Before cinema was invaded by gimmicks: Charles Burnett on the human values of De Sica's 1948 movie Bicycle Thieves
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I first saw Bicycle Thieves [Vittorio de Sica, 1948] at university in 1967, after I had starting making films myself. I'm very happy I did because I was so moved I would have copied it. In one of the early scenes the father gets up in the morning and his little boy is polishing his bicycle for him. He wants to take charge and be responsible; he tells his father he should take better care of the bike. There's a baby asleep and the wife arrives; they've all made sacrifices for this bike.

The way the whole film is shot is very unpretentious but in this scene a wonderful score comes in and everything works so well. There's a great sense of promise. Of course, later the bike's stolen and is lost - that little bitty thing made the difference to whether he survived - but what I remember is the warmth of the early scenes. In all the tragedy, there's a certain poetic emotion.

In the Forties and Fifties, a lot of responsible writers and directors were toying with Leftist ideas. I'm not saying that it was a simpler time to be making movies, but I think that, because of the Second World War, the idea of film as a means of social change was much more important. Today the attitude, in the words of Samuel Goldwyn, is: if you want to send a message, use the Western Union. Hollywood has always been commercial, and it has become more so now. In the past, institutions like the Hays Commission made the industry more responsible, but now it does whatever it likes.

Everyone's looking for new, exciting film-makers who stylistically have something going for them, but who have nothing to say. I've been in situations where I've argued for a mature writer and the reaction is "what has he got to offer?" But films have to have some kind of internal struggle, emotionally and philosophically.

Bicycle Thieves was important because of that: the human aspect. A lot of films are about violence, guns, the fixation with anti-heroes. Bicycle Thieves shows you something very basic: the essential things in life.

n `Bicycle Thieves' is available on Arthouse Video. Charles Burnett's films include `Killer of Sheep', `My Brother's Wedding', `To Sleep with Anger' and `The Glass Shield'