Pete’s Peek | Three Italian cinematic masterpieces with a Roman twist

Bicyle Thieves
Actor/director Vittorio De Sica is best known for his celebrated 1948 film Bicycle Thieves, which tells the story of a simple man called Antonio who scours the streets of Rome looking for his stolen bicycle, which he needs to be able to secure work.

Ranking high in almost every Top 20 film poll imaginable, Bicycle Thieves is neorealism at its best with its use of non-actors and real locations. But this is no improvised documentary, rather a tightly woven drama about humanity surviving the devastating after effects of war and poverty. Unforgettable.

The Arrow Academy Dual Format release is out now and features a restored, high definition transfer of the film; feature length documentary on screenwriter Cesare Zavattini; documentary portrait of De Sica; trailer; and booklet.

Mamma Roma
If De Sica owned Il Generale Della Rovere, which I reviewed recently, then Anna Magnani rules Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1962 drama Mamma Roma. One of Italy’s most celebrated actresses, Magnani plays a former prostitute trying to better her life for the sake of her 16-year-old son, Ettore. Despite her best efforts, however,  Ettore’s life spirals out of control on learning about his mother’s past, resulting in him being sent to prison.

One of the most studied films of Pasolini’s canon, Mamma Rosa is heavily influenced by neorealist themes, especially with its focus on Rome’s underclasses. But its biggest strength lies in Magnani’s powerful central performance – which domninates (just like the character). The film is also a must-see for anyone wanting an introduction to Pasolini’s unique voice (his Christian Marxist views are noticeable here) and unmatched visionary style (the scene in which Magnani delivers a monologue in one continuous shot is pure genius).

The Mr Bongo DVD release is out now

The Grim Reaper
La commare secca
was originally meant to be Pasolini’s second feature after his debut Accattone; instead, the director went on to make Mamma Roma, handing the directorial reins of this project over to his young protégé Bernardo Bertolucci.

In doing so, he helped launched the then 21-year-old as a major new talent. Drawing on stories from Pasolini’s novel Ragazzi di Vita, Bertolucci fashioned a gritty crime drama, drawing on American film noir and the French New Wave (itself heavily influenced by neorealism) for his cinematic style.

Following the brutal murder of a prostitute in Rome, the police interrogate a number of the suspects, including a gigolo, a soldier and two teenage boys, who then give their own account of their activities leading up to the time of the killing.

With its well-drawn characters (which included a homosexual man – probably a first for the period), a story fuelled by sexual tension, and guerrilla-style camera work, The Grim Reaper certainly shows the shape of things to come with regards to the young Bertolucci. Definitely an undiscovered gem.

The Mr Bongo DVD release is out now