The Bicycle Thieves (or The Bicycle Thief) is a story of humanity and love that has touched so many people around the world because of its powerful simplicities. Sometimes the simplest stories are the most important to tell, because they are the ones people can most identify with, which can create an emotional template of personal honesty and truth. Vittorio De Sica was the director of The Bicycle Thieves and his films and the style he used started the Italian Neorealist movement alongside Roberto Rossellini's Rome: Open City, which attempted to give a new degree of realism to the cinema. Neorealism, as a term, can mean several things; it often refers to films of working class life and of the struggles and social conditions of people set in the culture of poverty. Italian Neorealism was a revolutionary breakthrough, not just for its technical style and raw film-making, but for the gritty realism of its story and poignant naturalism of its characters. The aesthetics of Neorealism included films that were mostly shot on a very low-budget and on real locations not using any stages or props. It was also a style which casted non professional actors because it brought a sense of reality to the characters, where the acting seemed more natural and real. After decades of Hollywood gloss, real people instead of actors were startling to audiences. The main character of Ricci, is an unemployed man in the depressed post-WWII economy of Italy, who at last gets a good job which can support his family. It is a job hanging up posters (a poster of Rita Hayworth provides an ironic contrast to the glamorous world of Hollywood and the gritty everyday world of neorealism) for which having a bicycle is an important necessity. But soon enough his bicycle is stolen and he and his son Bruno walk the streets of Rome, in search for it. [fsbProduct product_id='741' size='200' align='right']The bicycle in the story can be looked at as a justification to describe the lives of all the struggling working class people in Post World War II Italy. The film contains striking images of the city of Rome that the characters of Ricci and Bruno inhabit when searching for their bicycle. The urban city and streets of Rome and the poverty of its surroundings are in many ways a third lead character within the context of the story and the bleak urban images sheds a powerful understanding of its place and time within history. The story of The Bicycle Thieves can also be viewed as a social and political commentary on the poverty of Postwar Italy during the late 1940’s, as you see survivors after a devastating war trying to rebuild, start over and live once again. The Bicycle Thieves has become a cultural icon of art film-making and is now looked at as one of the greatest films in the world, usually ranked next to such acclaimed films as Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, Orson Welles Citizen Kane, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, and Jean Renoirs The Rules of the Game. It's simple themes touches on so many universal issues of the human condition, portraying humans as genuinely flawed people who are vulnerable and when put under strenuous circumstances, will break down and do what is necessary to survive. French Andre Bazin described The Bicycle Thieves best by saying, “No more actors, no more story, no more sets, which is to say in the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality...there is no more cinema.”
The opening of the film shows all the unemployed in the post WWII economy of Italy crowding around the employment office in Valmelaina. They all are struggling to find work and Antonio Ricci is called out among everyone else. Antonio Ricci has a wife and two children to support and like everyone else; is desperate in finding work. He finally is offered a job putting up posters around the city; but there is just one problem...he needs a bicycle to do it. Ricci tells the employment officer, "I'll have one...but not right now. I'll have one in a couple of days. I'll go on foot for a few days." The employment officer handing out the jobs says he either has a bike or not because someone else can get the job. Other men start shouting that they have a bicycle but most of them are in construction or are brick layers and it's against policy. Ricci then lies and says he has a bike and will report to work that next morning.
He goes to tell his wife Maria about the job and on how he can't take it because he pawned the one bike they had because he had to feed his family. Ricci says, "I've been cursed since the day I was born!" Him and his wife then come up with an idea to sell their bed sheets so they can get the money to purchase one again. His wife says to him, "We can sleep without sheets." They get offered 7,000 for the sheets because their used but Ricci asks if they can get a little more; and they are offered 7,500. There is an interesting shot where Ricci watches the bedsheets that he has just sold get stored high above levels and levels of other bedsheets and that shot shows how he is one of many that is struggling with money as well.
Ricci then goes to a bike shop to purchase a bicycle and then shows up early to meet with his boss holding onto his new bicycle for dear life. He is told by his boss to start tomorrow at 6:45 a.m. and he is excited. When he sees Maria he tells her he got the job and that there's a job for her too. He then shows her his uniform and says, "You have to tighten the strap on my cap. It's loose." They both laugh and he shows her his new locker and tells her the job pays 6,000 bimonthly plus overtime.
