Occasionally, I'll see fit to start out a film review with a personal anecdote, theoretically one that's entertaining or somehow enlightening. This time, though, the anecdote is the review, after a fashion, for reasons that I do hope become clear and useful by the end.

The time: October, 2001. I am a 19-year-old sophomore in the Radio/Television/Film program at Northwestern University. At this time, Professor Scott Curtis (the resident expert in film history at NU, and almost to a certainty my favorite professor at college) was readying a semi-regular series of nighttime screenings that we might call Movies Which You Absolutely Must See for Your Development as a Film Scholar, But Not So Important That We Bothered Making Them Part of the Required Curriculum, and the first of these was Vittorio De Sica's groundbreaking work of Italian Neorealism, Bicycle Thieves. My response to this timeless classic was entirely befitting a young man of reasonable intelligence at one of the nation's most prominent centers of higher education: it was really boring.

You're reading a film blog of your own free will, meaning that you care enough about movies that I do not have to tell you about Bicycle Thieves's reputation: it is among the twenty or thirty most-laureled films in the history of the art form. More than just about any other film I've discussed in my Sunday Classics series, there's a really great chance that you've seen it yourself. So I don't need to point out that our snotty-nosed teenage protagonist was thumbing his nose at quite a lot of received wisdom when he made that truly well-informed critical judgment. Did the teen care much? No, of course not - irascible young adults are supposed to take stands against the opinions and values of their elders, or something like that.

I'm a much smarter filmgoer than I was seven years ago. Back then, I'd never heard the word "formalism", let alone identified myself as a formalist critic; I didn't really know the first thing about post-war Italy and the Italian film industry; I assumed that being a good cinephile was a matter of seeing all of the Great Films, like filling out a checklist. Hell, I assumed that you even could see all of the Great Films, not realising that every new film I'd see would lead the way to two or three that I'd never even heard of, and that some of the Greatest Films have never enjoyed the approbation of critics' groups or enshrinement on some consensus-produced list of the canonical masterpieces. Like all grown-ups, I discovered that the more I knew, the more I knew that I didn't know. And I became less certain of my opinions, in general: and if everyone on Earth but me loves Bicycle Thieves, isn't it my responsibility to at least figure out why, rather than dismiss the gigantic body of writing that surrounds this film out of hand? It's not that I wanted to convince myself to love the film, but at the very least I wasn't seeing something that a lot of people saw, and I owed it to myself to try, with an open mind, to figure out what that was.

Which is why I have now rewatched a film that I once declaimed on this very site as among the most over-rated in history, and I have found myself in the wrong. No, I have not concluded that Bicycle Thieves is in the top 10 or 15 or 100 films ever made, nor would I rate it ahead of all other Italian films. But it is undeniably good, very good, for reasons that should have been obvious to me in 2001, and for reasons that I never would have imagined.

I expect we all know in general terms what Bicycle Thieves is acclaimed for, but for form's sake: Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) has a rare opportunity for a reasonably well-paying job putting up movie posters in Rome, at a time when full-time employment is desperately rare. The job requires that he own a bicycle, and to get his out of hock, Antonio'a wife Maria (Lianella Carell) pawns the fine linen sheets that were her dowry. Which is a sweet sacrifice, but a futile one, as the very next day sees Antonio's bike stolen by a young man (Vittorio Antonucci), never to be seen again. For the rest of that day and the next - a Sunday - Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) search throughout Rome for the bicycle, providing us with a documentary-like tour of what a depressed post-war economy looks like. Eventually, fed up with the injustice of an uncaring universe, Antonio tries to steal a bike himself, but he's much too clumsy to succeed; though he's spared from prison, the look on his son's face is going to linger and hurt much longer than something simple like a criminal record.

Here was my first mistake, all those years ago: because very little happens to move the plot forward, I assumed that the film was just spinning its wheels until the final scene. An unforgivable lapse, for even at that tender age I'd already seen and enjoyed slice-of-life films, and even excruciatingly slow films, for that matter (my first exposure to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni - I loved it - was only a few months prior to Bicycle Thieves), but something blinded my in this instance, and I never noticed the single element which best argues that the film is essential: its horribly immediate perspective on the daily life of the dirt-poor of Italy. You know, the part that makes Neorealism Neorealism. De Sica's work is invaluable, capturing for all time what this place at this moment looked like, and what the people who lived there had to struggle with just to find enough food to make it through the day. There might not be a better film in all the world to showcase the grimy details of life on the ground in Europe after the war; I'd like to say The Third Man, except for that film's tremendous visual expressionism, which at the very least tempers its worth as documentary. And yet, at the same time, De Sica's camera is graceful and expressive, turning the worn-out Roman streets into something atmospheric, rather than just ugly and poor and dirty. Add the director's insistent use of repetitive visual motifs (such as the way that Antonio and Bruno nearly always walk from left to right, at a 3/4ths angle from the camera), and Bicycle Thieves starts to blur the line between visual document and visual poem.

