One of the greatest and most lauded films in cinema history will be screened at Velo Cult on Friday, Feb. 26. A perfect example of Italian Neorealism, The Bicycle Thief retains its allure and its unrelenting request to empathize with the simple struggles of poor people. The bicycle, a simple tool itself, drives the plot forward. In a 2004 special issue of the New York Times Magazine, A.O. Scott writes about foreign-language films at mid-century:
Whether it takes the form of armchair tourism or of a harrowing, life-altering philosophical quest, such discovery has formed part of the appeal of movies from elsewhere — a specialized appeal, to be sure, but also a remarkably protean and durable one — since the beginnings of art-house film culture just after World War II. In the late 1940’s, foreign movies began to arrive on our shores unencumbered by the restrictions of the Production Code, promising a frankness and sophistication, especially in sexual matters, far beyond what the studios were allowed.
Even sober works of Italian Neorealism were sold with a nudge and a wink, their print advertisements featuring suggestive line drawings and breathless exclamation points: Shocking! Daring! Uncensored! There was a degree of bait-and-switch in these come-ons, which were partly a way for the independent theater operators who booked the pictures to fill up empty seats, but there was also some inadvertent truth. Moviegoers who ventured to see “The Bicycle Thief” or “La Terra Trema” would encounter shocking glimpses of urban and rural poverty, the daring use of nonprofessional actors and real-world locations and an uncensored critique of European social conditions.
Not that Italian Neorealism was the only outward-looking, far-seeing lens that curious Americans could peer through. And neither were all the vistas bleak and harsh. In any case, the art involved in capturing those images was at least as fascinating, as seductive and as new as the images themselves. Indeed, it was foreign movies that taught Americans to regard film as an art — and, eventually, to appreciate the art that had been flourishing in American movies all along.
I hope to make it and see some folks at the screening!