Millicent Marcus on Bicycle Thieves.pdf

Millicent Marcus on Bicycle Thieves.pdf - 2 De Sicas...

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Unformatted text preview: 2. De Sica’s Bicycle Thief: Casting shadows on the visionary city SOON AFTER ANTONIO RICCI reports the theft of his bi- cycle to the authorities, a journalist, looking for a story, asks an officer at police headquarters if there is any news. When the officer answers, “No, nothing, just a bicycle,”1 the audi- ence is suddenly confronted with a violent clash of perspec— tives. From the point of view of the police and the press, the bicycle theft lacks any of the sensationalism, squalor, or vi— olence that recommends crime to the public notice. For An- tonio, and for the viewers, who have come to see the crucial importance of the bicycle to one family’s well-being, the po- lice officer’s dismissal is the cruelest of understatements. But the clash of perspectives implies far more than the mere dis- parity between the public and private claims of events—it reveals the historical distance that separates Bicycle Thief from Open City, and suggests the challenges faced by De Sica and Zavattini in updating the neorealist aesthetic.2 Though both Open City and Bicycle Thief may be considered chronicles in that they document contemporary social circumstances, Rossellini’s film was endowed with drama and urgency by ‘The Bicycle Thief: A Film by Vittorio De Sica, trans. Simon I-Iartog (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 35. All quotes from the screen- play will be from this edition. Subsequent page references will appear in the text. 2Though Zavattini was the official scriptwriter and De Sica the official director of Bicycle Thief, so neat a division of labor belies the truly collab- orative nature of their partnership. When I refer to De Sica alone in these pages, I do so out of convenience, and not out of a desire to slight Zavat- tini’s contribution to this and the other films on which the two men collab- orated. Bicycle Thief 5 5 the very nature of the history it recorded, while De Sica’s story reflected, instead, the banality of the stabilized postwar condition. Where Nazi occupation, torture, underground re- sistance, and guerrilla warfare gave Open City its natural dynamic power, hunger, unemployment, and despair pro- vided De Sica and Zavattini with subject matter of far less obvious dramatic potential.3 But Zavattini made a virtue of necessity, arguing that the dramatically poor subject matter was by definition the richer in truth, devoid of the distrac- tions and fabrications of conventional narrative structure.4 In De Sica’s words, “my purpose, I was saying, is to find the element of drama in daily situations, the marvelous in the news, indeed, in the local news, considered by most people as worn-out materials.”5 Such statements may be helpful in telling us why Bicycle Thief is not Open City, but they do nothing to locate the source of the film’s poetic power, nor to explain why it is that we recoil in horror at the police officer’s belittling of Antonio’s loss. Although the comment “no, nothing, just a bicycle” is on one level a valid assessment of the incident, its unfairness, on other levels, is an insult to our very notions of human justice. What the police officer’s reductiveness does is to underscore, by contrast, the filmmaker’s strategy of se- mantic layering, whereby the storyline becomes the vehicle for multiple levels of meaning. Unlike this-for-that allegory, however, the literal level is not swallowed up by its figurative significance, but maintains its autonomy as a document of a concrete historical condition. Yet the simultaneous and par- allel meanings it generates on psychological, sociopolitical, and philosophical levels serve to give every cinematic event 3Leprohon comments on how the filmmakers succeeded in shifting the neorealist themes from those of Resistance and liberation to the banality of postwar restoration. See Vittorio De Sica, p. 37. 4See Zavattini’s “Some Ideas on the Cinema,” p. 2.17. 5Cited in “De Sica su De Sica,” Bianca e nero 36 (September—December 1975), 259- NEOREALISM PROPER 56 such interpretive complexity that what appears at first glance to be a simple narrative construction upon close critical scru- tiny reveals the highest degree of literariness.6 Such deceptive simplicity, or self-concealing art, makes the film, like Anto- nio’s bicycle, the bearer of far heavier and more sophisti- cated cargo than its fragile exterior would immediately sug- gest. But before we examine this literary strategy, we would do well to consider the concrete cinematic vehicle whose technical form reveals the same self-concealing art that typi- fies De Sica’s approach to meaning. Here, again, comparisons with Open City are in order. Just as historical circumstances gave the events of Open City its natural drama, so too did they dictate its technical style. The primitive equipment that Rossellini had at his disposal, the absence of studio facilities, and the improvised mode of