About other much-praised elements of the film, my early complaints seem much more valid to me, even now. Bicycle Thieves probably did more than any other single film to popularise the idea that casting non-professionals adds a truthfulness to the drama, when in fact some 95% of the time, it just means that the acting is really lousy. De Sica's all-amateur cast is not, I think, an exception to the rule: the only standout performance comes from eight-year-old Staiola, who was still young enough that he didn't know how not to be a naturalistic kid when the camera started rolling; as a result, he has an appealing presence onscreen that turns him into a magnificent audience surrogate. But Maggiorani, the lead, isn't nearly so natural, and his performance seems to me rotten with nervousness. As in all Italian films of the age, Bicycle Thieves has a dubbed soundtrack rather than synced dialogue, saving us from wooden line readings, but there's a lot more to acting than that, and I can't convince myself to believe that Maggiorani's Antonio is at all comfortable in his skin. It's a tremendous, crippling lapse for a film that hinges on our complete sympathy for the protagonist; try though I might, I couldn't believe that he was anything other than a nervous actor moving stiffly.

At any rate, I can't pretend any longer that Bicycle Thieves is a bad movie; I don't agree with the consensus that it's particularly great, but I'm closer than I ever expected to be. It's both extremely specific and universal, a particularly grand combination to bring off. No, I wasn't moved to tears like a lot of critics, but I was moved.

I know, as insights go, none of this is very insightful: "a movie that everyone knows and respects is good, except for the parts that I didn't like." But here's the moral of the story: I wasn't wrong in 2001. I didn't like Bicycle Thieves, and I said as much. And I'm not wrong now in 2008: I like it quite a lot, but I don't love it. We all like to pretend that we're perfect, objective judges of quality, but that simply isn't the case: each person who sees a film carries a different set of expectations and context, and that affects how we interpret "objective" facts. If a film makes a cut at a certain point, that is objective; but any two different people, or one person in two different states of mind, will not necessarily agree on what that cut means, or if it is a "good" cut. I know more about many things than I did when I was 19, and that is why I respond to different things in Bicycle Thieves than I used to - my opinion wasn't idiotic then, but it was unfinished, to a certainty.

There's no reason to bring this up now, and not in two months or a year ago. I think it has to do with Oscar season being upon us, and watching the Oscarwatchers scurry to form their opinions as quickly as possible, frequently on films they shouldn't be discussing (go to any major Oscar site, and check out the commenters; at least one of them will mention hoping a certain film gets nominated over another, and will mention "I haven't seen either of them yet"). That's an especially bad case of something that has been a perpetual problem with art criticism: once you express an opinion, you are duty-bound to hold onto it, no matter how ill-informed it might have been. The internet has just made this worse, I think, but certainly I'm not the only one who can recall Pauline Kael's occasional declarations that she never needed to revisit a film: her opinion was intractable. For Pauline Kael, that's probably true. For the rest of us, we change over time, as school ends and work begins, as kids are born, parents die. Every day, we each learn something new about the world. And that alters how we think about art. Nobody should brag about the fact that their favorite film at 15 years old is still their favorite at 30, unless they've significantly reconsidered what they love about it.

I'm no angel. I present opinion as fact all the time, I make absolute declarations, and I'd be a liar to say that I've gone back to revisit every film I used to hate or love, to see if my feelings have mellowed or even flipped. Bicycle Thieves was just a case study for me, and I think it proved what I wanted to prove: nobody's opinion is law to anybody, including themselves. As long as there's thought and not just knee-jerk reflexiveness underlying the opinion, it's valid, but opinions can't, by definition, be right. Maybe this is my appeal to sanity: there are things that you believe right now that you will someday not believe. Expressing your thoughts is a wonderful thing, but there's no reason to be a dick about it. I think that if everyone adopted just that last rule, film criticism would be in an infinitely happier place right now.