Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di biciclette) -- father-son relationship

Director: Vittorio De Sica, 1948.

Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, The Bicycle Thief is a tragic story of loss of innocence and humiliation. Widely acclaimed as one of the best Italian movies ever, it is a prime example of neo-realism, a film movement began by Rosselini. Slow and haunting, it is a character study of hope lost.

The film is set in post-WW II Rome, where the city is ravaged and the unemployment is high. Antonio Ricci, like most men, waits patiently day after day for work. One day, his luck changes and he is given a job putting up movie posters around town. The catch is, he must own a bike. He does. Well, he did before he hocked it for cash to survive. When Antonio tells his wife, Maria, she proves to be resourceful. If you can hock a bike for cash, you can hock bed linens for cash to buy back the bike. All is well in the Ricci household as he carries his bike back into the home.

As Antonio prepares for work the next day, Antonio is happier than he has been in a long time. His son Bruno is clearly proud of his papa. There is a skip in Antonio's step and joy in the house. But soon into his first day, his bicycle is stolen. As he sees the thief getting away, Antonio chases him, hapless and helpless. Without a bike his job is in jeopardy and his dreams are shattered.

In the second half of the film, Antonio takes Bruno on a search, with friends, throughout the city. Though he sees the thief several times, and confronts him in a brothel, he cannot get his bike back. He has no proof and the thief no longer has the bike. Bitter disappointment for Antonio.

What makes this film interesting is its use of amateur actors. For the sake realism, De Sica decided not to use professionals. Indeed, his male lead was a simple factory worker at the time he was cast, though he went on to act in other films afterwards. Further, the film was shot totally on location in Rome. One scene, where Bruno is almost run down twice by two separate cars actually happened, and was not scripted.

The greatness of The Bicycle Thief comes from the interplay between father and son, especially as seen from the son's perspective. At first, it is clear that Bruno adores his dad. Antonio is his hero. When he gets the job, both are ecstatic. But that changes after his bike is stolen. Bruno still idolizes his dad, but as the search continues he sees his dad in a new light. Frustration and disappointment are not things a young son expects to see in his father.

We look to our fathers as protectors and providers. For those of us fortunate to have had a good dad, we can recall warm memories of him being there for us. It was likely dad who worked hard to keep a roof over our head and food on the table. We knew he loved us. We knew he would be there for us.

When Antonio finds the thief and confronts him in a dangerous area of town, pretty soon he is surrounded by an angry mob. Antonio's anger almost turns violent, but it is Bruno who recognizes this and goes for help. Seeing one's dad in danger and ready to commit violence is hard for a kid.

With the reality of the permanence of his loss settling in, Antonio finally looks outside himself to see the effect he is having on his son. With Bruno, now anxious and confused, Antonio resignedly says, "Why should I kill myself worrying when I'll end up just as dead?" This is similar to Solomon's advice in Ecclesisates 8:14-15:
There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.
But unlike Solomon's audience, Antonio had no job to return to. Despite this, Antonio was ready to spend what little cash he had left in an expensive restaurant to buy his son's happiness.

It is interesting to compare this Italian film with Life is Beautiful, another Italian film made a half-century later. While Bicycle Thief showed the dad as self-absorbed, somewhat oblivious to the child, Life is Beautiful has a father who is protective of his son to the point of sacrifice. The former film is a serious tragedy with the loss of livelihood; the latter is a comic tragedy with loss of life. Both include loss of innocence.

Indeed, the loss of innocence of Bruno reminds me of another film with a Bruno discovering the truth: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Both films have outstanding performances by the young actors playing Bruno. Their journey from innocence into understanding is subtle and nuanced yet profound. And both films have fathers descending the moral ladder in front of their children.
In the tragically beautiful conclusion, with all hope gone and thoroughly disheartened, Antonio sees his only way out -- to steal a bike himself. Sending Bruno home alone, he takes a bike, not knowing that Bruno missed the streetcar. Chased through the streets by a mob of honest men, Antonio is not fast enough to evade capture. And when he is caught, Bruno is there to see it for himself.

Antonio's humiliation at the end is heart-breaking indeed. A father is supposed to be upright, a person of integrity. He is meant to be a role model for his children. In stealing the bike, Antonio had descended to the same level as the very thief he chased. Bruno sees his dad as a common thief, a person who deserves to do jail time.

The Bicycle Thief is indeed a powerful reminder of the power of a life to influence those around us, especially our children. They see us, even when we think they don't. We may teach them what is right and tell them to do the right things, but our example is what they will remember. If we don't do what we tell them, we will be raising confused and conflicted kids. Moreover, we will be like the Pharisees and hypocrites, wearing masks to hide who we really are. A father's relationship with his son is a precious thing. Yet it is fragile. We must do all we can to protect and nurture it. But above all, our actions speak louder than our words.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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