production were all direct correlates of the very historical events that the film records. But by 1948, filmmaking was no longer the obstacle-ridden process that it was in the im- mediate aftermath of the Allied liberation. On the contrary, technical possibilities were wide open to De Sica and Zavat- tini, who made of Bicycle Thief a neorealist superspectacle, complete with a big budget, a cast of hundreds, and a metic— ulously worked out shooting style. The film cost 100 million lire—a sizable sum by contemporary Italian production stan— dards, owing in large part to the vast number of extras who had to be kept on retainer until perfect filming conditions were met.7 De Sica and Zavattini took six months to prepare the script, discussing every image and carefully selecting the best possible locations for the action to unfold. Shooting was done with painstaking care to maximize visual complexity, 6On the interpretive richness of every image in the film, see André Bazin, Vittorio De Sica (Parma: Guanda, 1953), p. 19. 7On the opulence and meticulousness of the film’s production, see Armes, Patterns of Realism, pp. 152—5 5, and Bondanella, Italian Cinema, p. 57. On the multiplicity of camera angles and the plurality of the filmmaker’s perspectives, see Baldelli, Cinema dell’ambiguita, p. 23 5. Bicycle Thief 57 while concealing the art that went into its making. Rossel- lini’s expedients in Open City had come to be stylistic norms for neorealism, generating such a taste for simplicity, loca- tion shooting, and authorial nonintervention that subsequent filmmakers were forced into creating, through elaborate technical means, an illusion of technical poverty. Bicycle Thief is a prime example of the self-concealing art that neorealists were required to practice in the pursuit of Rossellinian aus- terity, where the impression of effortlessness and stylistic transparency were not achieved without calculated effort.8 This is not to say that De Sica’s careful aesthetic is in bad faith. On the contrary, it reflects a conscious ideological prise de position against the spectacular conventions of the com- mercial cinema—a rejection that is made explicit in two ep- isodes in Bicycle Thief. When a co-worker curses the Sunday rain and complains that there is nothing to do but go to the movies—a singularly boring prospect for him—he is arguing for the irrelevance of commercial cinema to the common plight.9 It is significant, too, that Antonio’s troubles begin as he is putting up a publicity poster for Rita Hayworth’s new film, suggesting the marked contrast between commercial cinematic fantasies and the real survival problems besetting the Italian public.” In fact, in the very process of putting up the poster, Antonio suffers the crisis that prevents Bicycle Thief from ever becoming a consumable family idyll. Anto— nio will not be able to rescue himself and his dependents 8A5 Jean Cocteau observed, “the miracle is in having effaced the work.” Cited in Henri Agel, Vittorio de Sica (Paris: Editions Universitaires, 1955), pp. 99—100. 9Ben Lawton cites this remark and the Rita Hayworth poster as examples 0f De Sica’s self-reflexive commentary on the nature of his medium. See “Italian Neorealism: A Mirror Construction of Reality,” p. 18; and Bon- danella, Italian Cinema, p. 57. 10In an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, De Sica makes explicit the disparity between this Hollywood image and Antonio’s world. See En- countering Directors, p. 153. NEOREALISM PROPER 58 from their desperate poverty by dint of perseverence, hard work, and good luck, as the hypothetical Hollywood equiv- alent, produced by David O. Selznick and starring Cary Grant, would require.11 The literal level of the film could be summarized in two lines on the local page of a Roman newspaper. “Man’s bike stolen on first day back to work after two years’ unemploy- ment. Bike prerequisite to job.”12 The film tells of an odyssey through Rome by Antonio Ricci, soon joined by his son Bruno, in search of the lost vehicle. Their itinerary includes the po- lice station, trade union headquarters, the open markets of Piazza Vittorio and Porta Portese, a mendicants’ church where one of the thief’s contacts goes for a free lunch, the apart- ment of the soothsayer Santona, a brothel, and, finally, Via Panico where the thief is found but not apprehended. In the final episode, Antonio attempts to steal a bike himself, is caught, but soon released while his astonished and ultimately forgiving son looks on. Like the deceptively simple visual style of Bicycle Thief, which conceals a wealth of technical artistry, its banal nar- rative hides a plentitude of meanings. Most affecting is the psychological relationship that evolves between Antonio and his son Bruno as the search for the bicycle unfolds.13 It is this level that engages the sympathies of the viewers, for Bru— no’s witness provides a constant reminder of what is at stake should Antonio fail in his quest. Bruno serves as an internal chorus, mutely commenting on the action from an innocent 11David O. Selznick offered to finance Bicycle Thief provided that Cary Grant play the lead. See Bondanella, Italian Cinema, p. 57, and Leprohon, De Sica, p. 35. 