Before riding home Maria wants to stop at Via della Paglia to see a woman. When Ricci realizes she's at a fortune-teller who people call the 'holy one' he asks a kid to watch his bike for him to see what his wife is doing in there. When he sees Maria inside he calls out to her. Maria tells him this woman said Ricci would find a job and now that he did; Maria owes her money. Ricci says to her, "how can a woman with two children and a head on her shoulders listen to all this stupid nonsense? You must have money to throw away." There's a little tease by the director, since we as an audience know the bike will be stolen in the film, but in this scene the bike is surprisingly still there when the both of them return downstairs.
That morning his son Bruno and him are working on his bike and Ricci puts on his uniform and is ready to begin his day while his wife makes the two of them egg sandwiches. Ricci rides off with Bruno and drops him off at school and heads for his first day at work. When heading off to his first day of work, him and several others all go on their seperate routes on bicycle. On the beginning of Ricci's route he is shown how to paste-up posters by adding a coat of glue and in one particular poster he is putting up is of Rita Hayworth which shows an ironic contrast between the world of Hollywood and the gritty everyday lives of neo realism.
Eventually within the first few hours of his work day a young boy is talking to an older man and then the young boy quickly jumps on Ricci's bike (he probably needs a job as well) and rides off with it while Ricci is up on a ladder pasting up a poster. Ricci tries to chase after him by riding alongside an automobile but loses him in the tunnels. Ricci doesn't know what to do now and so he reports the stolen bike to the police, but the police can't do too much about it and have him fill out a complaint. They then tell him to look for the bike himself if he has spare time. Ricci says, "Look all over Rome? What's the point of even filling out a complaint?" The officer tells him that since his complaint is on file and so is the bicycle serial number, if the bike does show up the police can go foward with the investigation.
Later on that day Ricci picks up his son Bruno but since he doesn't have any form of transportation anymore he has to squeeze his way into a bus crammed with other people who cannot afford a means of transportation as well. He heads to Bruno's school and picks up his son and when Bruno asks him where the bike is and if it broke down his father lies and tells him it broke down.
Ricci then goes to find his friend Baiocco who's working on a rehearsal of a stage play. He asks him for help and what he should do about the stolen bike. Baiocco tells him that Piazza Vittorio is his only hope and he has to act quick. Maria walks in and asks her husband if it's true and starts to cry. Baiocco tells her not to cry and they will find it. He says, "they'll swap some parts, but it'll be on the market tomorrow."
The next morning Ricci and his son meet up with Baiocco and they all three head down to the streets of Rome to try to find the bicycle which should be back on the market. They eventually go check out the Piazza Vittorio, Romes largest square where they find countless bicycles and parts. They all split up with Ricci looking at the tires and his son looking at pumps, as the three scan up and down the lines of bikes and parts. Ricci thinks he sees a part of his bike and he asks the seller for the serial number. The guy won't let him see the number so Ricci gets a cop. He returns with the cop and the cop tells the man to let him see the serial number. It turns out to be not the right number as Ricci says to the officer, "A man has a right to look."
They then leave Piazza Vittorio as Baiocco tells Ricci that he can check out another market called Porta Portese but he can't come along with him this time. Ricci and Bruno go to Porta Portese and when arriving it starts to rain heavily. Bruno falls down while running to follow his father for shelter out of the rain. When his father asks him whats wrong his son yells, "I fell down!"
The rain lets up and suddenly Ricci recognizes one of the two men involved in his bike being stolen and starts to chase him down. Ricci and Bruno eventually catch up to the older man and Ricci questions him about the young man that day that the old man talked to. The old man says he doesn't know what Ricci is talking about and walks away.
They follow the old man in a church and watch him while he gets a shave and is being fed. When hes later sitting in the church service Ricci confronts him again saying, "I have to find the young man it's a personal matter," but the old man ignores Ricci and tells him to leave him alone. Eventually Ricci gets the old man to tell him the address and apartment number of the young man; and when Ricci demands he takes him there; the old man refuses. Ricci then threatens that if he doesn't come along with him he will report him to the police. Suddenly Ricci get's stopped by the church goers who think he is harassing the old man and also is distracting the service.
