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It is a little surprising to revisit “The Bicycle Thief” after a long time and discover that it is still alive, has vitality, and is still invigorating since it is so firmly established as an official classic.
It is a straightforward, impactful movie about a man who needs a job. It was given an honorary Oscar in 1949, consistently named one of the finest movies of all time, and cherished as one of the cornerstones of Italian neorealism.
Vittorio De Sica, who believed that everyone could play one character flawlessly: themselves, directed the movie, which is now being re-released in a fresh print to commemorate its 50th anniversary. Cesare Zavattini, a writer who collaborated with many of the top European filmmakers from the 1940s through the 1970s, wrote the script. In his writings, Zavattini describes how he and De Sica went to a brothel for research before going to the chambers of the Wise Woman, a clairvoyant who serves as the model for one of the characters in the movie. We might infer from these entries that De Sica and his writer found inspiration in the immediate aftermath of the war, when Italy was crippled by poverty, close to the ground.
It’s simple to tell the tale of “The Bicycle Thief.” It features Lamberto Maggiorani, an amateur actor who plays Ricci, a man who enters a fruitless line every morning in search of job. There will be a job one day for a man who rides a bicycle. “I ride a bike!” Ricci wails, but he doesn’t respond because it has been pawned. As he peers through a window at the pawn shop, we watch a man carry the bundle of linen and climb up a ladder to a towering wall of shelves loaded with other people’s sheets. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) pulls the sheets from their bed, and he is able to pawn them to redeem his bicycle.
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Using the bicycle, Ricci can commute to work as a poster-hanger, applying paste on walls to hang movie theater advertisements (a large portrait of Rita Hayworth provides an ironic contrast between the world of Hollywood and the everyday lives of neorealism). Meanwhile, Maria visits the Wise Woman to express her gratitude for foreseeing Ricci finding employment. De Sica is playing a joke on us since we expect the bike to be gone when Ricci arrives, but it’s still there. Ricci, who has been impatiently waiting for her, finally leaves his bicycle at the door and goes upstairs to find out what’s holding her.
Then it is obviously stolen, probably by another man looking for work. In the wilds of Rome, searching for the bicycle with Ricci and his diminutive, intrepid son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) is impossible, and the police are of no assistance either. Finally, Ricci says to Bruno, “You live and suffer. “Hell with it! You desire a pizza.” When Bruno looks longingly at a family devouring platters of pasta, his father tells him, “To eat like that, you need a million lira at least,” in a scene of tremendous joy as they eat in a restaurant and he is even permitted to sip a little wine.
Later, to his surprise, the bicycle thief is spotted by Ricci, who then pursues him into a brothel. A nasty mob forms. As there is no proof and only Ricci is a witness, the police officer who comes has no power to intervene. Ricci is then tempted to take a bicycle himself in the movie’s famous final scene, prolonging the cycle of crime and destitution.
Being so straightforward, this story reads more like a fable than a drama. It was regarded as a Marxist fable when it was first published (Zavattini was a member of the Italian communist party). The conclusion was later critiqued by the Marxist writer Joel Kanoff for being “sublimely Chaplinesque but inadequately socially critical.” The more one watches “Bicycle Thief,” the duller the man seems to be, and the more poetic and accomplished De Sica’s urban cinematography appears, according to David Thomson, who felt the tale to be overly contrived.
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True, Ricci is a character wholly reflects class and financial necessity. Though he comes to life in the pizzeria scene, there isn’t much else about him. True, the film doesn’t specifically compare his poverty to the high-living standards of millionaires (wealth is illustrated as the ability to buy a plate of spaghetti). However, if the movie is given enough time to pass, such as until the directors pass away or until neorealism is only remembered as a bygone era, “The Bicycle Thief” will eventually escape its detractors and resume its role as a story. That is how it is happiest.
Additionally, its impact is being felt today. “Children of Heaven,” a 1999 Best Foreign Film Oscar candidate from Iran, is the story of a young boy who misplaces his sister’s shoes. A charming line in it describes how the father hoists his son over the crossbar of his bicycle and rides to a wealthy neighborhood in search of job. Anyone who has watched “The Bicycle Thief” will be able to relate to the scene. Such movies transcend time. A man cares deeply about his family and desires to help and protect them. Society makes it challenging. Who can’t relate to that?
Beautiful Vittorio De Sica (1902-1974), in high demand as an actor, made his directorial debut with a light comedy like to those he frequently appeared in. He made “The Children are Watching,” a movie that came right after Visconti’s “Ossessione,” in 1942. Perhaps the grim realities of World War Two disturbed the idealism needed for such storylines. Although the Visconti picture, which was based on James M. Cain’s noir novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, is frequently cited as the forerunner of neorealist cinema, there were movies that bravely examined daily life in an unvarnished manner even during the silent era.
After decades of Hollywood gloss, De Sica and others frequently utilized actual people in place of performers, and the impact was shocking to spectators. Pauline Kael recalls watching De Sica’s debut masterpiece, “”I came out of the theater with tears streaming and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, ‘Well I don’t see what was so special about that movie,'” she said in 1947, shortly after a lovers’ quarrel that had left her feeling hopeless. I sobbed hysterically as I walked up the street, unsure of whether my tears were for the tragedy I was watching, the hopelessness I was feeling for myself, or the alienation I was feeling from those who could not feel “Shoeshine’s” radiance. After all, if they can’t feel “Shoeshine,” what else can they feel?”
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Neorealism is a phrase that has many different meanings, but it frequently refers to movies about working-class life that are set in a culture of poverty and have the underlying idea that income would be divided more fairly in a better society. A definition of the hope behind neorealism could be found in Kael’s description of the film “Shoeshine,” which told the tale of two shoeshine boys sent to reform school for engaging in black-marketeering: “It is one of those rare works of art which seem to emerge from the welter of human experience without smoothing away the raw edges, or losing what most movies lose—the sense of confusion and accident in human affairs.”
After the humorous “Miracle in Milan” in 1951, De Sica and Zavattini returned to the earlier manner with “Umberto D,” a 1952 movie about an elderly man and his dog who are left on the streets. “The Bicycle Thief,” De Sica’s subsequent film, was in the same vein. Then, according to the majority of reviewers, De Sica placed his unique talent as a director on hold for several years while continuing to produce more light comedies (“Marriage, Italian Style,” “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”). Two notable exceptions to this rule are “Two Women” (1961), which won Sophia Loren an Oscar for portraying a homeless lady during World War II, and “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (1971), which is about an Italian Jewish family attempting to ignore the ominous clouds forming in the sky. The two scripts were written by Zavattini.
When the British film journal Sight & Sound conducted its first international poll of filmmakers and critics in 1952, “The Bicycle Thief” received such positive reviews upon its initial release that it was chosen as the best movie of all time. Every ten years, a poll is conducted; by 1962, it was tied for sixth place and had fallen off the list. A new generation can now understand how straightforward, honest, and exceptional it is thanks to its 1999 re-release.