12“The whole story would not deserve two lines in a stray dog column,” remarks Bazin in What Is Cinemaf, 2:50. In this regard see Jean Cocteau’s comments, cited in Agel, De Sica, p. 71. 13That the father—son relationship is the most emotionally gripping part of the film, there is considerable critical agreement. See, for example, Luigi Comencini’s observations in “Li capiva," Bianca e nero 36 (September— December 1975), 12.3, and Bazin‘s very moving pages in What Is Cinema?, 2:53—54- Bicycle Thief 59 child’s perspective on some occasions, and from a surpris- ingly adult one on others.14 His presence in the film is an inspired addition to the literary source, the novel Ladri di biciclette by Luigi Bartolini, whose protagonist is a childless loner. Bruno’s companionship adds immense richness to the story by providing another surface against which the narra- tive action rebounds, so that each event is given triple impact as it affects the man’s consciousness, the child’s, and the in- teraction between the two. Psychologically, Bicycle Thief traces the evolution of the father—son relationship from disparity and dependence on external mediations to full self-definition and equality. The bicycle is the emblem of all those cultural and material forces that determine the relationship from without. When the ve- hicle is retrieved from hock at the beginning of the film, it enables Antonio to be a conventional patriarch, requiring obedience and respect now that he is once more the chief provider for his dependents’ material well-being. And if the direct relationship between the bike and Antonio’s power to support the family were not obvious enough, De Sica liter- alizes it in two scenes where the newly reinstated paterfami- lias carries first his wife Maria, and then Bruno, on its han- dlebars. The political significance of the bike in the family context, and the way it structures the relationship between father and son, is rendered visually in the scene that intro- duces Bruno to us in the film. He is first shown behind the spokes of the wheel as he polishes the bike in a point-of- view shot taken from Antonio’s perspective. The boy’s effort to restore the bike’s original luster is an obvious projection of his desire to rehabilitate his father’s parental authority, as his adoring mimicry of Antonio throughout this scene sug- gests. Bruno imitates his father’s toilet in a way so exagger- ated as to suggest parody if it were not for his utter sincerity 1“ On Bruno’s role as internal chorus, as witness and conscience, see Le- prohon, De Sica, p. 40, and Bazin, What Is Cinema?, 2:53. NEOREALISM PROPER 60 and delight in seeing his father repossess his former exem- plary status within the family. What makes Bruno’s filial subordination especially striking is the fact that it involves a forfeit of his own precocious adulthood—during Antonio’s extended unemployment, Bruno had been the only family breadwinner in his job as gas station attendant. Throughout the film, vestiges of his precocity remain as Bruno intermit- tently plays the adult to Antonio’s child—when he does the higher mathematics of his father’s stipend calculations in the restaurant scene, when he has the prudence to get a police- man to defuse a hostile crowd in Via Panico, and when he solicitously closes the window shutters to protect his baby sibling from the morning sun. It is perhaps with some relief, and certainly without rancor, that Bruno relinquishes his premature adulthood when the bike is retrieved at the film’s start and the traditional family hierarchy is reconstituted once more. There is a further detail in Bruno’s introductory scene that merits careful critical attention if we are to establish the terms of the father—son relationship. “Papa, did you see what they did?” Bruno asks in dismay. “No, what?” “A dent!” “Per- haps it was there before.” “No, it wasn’t . . . I’d have com- plained to them” (28). Referring most obviously to Anto- nio’s paternal dominion predicated on the bike and the earning power it betokens, the dent suggests the permanent, if minor damage, done to his authority by two years on the dole. Were this a conventional commercial film, however, where con- crete details are all governed by considerations of plot, we would expect the dent to reappear later on in the story and to play a part in the narrative resolution. We could envision a happy ending, for example, in which Bruno identifies the otherwise disguised frame by this Characteristic disfiguration. But the dent looks ahead to no such optimistic turn of events. If anything, it foreshadows the greater damage that Antonio allows his bike to suffer in the theft itself. Bruno’s activist rejoinder (“I’d have complained to them”) in which he reg— Bicycle Thief 61 isters an implicit criticism of his father’s passivity, anticipates the later scene outside the mendicants’ church when the child reprimands his father