February 26, 2007
Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of Italian Neorealism. Born out of World War II, this style of filmmaking took aspects of the documentary by portraying life with unflinching honesty and rejecting fascism and fantasy for a grittier, more truthful style. De Sica’s film explores social themes, the use of real locations and non-professional actors. It takes place during rampant unemployment and before the post-war economic boom.
Antonio Ricci (Maggiorani) is unemployed and desperate to find work in order to support his family. One day, he’s offered a job putting up posters around Rome but only if he has the means to get around the city. The problem is that he already pawned his bicycle so that his family could eat. His wife Maria (Carell) sells their bed sheets so that he can afford to get his bike out of hock. To give an impression of how bad things are in the country, we see the Ricci’s sheets taken away and added to hundreds of other bundles of sheets that other families have sold for money.
Everywhere there are signs of how tough the times are: there’s a shot of men scrambling to climb on top of a bus already overflowing with passengers. The next day, while putting up a poster, a thief (Antonucci) steals Antonio’s bike. Without it he can’t do his job properly and he’ll be fired. The police offer little help and so he has no choice but to look for the thief himself. Faced with searching through the entire city of Rome, Antonio enlists the help of some of his friends and his son, Bruno (Staiola). However, the stealing of bikes, breaking them down into their individual parts and then selling them is a thriving industry in the city.
Lamberto Maggiorani plays Antonio as a simple, hardworking man who wants only to have the opportunity to provide for his family, to be a good husband to his wife and a good father to his son. He gives Antonio a noble dignity for he is a man who takes pride in his work. The actor is also able to convey heartbreaking empathy, like the pained expression on his face when he meets his son after work and is unable to tell him that his bicycle was stolen. The weathered lines in Maggiorani’s face suggest a hard life which makes the theft of his bike that much more heartbreaking. Bruno is a precocious child but not in an annoying way. The way Enzo Staioca reacts to things, like falling down in the rain, is like a little adult and a source of much of the Bicycle Thieves’ humour which helps occasionally alleviate the bleakness of Antonio’s plight.
De Sica uses Antonio’s quest to find his bicycle as a chance to show the living conditions of post-war Italy for the common man. The church, not surprisingly, plays a large role, offering shaves and haircuts to elderly men while the religious service is jam-packed with people. As the film progresses, Antonio becomes more and more desperate before finally ending on a somber note. Bicycle Thieves is also about the class struggle in Italy: poor people like Antonio are at the mercy of rich people like the young man who stole his bike. It is pretty obvious what side De Sica favours but he doesn’t rub it in our faces and crafts a story rich in pathos.
“Working with De Sica” features film scholar Callisto Cosulich, the film’s screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico and actor Enzo Staiola talking about the director’s working methods. Cosulich gives us the historical perspective when Bicycle Thieves was made – De Sica’s acting career had stalled and he had yet to achieve fame as a director. Both D’Amico and Staiola talk about how they got involved in the film. De Sica picked Staiola out of 5,000 kids without an audition.
“Life As It Is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy” features film scholar and author of Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City, Mark Shiel talking about the genre and Bicycle Thieves’ place in it. He talks about the genre’s characteristics (with clips from De Sica’s film). “Life as it is” was the credo of this movement. Shiel also talks about the film’s origins and how cinema from all over the world and the country’s political environment influenced it. He also delves into an analysis of the film.
Finally, there is a documentary on Cesare Zavattini that examines the life and career of the co-screenwriter of the film. He was also a critic and theoretician and considered by many to be one of the most important figures of Italian cinema. This hour-long doc does a nice job of paying tribute to the man and his work. The likes of Bernardo Bertolucci and Roberto Benigni praise his work and, in Benigni’s case, tell amusing anecdotes about the man.