Bicycle Thieves • Italian Neorealism

Greenscreening Series #18

January 6, 2023

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Bicycle Thieves (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica

*Bicycle Thieves*


Hailed around the world as one of the greatest movies ever made, the Academy Award–winning Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio De Sica, defined an era in cinema. In poverty-stricken postwar Rome, a man is on his first day of a new job that offers hope of salvation for his desperate family when his bicycle, which he needs for work, is stolen. With his young son in tow, he sets off to track down the thief. Simple in construction and profoundly rich in human insight, Bicycle Thieves embodies the greatest strengths of the Italian neorealist movement: emotional clarity, social rectitude, and brutal honesty. - Criterion

Find Bicycle Thieves via Reelgood

Why Bicycle Thieves?

Postwar World Cinema began with Italian Neorealism. Everything that follows in this series - the French New Wave, the Scandinavian New Wave, national cinema movements in India, Cuba, across Africa, and in Taiwan, and even the Hollywood Renaissance of the 1970s and the rise of American independent film in the lte 1980s - all of it was heavily influenced by a handful of films made in Italy right after WWII. As Jean-Luc Godard once said, "All roads lead to Rome, Open City" referring to Roberto Rossellini's pioneering Neorealist film. But though Rossellini's film was first to take the world by storm, Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves is the pinnacle of Italian Neorealism, and one of the greatest films ever made.

Was Neorealism's impact just a matter of being the first breakthrough movement after the War? Partially; it's possible the major postwar film movements would have happened without Neorealism. But Neorealism's spirit made it a special catalyst for change, inspiring countless filmmakers to think differently about cinema. Neorealism challenged the popular direction of both Hollywood and the fascist manipulation of the medium, in an attempt to reclaim the medium to speak truth about life and the world.

Neorealism was born of two spirits - one idealistic and the other practical. Leading up to WWII, the Italian film industry had cooperated with Mussolini and produced escapist movies and propaganda. At the onset of the War, a new generation of Italian critics envisioned a better artistic way. Luchino Visconti was the chief critic for Cinema magazine, and his publication heavily skewered the fascist-era films, which they derogatorily labeled “white telephone” films because they all featured a white telephone.

*White Telephone films*

This new generation was searching for something true and authentic. Italian society was collapsing, and the horrors of war were becoming all too real. These critics and filmmakers wanted to tell stories that reflected the reality they were seeing.

So they threw out the rule book of filmmaking altogether.

Neorealist filmmakers turned away from studio production, lighting techniques, and stars in order to reclaim authenticity. They filmed on location, often in the countryside or in the city streets, going to the poorer neighborhoods to authentically represent postwar life. They cast nonprofessional actors in order to capture authentic performances. De Sica in particular believed that everyone was born to play one role - themselves.

Neorealist films were often open-ended, depicting a slice of life and embracing the ambiguity of real life situations and dilemmas. You see this in Bicycle Thieves, which essentially follows a couple days in the life of an impoverished family during one episode of a lengthy struggle to survive in postwar Italy. You get the sense that no matter what, the struggle continues beyond the film's conclusion; another situation will arise, and the Riccis will band together to face it.

However, along with a revolutionary artistic spirit, Neorealist filmmaking grew out of a series of practical constraints. At the height of the War, there was no film stock to shoot on, so they had to film with scraps and sometimes reuse exposed film. There was no budget for filmmaking outside of the fascist controlled studios, so they wouldn't ever greenlight a story about the working class and societal decay. And the major production studio, Cinecitta, was converted to a mass homeless shelter. Guerilla filmmaking was the only way.

Luchino Visconti made the first Neorealist film, Ossessione (1943), a loose adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Three years later, Roberto Rossellini (future husband of Ingrid Bergman) made the breakthrough classic, Rome, Open City, in the closing days of WWII, and claimed the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. De Sica launched his career in 1946 with Shoeshine, following two young shoeshiners who get involved in a sticky situation. The film won an honorary Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The follow-up Neorealist films incorporated more polished production and technical flair, while staying true to the realist spirit and humanism. Since part of the Neorealist style came from necessity, international success allowed the Neorealists bigger budgets and more resources in support of their artistic visions.

For Bicycle Thieves, De Sica again cast nonprofessional actors. But his set design and staging is much more elaborate, often using a studio made to look like a real location. A few scenes include hundreds of extras. De Sica's camera moves fluidly throughout scenes. The result is a film rich with subtext, still deeply human, beautiful, and at times devastating.

