[Split Screen] The Bicycle Thief

This is the first in what will likely be a series of articles from myself and Mr. Matt Marko. We both watch way more movies than any sane person should, and we often find ourselves developing wildly differing opinions on them. So instead of just agreeing to disagree (what fun is that?), we’ve decided to take our arguments to the interwebs, or, as Matt so eloquently puts it, “to make it a learning opportunity and explore our opinions in writing.”  Obviously, spoilers abound. Be sure to check out his companion article on his blog.


THE BICYCLE THIEF

Life — what’s the point of it all?  Why are we here?  Why do things happen?  Many films try to take on a slice of that question and provide an answer.  THE BICYCLE THIEF takes on the question, but its conclusion is that there is no answer.  There is no point.  It doesn’t matter why we’re here.  Things just happen, without reason, and there’s no use in trying to make sense of it all.  In short, life sucks and you’d better get used to it.

THE BICYCLE THIEF follows a man who is, by all accounts, good.  His life is hard — so hard that his wife has to pawn their bedsheets in order to buy him a bike so he can perform his newly found job — but he’s a man of integrity, and beyond that, a good attitude.

But then, the unthinkable happens.  His newly purchased bike is stolen.  He and his son search the streets of Italy and finally find the lost bike and its thief, but to no avail.  The thief simply feigns a seizure, drawing ire for the man who’s done no wrong.  On top of that, he has no proof that the bicycle was stolen, so the police refuse to help him.

What is he to do?  Driven to desperation, he becomes a thief himself — but he has poorer luck, as is his lot.  He is caught, and only through the pleading of his son is he let go with a warning.  It is there that the film ends, with father and son, ashamed, confused, distraught and without hope, walking away in tears.

So, what are we to take from this?  It has none of the redemptive power of, say, LES MISÉRABLES, where Jean Valjean faces similar circumstances, is cruelly punished, beaten down, and then shown mercy, which is the catalyst for him to overcome his trials.  It inspires the audience to become better themselves, by looking upon others with more compassion than we think they might deserve at first glance.  On the other hand, watching THE BICYCLE THIEF is like watching a man being driven off a cliff.  We learn nothing.  No one changes; no circumstances change significantly.  Things simply get worse.  We aren’t encouraged or inspired.  We’re simply left wondering, “Is this all there is? For this man and his son? For us?”

The film is a landmark in the neo-realist movement.  It is supposed to show life as it really is.  But if this is a slice of the everyman’s real life, then we might as well all slit our wrists and save ourselves the emotional turmoil.  Not every film has to have a happy ending, but the audience should be able to take something from it.  Short of nonsense films like Buñuel & Dali’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU, where the point of the film is there is no point of the film, we should be able to walk away understanding the reason behind what we’ve just watched.  Even if we’d watched THE BICYCLE THIEF’s main character descend further, that would’ve been something.  I’d have disagreed with the filmmakers’ thesis, but at least there would have been one.

Perhaps this is a problem in the neorealist movement itself rather than just in THE BICYCLE THIEF.  Either way, if a film sets out to say nothing, but simply to observe life-as-is, then wouldn’t a documentary be a better format?  Film should be a painting; documentary should be a photograph.  Neorealism lazily and perhaps even irresponsibly attempts to do what a documentary does without relying on real life for material.

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