Vittorio de Sica’s hugely influential neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thief helps kick off BAM/PFA’s series ‘The Brilliance of Satyajit Ray’ Thursday.
helps kick off BAM/PFA’s series ‘The Brilliance of Satyajit Ray’ Thursday.

We know it as neo-realism, but in India it was called Parallel Cinema – a movement to provide an alternative to the musicals and romantic comedies that have long been the staple of the Indian film industry. Parallel Cinema’s leading light (and the sub-continent’s most famous filmmaker) was Satyajit Ray, an artist belatedly recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an honorary Oscar only weeks before his death in 1992.

Trained in the fine arts, Ray began his journey into film-making in London, where a viewing of Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) inspired him to pick up a camera and make his first film, 1955’s award-winning Pather Panchali. De Sica’s hugely influential neo-realist classic helps kick off Pacific Film Archive’s series ‘The Brilliance of Satyajit Ray’ at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 23. The extensive retrospective continues through August.

Ironically, the working-class De Sica’s filmography is dominated by fluffy comedies such as Marriage Italian Style and the truly execrable After the Fox. His place in film history, however, was assured in the late forties and early fifties with such unblinking, mid-career cinematic assessments of poverty as 1946’s Shoeshine and 1952’s Umberto D – the latter such a box-office disaster that the director immediately abandoned neo-realism in favor of the lighter fare that put food on the table.

In The Bicycle Thief, lanky newcomer Lamberto Maggiorani plays Antonio Ricci, one of a horde of unemployed Romans angling for scarce jobs in the post-war capital. By dint of his apparent possession of a bicycle, Antonio is hired to hang posters throughout the city, but there’s a problem: not only is the bicycle in less than tip-top shape, it’s also sitting in a pawnshop.

Wife Maria (Lianella Carell, also making her film debut) pawns the family bedding so that her husband’s bicycle can be reclaimed and repaired, and all seems well as Antonio heads off on his first assignment – wheat-pasting posters advertising a new Rita Hayworth movie.

Disaster, however, strikes when a trio of rascals (the film was more accurately released as The Bicycle Thieves in some territories) snatch Antonio’s bike while he works. The balance of the film follows our hero as he and his son Bruno (delightful Enzo Staiola) scour the markets and back alleys of Rome in search of the purloined wheels, leading to a downbeat conclusion only surpassed in grim finality by – what else? – Umberto D.

Along the way there are encounters with a resourceful garbage man (Shoeshine vet Gino Saltamerenda), a not terribly helpful seer who preys upon the desperate straits of the locals, and a down-and-out senior citizen who may have a lead on the bike’s whereabouts. The real star of the film, however, is the city of Rome, which seems to consist in equal part of quaint, tightly packed hilly neighborhoods and vast moonscapes interrupted by the occasional faceless apartment block.

Its depiction of post-war hopelessness and obsession oddly reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, The Bicycle Thief is a small story exquisitely told (Cesare Zavattini’s screenplay was Oscar-nominated at a time when there was no Best Foreign Language Film category) and beautifully shot — and in a time of continuing economic malaise, as relevant today as it was over sixty years ago.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. 

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...