The old man manages to escape again, so Ricci searches all throughout the church and can't seem to find him. It's now getting later in the day and Ricci is beginning to lose hope in being able to find the bicycle at all. There's a powerful scene where he takes his frustration out on his son Bruno when he questions his father and Ricci slaps him in the face when Bruno smarts off to him. Bruno is hurt on what his father did and runs off crying. "Why did you hit me?" Bruno asks. Ricci calls him a brat and said he deserved it. Bruno says he's going to tell mama when they get home and decides to run off. When looking to find where his son has run off to Ricci sees a crowd of people near the lake shouting that a child has drowned and Ricci starts to worry that it might be his son. He is relieved when Bruno calls out to him from the top of the church stairs and Ricci runs up to him realizing how much more important his own son is then a silly bicycle.
Finally Ricci gives up and says to Bruno. "You hungry? How about a pizza? Why kill myself worrying when I'll end up just as dead anyway? Come on." Bruno smiles liking the idea and the two eventually make up. Ricci then decides to forget about all their strains and problems and treats Bruno and himself at a nice fancy restaurant no matter what the cost. Ricci says, "lets forget everything and get drunk!"
While they are eating at this restaurant Ricci orders a bottle of wine and even gives a little to Bruno. His son keeps focusing his attention over at a wealthier child eating a large plate of pasta and for just a moment Ricci and Bruno feel as prosperous as the wealthy families in that restaurant. When Ricci notices his son looking over at the other boy he says to him, "To eat like that, you'd have to earn a million lira a month." Ricci then tells his son the salary he would have made with this new job. Then he says, "And I should just kiss it good-bye? Well, I wont. See now why we have to find it? Otherwise we don't eat."
Near the end of the evening Ricci gets desperate in what else to do. Ricci needs that bicycle because he needs to support his family and he becomes so desperate in ideas that he visits the one fortune-teller he detested his wife went to earlier. This is his last resort for an answer to a problem he knows he can't solve. When the fortune-teller finally sees him she hears his predicament. She then consuls Ricci and says, "Either you find it right away or you never will. Understand?" Ricci than hands over the last of his money and leaves.
After leaving the fortune teller Ricci and Bruno quickly happen upon the young thief and Ricci chases him down into a brothel. When he gets a hold of him he drags him out into the street. The young man denies what Ricci is accusing him saying, "What bicycle? I'm no thief." The neighbors in the street start crowding around and become hostile telling Ricci he can't just accuse anyone of a crime. Some men in the street tell Ricci he lives right here and if he's sure he stole his bike to go get a policeman. During the commotion Bruno runs off to fetch a policeman and while Ricci tries to force a confession out of the kid the boy suddenly falls to the ground and starts having a seizure.
When Bruno brings back a policeman, the neighbors all gang up and blame Ricci for causing the boy's present health condition while the boy's mother comes out screaming. The policeman decides to search the boy's apartment and the mother lets him saying her son has nothing to hide. While they search the apartment for the bicycle it's nowhere in sight. The officer then asks Ricci if he's sure that's the right guy and Ricci says he's sure. The cop then tells him to look outside at all the people. He tells Ricci they will all testify for that kid because he sees it happen everyday. And since Ricci has no other witnesses that saw the kid or any other proof; there's nothing more he can do and Ricci must leave the area. It's now out of Ricci 's hands as he walks away in despair with the neighbors yelling and shouting at him to leave and to not come around anymore accusing people.
Desperate and out of options Ricci realizes the day is almost over. The two near a football stadium as inside a game is underway, while outside, rows of bicycles await their owners. Antonio sees an unattended bicycle near a doorway. He paces distractedly then sits with Bruno on the curb, his head in his hands. As he looks up a stream of bicycles rushes past—the world seems full of other people's bicycles. He resumes pacing, anguished and agitated, and finally gives Bruno some money, telling him to take the streetcar and wait at Monte Sacro.
Antonio circles the unattended bicycle, summons his courage, and jumps on it. The hue and cry is instantly raised, and Bruno, who has missed the streetcar, is stunned to see his father surrounded and pulled from the bike. Bruno runs into the angry crowd surrounded his father weeping, "Papa! Papa!". The bicycle's owner slaps the hat from Antonio's head. As Antonio is being muscled toward the police station, the owner notices Bruno, who is carrying Antonio's hat. In a moment of compassion, the owner decides to let him go and mercifully declines to press charges. Ricci and his son walk away, with his father holding his head in shame while Bruno grasps his father's hand with tears in his eyes.
Italian Neorealism came about as World War II ended and Benito Mussolini's government fell, causing the Italian film industry to lose its center. Neorealism was a sign of cultural change and social progress in Italy. Its films presented contemporary stories and ideas, and were often shot in the streets because the film studios had been damaged significantly during the war.
