Bicycle Thieves as great as ever on Blu-ray

If the point of cinema is to create empathy, both for the characters on the screen and for real people, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is the greatest film ever made. It’s about desperate poverty, and how the desperately poor feed on the desperately poor because they have no other options.

I wrote about this film back in 2014. But I’m returning to it now because of Criterion’s upcoming Blu-ray release. I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.

You probably already know the story. Unemployed Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), desperate to feed his wife and children, finally finds a job. But the job requires him to use his own bicycle, which is currently in hock. His wife sells their sheets to get the bike out of hock. But on his first day on the job, someone steals the bike. The bulk of the film follows Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) as they wander through Rome, searching desperately for the precious machine that will keep them from starving.

You may know the film as The Bicycle Thief–the title used for this Italian film’s initial American release. In recent years it’s been retitled Bicycle Thieves–a closer translation of the original Italian name, Ladri di biciclette.

Whatever you call it, it’s generally considered the great masterpiece of Italian neorealism, a short-lived, postwar movement that looked at life as it was. The ethos of neorealism called for shooting on location and using real people instead of professional actors.

But realism is always questionable is cinema. While it’s true that Maggiorani had no acting experience when De Sica cast him in the lead role, it’s pretty clear that his handsome, movie-star face helped him get the part. And Staiola, eight or nine when the film was shot, is easily one of the most adorable children in the history of movies.

De Sica was a commercial filmmaker. He throws in occasional comedy relief, usually around Bruno. He also plays with our expectations early on, making us think that the bike is about to be stolen well before the actual theft. Alessandro Cicognini’s romantic, lush music also reminds us that we’re watching a movie.

But Bicycle Thieves is still primarily a realistic film, and a sad one. When we finally get to know the thief, he’s as desperate as Antonio, and the ending can break your heart.

How It Looks

Carlo Montuori shot Bicycle Thieves in black and white, and in the full-frame 1.37×1 aspect ratio.

Criterion’s 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer comes from a new 4K scan of a fine grain master only one generation away from the original camera negative. It has the high-contrast, slightly-washed out look of Italian films from the 1940s. It looks, I believe, the way it was meant to look.

How It Sounds

The uncompressed, Linear PCM, 24-bit, mono track delivers De Sica’s original mix. Criterion, thankfully, did nothing to “improve” it.

The disc also has an alternative, English-dubbed track.

And the Extras

  • Booklet: 33 pages. This paper-based extra contains a very good essay by Godfrey Chesire, and six remembrances by people who worked on the film, include De Sica and Sergio Leone (a volunteer gofer). Also included: film and disc cast and credits, and About the Transfer.
  • Timeline: As is standard for Criterion Blu-rays, you can save bookmarks on the disc (well, technically, they’re saved in the player). When you insert the disk for the second or subsequent time, you’ll have the option to go back to where you left off.
  • Working with De Sica: 23 minutes; 1080i. Documentary with interviews recorded in 2005. The interview subjects include one of the writers, a film historian, and the former child actor Enzo Staiola. It’s all in subtitled Italian. Interesting.
  • Life as it is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy: 40 minutes; 1080i. Film scholar Mark Shiel discusses neorealism. His voice gets a little monotonous, but it’s still interesting.
  • Cesare Zavattini: 56 minutes; 1080i, but clearly from a 4×3 standard definition source. Documentary on the screenwriter and co-founder of neorealism, who was also De Sica’s most important collaborator. Zavattini comes off as a larger-than-life, unique individual.

Criterion’s Blu-ray goes on sale March 29.