What happens when you watch a ‘classic’ movie – and there are not a lot that are more ‘classic’ than Bicycle Thieves – and you think ‘that was good’; ‘good’ is not good enough for ‘classic’. The ‘good’ reaction was the first I had nearly 30 years ago, when I saw the film twice; in the intervening years I’ve seen it on two more occasions and now agree with the ‘great’ and the ‘classic’. The film hasn’t changed though it has gotten older. It was a ‘mere’ 30-odd years old when I first saw and that amount of time has passed again; it’s not getting better with age, it was a classic in the ’80s, so presumably I’ve become more discerning.
In the decades between first seeing it and now I’ve become a dad and I suspect that’s made the difference as the key to the success of Bicycle Thieves is Bruno, Ricci’s faithful son. Children, of course, are often used to pull the heartstrings but di Sica, and his scriptwriters, use Bruno with subtlety.
There’s no sentimentality of the portrayal of the father-son relationship, Ricci’s stress leads him to strike Bruno and then buy him lunch in a posh restaurant to assuage his guilt. Bruno goes off on a sulk at one point, Ricci allows him then fears the worse as someone nearly drowns in the river. These events encapsulate parents’ treatment of, and anxieties about, their children. Throughout the film, di Sica occasionally gives us Bruno’s viewpoint, though Ricci is the protagonist; and Bruno is always there doggedly supporting his dad. The ending, when Ricci loses his moral authority over his child, Bruno slips his hand into his father’s cementing the bond between them. This simple hand-holding gesture was similarly effective in Mandy (UK, 1952).
Bicycle Thieves is not simply a great film because of Bruno, it’s portrayal of desperate poverty remains potent but what excuse is there now? Post-war Italy was bound to be a place in turmoil, for the rich – of course – it was different, but in the early years of the 21st century in the ‘advanced nation’ that is Britain we are faced with vast cuts in public spending which will inevitably disproportionately impact on the poor. And the reason for the dire state of public finances is the bailing out of the private sector banks. Neo realist films were politically left wing, what we need now is a left wing party that will increase taxes for the rich to pay for public services for all.