To honor personhood, respond to hostility with hospitality

— From Ladri di bicilcette

Often heralded as a cinematic masterpiece, “The Bicycle Thief,” directed by Vittorio De Sica, opened in the United States in 1949; the original Italian “Ladri di biciclette” opened in Italy the year before. Ladri is plural: thieves. A lot of people in the United States use the singular and, in doing so, miss the point of the film.

The movie portrays the life of a poor unemployed man who gets a job pasting advertising bills on city walls. The only requirement for the job is that he have a bicycle; he does but it’s in hock.

His wife strips the sheets off their bed (her dowry), drags them to the pawn shop, exchanges them for the bike, then sends her man off to bring home the bacon. Marx would call the bike the means of production.

On the first day of the job, things start out well but, when Antonio gets up on a ladder to paste a fancy bill, a man sneaks from behind a car and steals his bike, the means to his family’s dinner.

A good part of the movie is the “victim” (later accompanied by his son) trying to track down the getaway man. Walking around depressed because of ill-luck, he eyes a bike in front of the Stadio Nazionale del PNF, Rome’s famous soccer stadium, unattended.

He quickly tells his son to go home and, once the boy’s out of sight, rushes to the bike and is off riding on somebody else’s supper.

But this time — thus “Ladri” — onlookers see the perpetrator and, mob-like, rush the bike, drag the thief to the ground, and pummel him with justice.

The kid, who missed his train, had come back and witnessed the ignominy being dished out to his father.

But there’s a deus ex machina: The guy who owns the bike appears. In the midst of the crowd he peers down at a frightened child standing beside a dispirited soul, and tells the crowd: No big, let him go — and the thief, the second thief, is freed.

Here’s where the analysts come in: The father had been the victim of a crime, an act of hostility, when his bike was stolen. But when he finds himself in a similar situation, that is, when he sees an unattended bike the way his was, he responds not with feeling for how the other guy might feel when he sees his bike gone, but with retributive hostility.

The thinking is: Somebody got me, I’ll get somebody; anyone who leaves a bike unattended deserves what he gets — though the paperer does not say the same about himself, that he deserved hostility in the first place.

When the mob came, the people in the mob also dished out a deserts-based justice, acting like hostile vigilantes. They behaved the way the wallpaperer did. The situations differ, of course, but both reflect a transgression of personhood.

The twist in the movie is that the second victim of a bicycle theft does not respond with retributive hostility but commands the crowd: Let the guy go. He responds with hospitality. He not only stops the mob from beating on the perpetrator but treats the offender as he might a guest in his home or a beloved family member.

On one level, we do not know what the guy’s thinking is, such that he would respond to hostility with hospitality. And yet he’s countercultural in the sense that he contradicts the prevailing ethic to take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and enjoy diminishing another.

Which is how the current president of the United States behaves. As he said in a November 2012 tweet, “When someone attacks me, I always attack back ... except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!” An admission of a hostile disposition.

Again, we do not know what the second thief’s thinking is about relative worth and how a harm-done should be responded to. Regardless, the father could not fathom what it takes to be hospitable in the face of hostility, to respond to loss with largesse. But that would be another movie.

De Sica’s movie ends with the father, walking home with his son, his tail between his legs. He begins to cry and the son, seeing a man bereft of dignity, takes his hand and offers hospitality — to a criminal, a criminal who happens to be his father. The child has seen beneath the surface separations that keep us apart to where we’re all connected.

I thought of De Sica’s film last week when a story appeared in the news about a bicycle, a bicycle that wasn’t stolen but given, freely given, given by one person to another without knowing the recipient, without assessing whether the recipient deserved it, the only measure being the measure of need, and nothing was asked for in return. Pure hospitality.

The late famous Algerian-born French deconstructionist philosopher, Jacques Derrida, used to say there is no such a thing as a pure act of hospitality, but does not this case of a bicycle freely-given apply?

The recipient of that bike is now a 29-year old Kurdish woman, Mevan Babakar, who was desperate to find the man who gave it to her when she was 5 years old and living as a refugee outside Zwolle, Netherlands.

She went back to that city after all those years to see if she might find, not a getaway but, a giveaway man. She looked in the face of every old man she saw on the street, ready to sing her psalm of gratitude, but no luck.

When she turned to the Web and told her story to the world, in no time the man was ID’ed, but the kind soul said he wanted no light shined on him. He said it was no big deal, all he was doing was honoring personhood.

The 20th-Century Dutch spiritual writer Henry Nouwen looked into this kind of hospitality, asking how people find the strength to offer hospitality in the face of hostility.

In his beloved “Out of Solitude,” Nouwen says hospitable people “instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” They do not steal your bike.

He says the hospitable “can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion ... can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement ... can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is [be] a friend who cares.” They do not respond with ire.

I find Nouwen’s words to be a little too abstract but there have been times, when someone stole my bike, that I turned to them for the hospitality they offer.