I was all wrong about Bicycle Thieves

Sometimes you get a film all wrong, but it’s OK to change your mind. That’s what programmer Geoff Andrew did about the films of Italian master Vittorio De Sica.

Geoff Andrew

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

As someone who has been writing about the movies for more than three decades, I have to confess I’ve always been surprised by how seldom other writers seem to change their minds about a film or filmmaker. Maybe they do change their minds but don’t write about it because they don’t think it’s of interest to their readers; or maybe they just aren’t changing their minds. If the latter, that could be due to a kind of pride (“I’m always happy with my initial opinion so why should I concern myself with reassessment?”), but I think it’s rather more likely, at least for reviewers, that they’re so busy trying to keep up with all the new releases that they simply don’t feel they’ve time to revisit any movie that’s not a personal favourite, let alone a body of work.

I’ve always been fortunate in that I’ve never been required to see all the new releases; moreover, it’s always been a key part of my job – as well as my great pleasure – to explore cinema’s past as well as its present. Revisiting and reassessing on a fairly regular basis is crucial to what I do.

And of course there’s really nothing wrong with changing one’s opinion. Several years before I came to work at the BFI, what was then still known as the National Film Theatre mounted a retrospective devoted to Aki Kaurismäki. In discussing the season in a column in Time Out, the magazine for which I then used to write, I admitted that I’d only seen the light with regard to the Finnish filmmaker only very recently; that I simply hadn’t cottoned on properly to what he was doing when I first encountered his work.

I’d regarded his particular brand of moody, minimalist miserabilism as some kind of sub-Fassbinder posturing. It was only when I’d seen Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana (1994) that I’d finally ‘got’ what Aki was up to. So perfectly formed was that 63-minute gem (to this day it remains one of my all-time favourite comedies) that I decided I should revisit the earlier films. The result was a profound shift in my opinion of Kaurismäki’s work.

I write this by way of preface to a brief discussion of Vittorio De Sica, whose work as a director and actor we are currently celebrating at BFI Southbank. Now, ever since I first saw Bicycle Thieves (1948) about 40 years ago, I’ve recognised both the historical importance and the emotional punch of that particular film – indeed, you can test its enduring appeal for yourselves, since it’s being revived in an extended run to coincide with the retrospective. But when I look back at some of my earlier writings on De Sica, I now feel I was perhaps a little grudging in paying my respects to such landmarks of neorealism as Shoeshine (1946) and Umberto D (1952); I virtually equated his use of children in certain films with a tendency towards sentimentality, and I didn’t get Miracle in Milan (1951) at all, even going so far to describe it as “cloying whimsical fantasy”.

Reader, I was wrong. I discovered my mistake a few years ago at Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato festival, where I was able to catch up with some De Sica films I’d never seen, such as The Children Are Watching Us (1944), The Gate of Heaven (1945) and The Gold of Naples (1954). They were revelations, and sent me back to watch some of the more famous films again. Dio mio, had I underestimated him! Like so many, I’d probably done so because I’d originally tended to compare his work with that of the apparently more sophisticated Roberto Rossellini – a judgement wholly unfair to De Sica, it must be said, but such, very often, is the way of cinematic fashion. I was not alone in my error.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Bicycle Thieves – that classic which so many of us think we know, but which is actually sophisticated enough to reveal fresh and fascinating nuances with repeat viewings – is a case in point. Where I once saw sentimentality, I now see understatement and an admirably tough, clear-eyed treatment of human aspiration and frailty, superstition and desolation. Yes, there’s a young boy in the film, but that certainly doesn’t make for any sort of mawkishness; on the contrary, his eyes provide a window through which we too may witness, without the prejudiced assumptions of supercilious adulthood, the cruel, complex, profoundly impoverished world inhabited by his parents. 

Notwithstanding its super-simple storyline – in postwar Rome, a bill-poster and his son search with increasing desperation for the former’s stolen bike, on which he depends for his new job – Bicycle Thieves is rich, subtle, powerful and – sadly – as relevant today in many ways as when it was made. (Let’s not forget that films as recent as the Dardennes’ The Kid with the Bike and Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart make use of a very similar narrative device.) Besides, as with any film worth its salt, it’s far, far more than just a story, and De Sica’s marvellously vivid images of evocative faces and cityscapes stick in the mind as indelibly as those of Federico Fellini or Michelangelo Antonioni.

Forget about realism; this film has the ring of truth.

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