The neorealist style was developed by a circle of film critics that revolved around the magazine Cinema, including Luchino Visconti, Gianni Puccini, Cesare Zavattini, Giuseppe De Santis and Pietro Ingrao. Largely prevented from writing about politics (the editor-in-chief of the magazine was Vittorio Mussolini, son of Benito Mussolini), the critics attacked the white telephone films that dominated the industry at the time. As a counter to the popular mainstream films, including the so-called "White Telephone" films, some critics felt that Italian cinema should turn to the realist writers from the turn of 20th century.
Both Antonioni and Visconti had worked closely with Jean Renoir. In addition, many of the filmmakers involved in neorealism developed their skills working on calligraphist films (though the short-lived movement was markedly different from neorealism). In the Spring of 1945, Mussolini was executed and Italy was liberated from German occupation. This period, known as the "Italian Spring," was a break from old ways and an entrance to a more realistic approach when making films. Italian cinema went from utilizing elaborate studio sets to shooting on location in the countryside and city streets in the realist style.
The first neorealist film is generally thought to be Ossessione by Luchino Visconti in 1943. Neorealism became famous globally in 1946 with Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City, when it won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival as the first major film produced in Italy after the war.
Most neorealism films are generally filmed with nonprofessional actors--although, in a number of cases, well known actors were cast in leading roles, playing strongly against their normal character types in front of a background populated by local people rather than extras brought in for the film.
They are shot almost exclusively on location, mostly in run-down cities as well as rural areas due to its forming during the post-war era, no longer being constrained to studio sets. The topic involves the idea of what it is like to live among the poor and the lower working class. The focus is on a simple social order of survival in rural, everyday life. Performances are mostly constructed from scenes of people performing fairly mundane and quotidian activities, devoid of the self-consciousness that amateur acting usually entails. Neorealist films often feature children in major roles, though their characters are frequently more observational than participatory.
Open City established several of the principles of neorealism, depicting clearly the struggle of normal Italian people to live from day to day under the extraordinary difficulties of the German occupation of Rome, consciously doing what they can to resist the occupation. The children play a key role in this, and their presence at the end of the film is indicative of their role in neorealism as a whole: as observers of the difficulties of today who hold the key to the future.
Many of the films involved Post-synch sound/dubbing employing conversational speech, and local dialects. They also included funtional rather than ostentatious editing that would draw attention to itself, as shots were organized loosely. Many neorealism films involved stories that were episodic, elliptical, or organic in structure. Plot were preferable not a tight framework of cause and effect, but a more fluid relationship between scenes which approximated how events would occur in real life.
Many of the films had a sense of a documentary impulse & immediacy in filming, shifting away from the pretense of studio stories. It wanted to be a cinema that attended to the details and trials of everyday life, of the material experience of average people in difficult situations. It also had a concern with the lives of working-class people and a social commitment and humanist point of view to contemporary stories that spoke to the historical present. Vittorio De Sica's 1948 film Bicycle Thieves is also representative of the genre, with non-professional actors, and a story of a 'everyday man' and his hardships of working-class life after the war.
Italian Neorealism rapidly declined in the early 1950s. Liberal and socialist parties were having a hard time presenting their message. Levels of income were gradually starting to rise and the first positive effects of the Ricostruzione period began to show. As a consequence, most Italians favored the optimism shown in many American movies of the time. The vision of the existing poverty and despair, presented by the neorealist films, was demoralizing a nation anxious for prosperity and change. The views of the postwar Italian government of the time were also far from positive, and the remark of Giulio Andreotti, who was then a vice-minister in the De Gasperi cabinet, characterized the official view of the movement: Neorealism is "dirty laundry that shouldn't be washed and hung to dry in the open."
Italy's move from individual concern with neorealism to the tragic frailty of the human condition can be seen through Federico Fellini's films. His early works Il bidone and La Strada are transitional movies. The larger social concerns of humanity, treated by neorealists, gave way to the exploration of individuals. Their needs, their alienation from society and their tragic failure to communicate became the main focal point in the Italian films to follow in the 1960s. Similarly, Antonioni's Red Desert and Blow-up take the neo-realist trappings and internalize them in the suffering and search for knowledge brought out by Italy's post-war economic and political climate.