for letting the thief’s contact get away. What the dent reveals, then, is the vast difference between a film aesthetic which privileges considerations of plot and one in which metaphoric meanings are given equal dignity and weight. In developing the psychological dimension of the story, De Sica and Zavattini must solve two problems built into their very material: 1) how to reveal the shifts and subtleties of interpersonal relationships in working-class characters little given to verbalizing their sentiments; and 2) how to do so in a way that is appropriate to the medium of film. The film- makers’ solutions offer perhaps the greatest evidence of that cinematic poetry for which Bicycle Thief has been so rightly acclaimed. Accordingly, De Sica and Zavattini choose two physical analogues to the relational changes going on be- tween father and son. The first is visual cuing, by which Bruno will literally look up to Antonio to observe the paternal re- actions on which he should model his own. This visual cuing, as a sign of Bruno’s uncritical acceptance of his father’s au— thority, is significantly disrupted at several points in the film. When Antonio takes out his frustrations on his son and slaps him with little apparent cause, Bruno refuses all visual con- tact with Antonio for some time. This averting of the eyes, as Bruno’s retaliation for Antonio’s blow, reveals how im- portant the earlier visual cuing had been in defining the fa- ther—son hierarchy, and thus reaffirms the hierarchy itself. Only at the end of the film, when Antonio’s decision to steal a bike robs him of his paternal authority, does Bruno’s gaze at him reveal the radically changed terms of their relation- ship. His eyes first stare in horror at the spectacle of his fa- ther turned thief. But when he emerges at his father’s side as the crowd harasses Antonio, Bruno looks up in concern and fear for the well-being of his fellow traveler. His upward glance, so reminiscent of the earlier ones throughout the film, NEOREALISM PROPER 62. is vastly different in the kind of information that Bruno seeks from it. Previously the conduit for behavioral directives, the glance now reveals the fallibility and contingency of the dis- graced parental model. With this knowledge, Bruno is de- prived of all conventional ways of thinking about Antonio. He cannot condemn him as a common criminal since the man is, after all, his father. Yet Antonio has abdicated any claim to patriarchal respect by violating the legal sanctions on which all authority rests. Thus when Bruno slips his hand into Antonio’s at the end of the film, he is offering his father an entirely new relationship—one that no longer needs the mediation of the bicycle, whose physical absence throughout the film has heralded its real emotional irrelevance to this final shared understanding. The financial and political power that the bicycle represented within the family in reestablish— ing the old hierarchy is no longer the basis of the relation- ship between Antonio and Bruno. And the quest for the missing bike need no longer be the pretext for the day of important searching and mutual self-discovery that Antonio and Bruno spend together. In addition to visual cuing, De Sica and Zavattini have also used gait to figure the shifts in Antonio’s relationship with his son. “Before choosing this particular child,” Bazin said of Enzo Staiola who played Bruno in the film, “De Sica did not ask him to perform, just to walk. He wanted to play off the striding gait of the man against the short, trotting steps of the child. . . . It would be no exaggeration to say that Ladri di biciclette is the story of a walk through Rome by a father and his son.”15 Where the visual cuing reveals Bruno’s side of the relationship, the striding emphasizes An- tonio’s. He often walks well ahead of Bruno in a revelation of the self-absorption that at times endangers his son’s very well—being. Thus Antonio fails to notice that Bruno has fallen in the rain, and as the soaked child brushes himself off, his 15See Bazin, What 15 Cinema?, 2:54—55. NEOREALISM PROPER 64 father distractedly asks why all this flailing of arms. “I fell down” (51), shouts Bruno, distressed as much by his acci- dent as by his father’s apparent obliviousness to it. Toward the film’s end, Bruno is twice nearly run over in the traffic of Rome as Antonio heedlessly forges ahead to fulfill his new criminal resolve. Bruno’s constant efforts to keep pace with his father are interrupted by the same incident that interfered with his visual cuing. After Antonio reprimands Bruno, the boy walks as far from his father as possible, interposing a row of trees himself and the source of his undeserved re- proof. At the end of the film, as Bruno and Antonio establish their new relationship of equality, their gait reflects this psy- chological change. They now walk abreast, holding hands; their disparate strides have accommodated themselves to the differing needs of the man and the boy. Bazin’s apt descr...
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