Ladri di biciclette; Dir. Vittorio De Sica. 1948. Lamberto Maggiorani.

Most urban residents who have a bike stolen today have to treat it as a loathsome right of passage.  But to Antonio Ricci (Maggiorani), his bicycle is his meal ticket, and also a means of humble pride for a man trying to raise a small family.  Post-war Rome is seething with unemployed men and Antonio lands a job posting bills on walls.  When the inevitable crime occurs, he must endure a Joyce-like Odyssey through the city on foot, his young son at his side, trying in vain to pick out his bicycle from the dizzying array of thousands wheeling through the streets.  Indeed, his journey takes him to a brothel, an alms-house, and an unsympathetic police department, all unmistakable signs of a fractured, unruly urban space.  Much of the film is a stark tableau of isolation viewed from different angles.  Rain forces the protagonists to press up against a wall, the roar from a nearby soccer stadium emphasizes their exclusion from the realm of leisure, and even the foreign chatter of German religious pilgrims underscores their disconnection from the bustle of everyday city life.  Antonio’s stoic bearing gradually breaks down, his muscles visibly straining in his neck and jaw, as desperation severs him even from his son.  The great source of this film’s unresolved tension is a balance between the impotence of the protagonist and the cruelty of his circumstances; you can’t blame either one entirely, and so sympathy with Antonio is tenuous at best.  From the outset, when he is shown sitting apart from the bustle of the job queue, we’re shown that a taciturn character has little chance where survival of the fittest is the governing rule of life.  There is poignancy on the level of his marriage to a patiently suffering wife, and his tender efforts not to disappoint his son.  In his dealings with the system, though, where his fate is ultimately decided, it is the mob versus the outcast, and the ease with which he is brutally discarded from the current of life casts a chilling gloom over any sense of hope.

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