Neorealism screenwriter Cesare Zavattini said, "film should address not 'historical man' but the 'man without a label.' I dare to think that other peoples, even after the war, have what they continued to consider man as a historical subject, as historical material with determined almost inevitable actions...For them everything continued, for us, everything began. For them the war had been just another war, for us, it had been the last war...The reality of buried under the myths slowly reflowered. the cinema began its creation of the world. Here was a tree, here, an old man, here, a house, here a man eating, sleeping, a man crying...The cinema should accept unconditionally, what is contemporary. Today, today, today."
French film critic Andre Bazin on neorealism: "No more actors, no more story, no more sets, which is to say that the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality, there is no more cinema."
In the period from 1944–1950, many neorealist filmmakers drifted away from pure neorealism and into a period of "rosy neorealism" of Italian films of the 1950's. Some directors explored allegorical fantasy, such as de Sica's Miracle in Milan, and historical spectacle, like Senso by Visconti. This was also the time period when a more upbeat neorealism emerged, which produced films that melded working-class characters with 1930s-style populist comedy, as seen in de Sica's Umberto D.
There are different debates on when the Neorealist period began and ended. Some claimed it ended in 1948, with the shift in power from the left to the centrist Christian Democrat Party and with the inclusion of Italy in the Marshall Plan, which began to subsidize the film industry once more. Many claimed that the cycle ended with De Sica's Umberto D in 1952.
Robert Kolker suggests a useful way of thinking about "two Neorealisms. 1) on the one hand a group of films made between 1945 & 1955, and 2) on the other Neorealism as an idea, an aesthetic, a politics...both a form of praxis and an ideal to aspire to."
Irrelevant Actions were an aesthetic that neorealism provided. Andre Bazin essay on Umberto D saying, "the most beautiful sequence in the film, the awaking of the little maid, rigorously avoids and dramatic italicizing. The young girl gets up, comes and goes in the kitchen, hunts down ants, grinds the coffee...and all these 'irrelevant' actions are reported to us with meticulous temporal continuity."
More contemporary theorists of Italian Neorealism characterize it less as a consistent set of stylistic characteristics and more as the relationship between film practice and the social reality of post-war Italy. Millicent Marcus delineates the lack of consistent film styles of Neorealist film. Peter Brunette and Marcia Landy both deconstruct the use of reworked cinematic forms in Rossellini's Open City. Using psychoanalysis, Vincent Rocchi characterizes neorealist film as consistently engendering the structure of anxiety into the structure of the plot itself.
Viewed in retrospect, much of modern cinema can seem to flow from twin fountainheads: Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). Though separated by World War II, the two movies symbolize the cardinal impulses that came to captivate serious audiences, critics, and filmmakers after the war. The tendencies they signaled—ones soon fused into a singular aesthetic by the French new wave—are not so much divergent as complementary.
Where Citizen Kane heralded the age of the auteur and a cinema of passionate individual vision, Bicycle Thieves renounced “egoism” for collective concern, envisioning a cinema of impassioned social conscience. Both films reflect their directors’ personal formal gifts, and their distinct approaches to “the real” transmute the very different production circumstances under which they were created. While Welles’s use of deep-focus and other innovations brought a hyperrealist sophistication to the elaborate fantasy mechanics of the Hollywood studio film, De Sica’s uncommon skills as a visual stylist and director of actors imbued the purist tropes of Italian neorealism—social themes, the use of real locations and nonprofessional performers—with a degree of poetic eloquence and seductive dramatic power seldom equaled in his era.
To an extent almost unimaginable today, the very different forms of realism exemplified by these films were seen as matters not just of aesthetic advancement but of moral urgency, too. Welles’s critique of the collusion of media, political, and economic power was unprecedented, and he later paid the price for his boldness. In Europe, the searching self-examination provoked by a devastating war and the revelation of Hitler’s death camps implicated an entire culture, including a cinema of complicity and vain distraction, typified in Italy by the “white telephone” farces and historical superspectacles of the 1930s.
Born in the fires of war, neorealism served as a chastening, dis-illusioning rejection of Fascism and fantasy, yet its resort to documentary-style, street-level filming (especially in Roberto Rossellini’s trailblazing Rome, Open City, from 1945) was initially a matter of sheer necessity. It soon became an ethical stance, one with consequences both immediate and enduring. Today, more than in any other passage in film history, the tactics and ideals evoked by “neorealism” continue to represent the struggle for authenticity and political engagement in cinema.
