricci as observer, the action allowed to characters of this cinema. The breakdown in which action no longer subjects time to its will but rather displays time, makes for some occasions in which images, placed against one another, aren’t paired by the necessity of keeping “continuity”. One of these moments is Ricci’s chasing of the old man co-conspirator around a packed Church (and mission). The editing of this sequence doesn’t piece together a smooth linear chase scene, the space or geography of the characters within it is quite unknown to a viewer used to being given simple coordinates of positioning. This scene I speak of is embedded below.

Finally, the last sequence in the film is both profoundly sad and profoundly human at the same time. As Ricci walks in line with his son, humiliated and still without a means to earn a living, we feel a painful reality that perhaps echoes the feelings of an entire country. Everything about Ricci’s life has become unhinged by the absence of his bike – or in a bigger sense – the spirit of an entire nation has become unhinged. We are able to understand this spirit, from the surroundings and people that populate the these surroundings that are almost all, if not fully, practical locations. This is also an important distinction from Hollywood films of the period.

– J. Cohan

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