Were I to come up with a single word to define the Criterion Collection’s approach to the films they release, it would “respectful”. Such a word could imply that these releases are staid or academic; nothing could be further from my meaning. Of the many films that Criterion has chosen, a diversity of selections from Michael Bay’s The Rock to Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, one feature all have shared is an engagement with the material on its own terms.
To take the two examples above, not only does Criterion offer top-notch transfers and restorations, but the special features chosen contextualize the film within the genre and culture in which it was released: the release of The Rock had special features that focused on its effects, as well as the historical significance of its location, while Last Year at Marienbad offered interviews with director Resnais, a making-of documentary, and interviews with film scholars on the film’s significance within the French New Wave movement.
This is no less true of Criterion’s latest release of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, one of the premier films of the post-World War II Italian neorealist movement. The film’s premise is a relatively quotidian story of a poor man, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) who gets a job posting film posters around Rome. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) pawns her dowry sheets to get his bicycle out of hock so he can accept the position, only to have his bike stolen as he’s working. Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) spend the day trying to track down the thief. Finally Antonio, in a moment of desperation, steals an unattended bike and nearly gets arrested, until the bike’s owner takes pity on him after seeing Bruno holding his father’s hat.
It’s a simple, even slightly sentimental film. Or as film scholar Mark Shiel refers to it in the analysis of the Italian neo-realist movement (“‘Life as it Was’: The Italian Neorealist Movement”), a film of “endearing directness”. (De Sica was apparently inspired not only by 19th-century authors such as Dickens, but American filmmakers like Frank Capra.) Shiel’s words offer an apt description; not only did De Sica and the neo-realists attempt to portray the everyday within their films, largely eschewing the studio shooting common during Mussolini’s reign, as well as the influential “montage”-style editing pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein (with the “Odessa Steps” sequence of Battleship Potemkin as one of the more famous examples). Like Eisenstein, however, the Italian neo-realists did believe that by focusing on the oppressive circumstances of the poor and disenfranchised, film had the opportunity to make a significant social difference.
The transfer is, of course, excellently done; the black and white film looks beautifully stark on Blu-ray, and the sound is clear and crisp. By focusing on the side streets and open-air markets of Rome, with none of the familiar, touristy sites, such as the Coliseum, as well as choosing non-professional actors, Bicycle Thieves achieves a touching realism that resonates even 70 years later.
This is underscored by the aforementioned “respectful” treatment of the material, particularly within the included special features Criterion largely pioneered. Aside from the excellent digital transfer, the release also includes three documentaries. “Life as It Is”, with Mark Shiel, serves to contextualize and historicize the neo-realist movement, and although I would have preferred some additional insights from other scholars, Shiel’s intelligent and comprehensive knowledge are a definite asset.
“Working With De Sica” offers interviews with one of the film’s screenwriters Suso Cecchi d’Amico, film scholar Callisto Cosulich, and Enzo Staiola (who played the boy Bruno in the film), as well as a feature-length documentary on screenwriter and frequent De Sica collaborator Cesare Zavattini — who was truly a renaissance figure (writing, directing, and acting). In both “Working With De Sica” and the Zavattini features, all interviews, including Roberto Benigni, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Mario Bellocchio, are conducted in Italian. This makes a difference, in my view; by speaking in their native language (despite my inability to translate without subtitles), the interview subjects clearly convey their passionate enjoyment of both De Sica’s and Zavattini’s work. You don’t need to translate for their meaning to come through, something that Criterion understands.
Also included is a booklet with the essay “A Passionate Commitment to the Real” by film critic Godfrey Chesire, which further contextualizes the film in what Chesire refers to as the “moment” of Italian neo-realism, rather than the “movement” (it was too short-lived for that, Chesire argues), as well as excerpts from Ladri di biciclette, a book of recollections produced by the Associazione Amici di Vittorio De Sica about the making of the film, as well as working with De Sica.
This attention to detail, to context, and to respectful treatment of a wide variety of material, is what sets Criterion apart. It allows the “poetry of daily life”, as screenwriter Tonino Guerra called it, that characterizes both the neo-realist genre and Bicycle Thieves in particular, to shine through.