Yet neorealism, which by some counts produced only twenty-one films in seven years, was finally less a movement than a moment: a rush of creative energies sparked by, and ultimately tied to, a particular historical crisis. Its authors began in Resistance and thought they were headed for Revolution, but Revolution did not materialize. By the time we reach Bicycle Thieves, in 1948, the neorealist trajectory has reached its apogee. With Italy reborn not as a socialist paradise but as a capitalist purgatory beset with massive unemployment (the postwar boom had yet to launch), the film teeters between ongoing idealism and encroaching melancholy, a place where the earnest formulas of ideology are deepened by the intuitions of tragedy.
The film was the third official collaboration between De Sica, a successful actor and matinee idol turned director, and Cesare Zavattini, a screenwriter who also served as one of neorealism’s leading theoreticians. Like The Children Are Watching Us (1944) and Shoeshine (1946) before it, Bicycle Thieves uses children as characters whose innocence interrogates the dubious adult authority around them. Though loosely based on a book by Luigi Bartolini, the film exemplifies De Sica’s stated desire to “reintroduce the dramatic into quotidian situations, the marvelous in a little news item . . . considered by most people throwaway material.”
The quotidian anecdote dramatized here concerns Antonio Ricci, a young husband who has been suffering a prolonged spell of unemployment when he is offered a job as a bill poster. The catch is that he must have a bicycle, and his is in hock. Rescued by his wife’s willingness to pawn their bedsheets, Antonio sets out proudly and confidently on his new job, only to have his bicycle stolen on the first day. Desperate to stay employed, he mounts a wide-ranging search across Rome, accompanied most of the way by his young son, Bruno.
More than a half century on, it’s hard to recapture how striking Italy’s new realism—with its actual city streets and unfamiliar, hard-bitten faces—was to world audiences in the late 1940s, when any comparable Hollywood movie would have been shot on a studio back lot, with a star like Cary Grant (David O. Selznick’s choice for Antonio) in the lead role. Yet this film’s neorealism is a bit anomalous. Far from being shot guerrilla-style, with minimal crew and technical support, it was mounted by a team of movie professionals working on a budget generous enough to allow for large-scale scenes, hundreds of extras, and even the apparatus necessary to create a fake rainstorm.
Here, the situational imperatives of early neorealism have become a conscious aesthetic—one, it must be noted, with proven market value in the cinephile capitals of Europe and America (neorealist films were always mostly an export commodity). Yet this isn’t to question De Sica and Zavattini’s sincerity. Though they perhaps elected to compete with Hollywood on a comparable level of technique, they were still embarked on the heroic quest of speaking about the real people and places and social hardships that most moviemakers (then as now) took pains to avoid.
Their commitment to the real finds its most immediately gratifying proof in the movie’s capacious, quasi-picaresque portrait of Rome. Like Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, À propos de Nice, and Wings of Desire, among others, Bicycle Thieves is one of cinema’s great “city films.” But its wide gaze isn’t simply geographic. In a way that subtly links De Sica’s vision to Dante’s, each of its physical spaces also has a social, emotional, and moral dimension—from the union hall where crass entertainment intrudes, to the sprawling thieves’ market of the Porta Portese, to the church where the poor are run through an assembly line of shaving, food, and worship, to the brothels and rough solidarity of the aptly named Via Panico, to the environs of a soccer stadium where Antonio’s solitary ordeal reaches a humiliatingly public climax.
This city symphony is also, at its most intimate cinematic level, a symphony of looks. From the first, we are drawn into Antonio’s alternately hopeful and haunted gaze and what it beholds. In the shop where his wife pawns their sheets, the camera leads our eyes up a veritable tower of such linens, a catalog of forestalled dreams. In the search for the bicycle, Antonio both casts his own looks and receives looks of suspicion, curiosity, and, most prevalently, indifference. Sometimes looks are significantly blocked (by a slammed window, say) or misdirected (Antonio hurries on, looking ahead, while Bruno falls twice in the street behind).
In what’s often regarded as the film’s pivotal scene, Antonio decides to treat Bruno to a good meal. This complex gesture from father to son is played out against the subsidiary drama of looks exchanged between Bruno and a supercilious, pompadoured bourgeois boy at the next table. One could not call this passage especially subtle, yet its haunting power and richness show us what cinema can do that novels and theater cannot.