Bicycle Thieves tells the story of Antonio Ricci, a father and husband struggling to find work in postwar Italy. When he lands a job hanging posters around Rome, it comes with a catch - the job requires a bicycle. He pawned his bike previously, so must get it back in order to work. And as the title suggests, his bike is stolen, sending Ricci on a desperate search through Rome, accompanied by his young son, Bruno.

*Bicycle Thieves* Posters

Bicycle Thieves was a smash hit on its release, and quickly regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. De Sica won his second honorary Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, which soon after became a formal category. In the inaugural Sight and Sound critics poll, the film was voted the greatest ever made, though over the years it fell lower. In 2022, the film ranked 20th on the directors poll and 41st on the critics poll (interestingly, tied with Rashomon on both polls).

De Sica, Rossellini, and Visconti all continued making films, increasingly shedding the Neorealist style. The movement faded almost as quickly as it appeared, morphing into a more generic postwar art house style - technically proficient, highly cerebral, and deeply concerned with the human condition. In fact, some scholars argue that there were only 8-10 truly Neorealist films ever made. But even so, this genre remains highly influential.

Countless filmmakers and movements have cited Bicycle Thieves as a key influence, including multiple directors we'll meet later in the series, like Satyajit Ray and Charles Burnett. Even today, there is a branch of cinema continuing to search for ways to use the art form to express truth about the human experience; a subset of directors even use some of the same filmmaking techniques and focus on characters struggling with day to day survival and harsh living conditions.

*The Florida Project*

To me, Italian Neorealism represents some of the most beautiful filmmaking of all time. Beautiful in their unflinching look at reality, joys and pain, courage in the face of injustice, light and darkness. Almost 80 years on, these films hold up because of this combination of truth and beauty, of honoring the dramatic in the everyday, with an almost unrivaled empathy for the characters.

The great Pauline Kael wrote this about Shoeshine, years after its release:

When Shoeshine opened in 1947, I went to see it alone after one of those terrible lovers’ quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, “Well I don’t see what was so special about that movie.” I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?

*Bicycle Thieves* Frames

*Bicycle Thieves* Posters

What to Watch For

  • As you watch the film, look closely for the stylistic and thematic markers of Neorealism: location shooting, authentic acting, open endings, and empathy for those struggling.

  • De Sica has an incredible visual eye. He uses frames within frames throughout the film to direct attention and as a visual metaphor for the characters' plight in the world.

  • The extraordinary visual storytelling at the film's climax. Recall that earlier in the series, when we looked at D.W. Griffith and Birth of a Nation, we discussed the development of film language, particularly the composition and ordering of shots to develop the sequence, and to communicate emotion purely visually, since in Griffith's day films were silent. When first developing close-up shots and in coaching his actors to play smaller for the camera, D.W. Griffith identified that by capturing an actor's facial expressions, the camera seemed to be able to peer into the character's mind. Here De Sica takes advantage of this beautifully. Watch as he cuts back and forth between Antonio Ricci, his surroundings, and a bicycle. There hasn't been a better cinematic depiction of desperation and temptation.

  • Consider the role Antonio's son, Bruno, plays in the film, from a storytelling perspective. How would the story be different if Antonio had gone on the search alone?

  • Crowds are important in this film. The first and final shots of the film are of crowds, with the camera moving from the anonymous to the personal and then back again. During his search for a bicycle, Antonio visits several crowded spaces, including a church serving the homeless and a neighborhood where the thief might live. What do you think De Sica is saying about Italian postwar society and more broadly, human nature?

  • The film is full of symbolism around faith. The bicycle brand is fides, which is close to the Italian word "fide," meaning "faith" or "trust." The protagonist is named Antonio: St. Anthony of Padua (a city in Northern Italy) is the patron saint of lost items, whom Catholics believe you can pray to for aid in finding something you've lost. Ricci's wife goes to see the Holy One, a woman who offers advice and counsel to people of the neighborhood; Ricci himself later goes to see her. There's a sequence where Ricci follows someone with crucial information into a church that ministers to the poor. What do you make of all of this?

  • De Sica paid tribute to Charlie Chaplin, one of his cinematic heroes with the ending of Bicycle Thieves. After watching the film, check out the ending of Modern Times

*Bicycle Thieves* ending

*Modern Times* ending

Read More About Bicycle Thieves and Italian Neorealism

Scenic Routes: It's a Wonderful Life from the AV Club

Roger Ebert on Bicycle Thieves

Why You Should Still Care About Bicycle Thieves by AO Scott for NY Times

Bicycle Thieves: A Passionate Commitment to the Real by Godfrey Cheshire for Criterion

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