Looks also cue us to a gradual shift in the drama of Bicycle Thieves. Though it starts out focused closely on Antonio’s poverty and desperate need to recover his bicycle, by the latter sections what most concerns us is not what happens between Antonio and the bicycle or his social position but what transpires between the man and his son. Indeed, a second viewing of the film might suggest that this has been the main drama all along, that Bruno has been “looking after” Antonio in several senses that point us toward the film’s justly famous final moments, when a touching gesture of filial solidarity replaces the class solidarity that De Sica and Zavattini evidently saw as receding in Italy.
Given the importance of individual gazes to his drama, it’s no surprise that De Sica depends far more on variable compositions and cutting than did his neorealist colleagues Rossellini and Luchino Visconti, who inclined toward a more distanced camera style. Yet De Sica resists using close-ups or montage for Hollywood-style emotional overkill. Rather, his directing remains impressive for its vigorous inventiveness, the sense that every scene abounds in moments and details that add to the film’s accruing, multivalent meanings. Additionally, his genius with actors accounts here for the indelible performances of the nonprofessionals Lamberto Maggiorani, as Antonio, and Enzo Staiola, as Bruno.
Much has been made of the fact that Antonio is putting up a poster for a Rita Hayworth movie when his bike is stolen. Apologists like Zavattini, in positioning neorealism as the antithesis to Hollywood, often made claims that today look extravagant if not fanciful. André Bazin was surely closer to reality when he spoke of a “dialectical” relationship than when he vaunted neorealism as approaching “pure cinema.” Yet no important contribution to cinema should be condemned by its most utopian rhetoric. Judged by the brilliant conviction of Bicycle Thieves, neorealism still looks like our most potent reminder that a whole world exists outside the movie theater, to which our conscience and humanity oblige us to pay attention.
The great Italian director Vittorio De Sica is considered one of the most important of all Italian directors. His first film Shoeshine was one of the first early films of neorealism as it told the simple story of two shoeshine boys sent to reform school for black-marketeering. Critic Pauline Kael remembers going to see De Sica's Shoeshine in 1947 and saying, "I came out of the theatre tears streaming. It is one of those rare works of art which seem to emerge from the welter of human experience without smoothing away the raw edges, or losing what most movies lose--the sense of confusion and accident in human affairs. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?" Miracle of Milan was a light romantic fantasy that broke away from neorealism, Two Woman told a grim story about a homeless woman played by Sophia Loren who was raped during the war (and who won an Oscar for her performance). The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, was an Italian Jewish family that tries to ignore the gathering clouds of doom. One of my personal favorites of De Sica's is his neorealism film Umberto D, about an elderly man and his dog who get's kicked out of his apartment and onto the street, and it is considered one of the last of the neorealism films.
"Give us an ordinary situation and from it we will make a spectacle" says neorealism writer Cesare Zavattini. The editing style of Neorealism focuses is known for focusing on smaller unimportant day to day things which give the audience a different view on how to look at the little things when we normally wouldn't pay any attention to them. Not only are these things normally not explored in genre pieces or Hollywood films, but these simple everyday routines that we never give a second thought about, can be in many ways more important. Cesare Zavattini once stated, "No doubt one's first and most superficial reaction to everyday reality is that it is tedious. Until we are able to overcome some moral and intellectual laziness, in fact, this reality will continue to appear uninteresting. One shouldn't be astonished that the cinema has always felt the natural, unavoidable necessity to insert a 'story' in the reality to make it exciting and 'spectacular.' All the same, it is clear that such a method evades a direct approach to everyday reality, and suggests that it cannot be portrayed without the intervention of fantasy or artifice.”
The Bicycle Thieves touches on so many universal issues of the human condition, portraying humans as genuinely flawed people who are vulnerable and when put under strenuous circumstances, will break down and do what is necessary to survive. Every character in the film is a victim of their surroundings and were made out to be criminals, and the society they inhabit is largely responsible for that. The crime Ricci commits at the end of The Bicycle Thieves continues the cycle of poverty, which unfortunately is still very relevant in our society today. With Neorealism’s use of unknown actors, real live locations and a story that focuses on the simplistic day to day things, The Bicycle Thieves creates a tragic and relatable human tale about a father simply trying to put food on his families table, which not only is identifiable to an audience but its themes are timeless as well.
The character of Ricci is a loyal and loving husband and father who is in complete devastation when he realizes that a job that he so desperately needs to help support his lovely family is at risk when his bicycle is stolen. And yet when he and his son Bruno go searching for the stolen bike he starts to become reckless in his fatherly behaviors, on many occasions running off and stranding Bruno in public places around strangers or in the middle of busy streets and even right outside of a brothel. Bruno seems to get a few close calls during the film one especially in which a pedophilia like abductor seems to be trying to get young Bruno's attention; but unfortunately Bruno seems much too busy to give him any notice as he is searching hard for missing parts. When Ricci finally does get a scare of his son's well being, (when it at first believes he was the poor pulled out of the water), Ricci comes to the realization that they're are much more important things than a simple bicycle; which I believe is what the main story of the film is really about.
There has been questions on the original Italian title of The Bicycle Thieves which confused some people of its true title. The name literally translates into English as Bicycle Thieves, 'biciclette' and 'ladri' being plural, but the film has usually been released in the United States as The Bicycle Thief. According to critic Philip French of The Observer this alternative title is misleading, "because the desperate hero eventually becomes himself a bicycle thief". The Bicycle Thief was released in the UK as the more accurate Bicycle Thieves, and the recent Criterion Collection release in North America uses the plural title. When released The Bicycle Thieves was immediately hailed and loved by audiences and critics and Bosley Crowther, the film critic for The New York Times wrote, "Again the Italians have sent us a brilliant and devastating film in Vittorio De Sica's rueful drama of modern city life, The Bicycle Thief." When the film was re-released in the late 1990s Bob Graham, staff film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, gave the drama a very positive review saying, "The roles are played by non-actors, Lamberto Maggiorani as the father and Enzo Staiola as the solemn boy, who sometimes appears to be a miniature man. They bring a grave dignity to De Sica's unblinking view of post-war Italy. The wheel of life turns and grinds people down; the man who was riding high in the morning is brought low by nightfall. It is impossible to imagine this story in any other form than De Sica's. The new black-and-white print has an extraordinary range of grey tones that get darker as life closes in. The Bicycle Thief is one of those wonderful titles whose power does not sink in until the film is over." Bicycle Thieves is considered De Sica's masterpiece and in 1950 it won the Academy Honorary Award for best picture, and just four years after its release, was considered the greatest film of all time by the magazine Sight & Sound's poll of filmmakers, was in the top 10 of the BFI list of the top 50 films you should see by the age of 14, and was ranked #4 in Empire magazines “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema” in 2010. Like Vertigo, Tokyo Story, Battleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane, It's a Wonderful Life and L 'Atalante, Bicycle Thieves has become a touchstone for many people around the world. The ending of the film is tragic and sad because Ricci reveals a pathetic desperateness in front of not only a bunch of strangers, but in front of his own son. The ending I believe shows the vulnerable side in all of us and that we are all the working man and the criminals, it just depends on the cards that are dealt in our lives. The crime Ricci commits at the end of the film continues the cycle of poverty and he eventually becomes the type of person he detested and which caused the problem in the first place. Every character in the film is a victim of their surroundings; even the two thieves who stole Ricci's bicycle. When Ricci confront's the old man in the church getting fed warm soup you see that the old man is more desperate and poor then Ricci is. When Ricci catches up to the young boy you see the boy not only lives in a very poor neighborhood with his mother but also suffers health issues as well when he has his seizure episode. These character's aren't bad people but are only trying to survive like Ricci is, and each character Ricci comes across is as desperate or more so than Ricci is, and in many ways could have their own unique story to tell as well. They were made to be criminals because of poverty and survival and society is largely responsible for that. The Bicycle Thieves has a naturalistic feeling for the film and its neorealism style in which it focuses on smaller unimportant day to day things gives the audience a different view on how to look at the little things when he normally wouldn't pay any attention. Bicycle Thieves is one film that has effected me even more so over the years and slowly became personally my top 10 greatest films of all time. I can understand why this film is so powerful and important for people and a lot of it is because of its simple subject matters. Every character in the film is a victim of their surroundings and were made out to be criminals, and the society they inhabit is largely responsible for that. The crime Ricci commits at the end of The Bicycle Thieves continues the cycle of poverty, which unfortunately is still very relevant in our society today. With Neorealism’s use of unknown actors, real live locations and a story that focuses on the simplistic day to day things, The Bicycle Thieves creates a tragic and relatable human tale about a father simply trying to put food on his families table, which not only is identifiable to an audience but its themes are timeless as well. Film critic Roger Ebert said it best when it comes to Bicycle Thieves. "Such films stand outside time. A man loves his family and wants to protect and support them. Society makes it difficult. Who cannot identify with that?"