Rightly regarded as one of the greatest of all films, the power of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves lies in its simplicity, and as such perfectly embodies the spirit of the Italian postwar neorealism movement which, though shortlived, was hugely influential in the development of modern cinema.
Cinemas are often born out of revolutions and historical circumstance: the Soviet Montage movement of 1920s Russia derived from the Bolshevik Revolution, German Expressionism from its slow post-First World War economic recovery, the Spanish New Wave would emerge from the ashes of the Franco regime; filmmaking cannot lie outside of its social and political context.
In Italy, a country with a long history of filmmaking, the Depression of the early 1930s had led to a slump in its cinematic output, and the Fascist government decided that the medium was of such importance to the national culture that it should be resuscitated and propped up financially. The film school Centro Sperimentale was founded in 1935, and a new studio complex known as Cinecittà was built on the outskirts of Rome. The Mussolini regime kept the industry afloat through subsidy, allowing both grand epics as well as smaller, regional dialect-based films to be made, with less worry towards financing.
Italy, unlike Nazi Germany, did not necessarily strive to foster a distinctly propagandist national cinema. Hitler and Goebbels were both keen cinema-goers, and though the work of the likes of Leni Riefenstahl, tried to glamorize Fascist ideology on the big screen (though her Triumph of the Will and Olympia can be considered interesting films, it is a touch ironic that some of the greatest filmmakers in Germany, among them Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang, moved into exile during the Hitler regime). But while there was limited artistic freedom in Germany, Italian directors enjoyed considerably more autonomy over their output; Mussolini did view nearly every film produced, but almost never banned one outright.
It is under these conditions that the group of directors grouped under the Neorealism umbrella developed, including Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis, and a man from Lazio named Vittorio De Sica. De Sica came from a theatre background, but had made the transition to filmmaking through light comedies such as Maddalena, zero in condotta (1940) and Teresa Venerdì (1941). His first foray into more serious work was I Bambini ci guardano [The Children are Watching Us] (1944), a story of familial disintegration seen through the eyes of a young boy.
The film was a collaboration with writer Cesare Zavattini, who would go on to write nearly all of De Sica’s screenplays, including his next film, Sciuscià [Shoeshine] (1946), a story about two young boys who stumble into a life of crime. Borrowing its visual aesthetic from Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta (1945), and a pacing influenced by Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), it was De Sica’s first truly great film, winning him critical acclaim, and even an honorary Academy Award. For their next project, the writer-director team wanted to examine more closely the destruction and upheaval in post-war Italy.
What they produced was Bicycle Thieves, based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini. Set in postwar Rome, it centres on Ricci, an unemployed man desperately seeking work in order to feed his wife and young son Bruno. He finds a job, putting up posters around the city, but the job requires him to have a bicycle as transport; he has already had to pawn his bicycle, so he and his wife decide to sell their wedding sheets in order to buy it back.
It is implicit in the title what is going to happen, and Ricci must scour the streets of the city in order to try to find the bicycle he so needs. The film suffered from the unfortunate American mis-translation of its title to The Bicycle Thief; this is to undermine the elegance of both the title and the film itself. The thieves concept is important; Ricci, in his desparation, attempts to steal another bicycle himself, only to be caught and set upon by an angry mob. Seeing both the fear and shock on his young son’s face, he realises that he himself has been reduced to the level of the film’s supposed villain; and the original thief himself is perhaps cast in a new light – was he stealing the bicycle for similarly desperate but honorable intentions?
The setup of the film elegantly poses these questions, as well as showing the humiliation, despair and rapacity of life in postwar Italy. What is significant is that during his search, Ricci’s constant encounters with ambivalent authority figures, whether the police, his labour union or the Church itself. And as he is seen resorting to more and more desperate measures, the father-son bond between Ricci and Bruno can be seen to be eroded, paternal authority also breaking down in the situation, though the film ends with Bruno’s moving acceptance of his father’s imperfections, as they walk hand in hand down the road back home.
One striking aspect of the film, and in the best neorealist films in general, is the use of non-professional actors. One of the tenets of the movement was that actors should be chosen whose lives were similar to those being portrayed on screen; witness the casting of real local Sicilian fishermen in Visconti’s La Terra trema (1948). In Bicycle Thieves, the casting of Lamberto Maggiorani in the lead role was a masterstroke; Maggiorani was a factory worker from Rome who had unsuccesfully dabbled in acting, but his believable, pathos-filled performance here shows the benefit of using actors who can relate to the circumstances of the film.
Bicycle Thieves was very much a product of its time, and De Sica would soon find himself moving away from strict neorealism towards different aesthetics; his Miracolo a Milano (1951), Umberto D. (1952), L’oro di Napoli (1954) and La Ciociara (1960) all stand as abiding classics of Italian cinema, and he would venture back into popularist comedy with the Sophia Loren vehicles Ieri, oggi, domani (1963) and Matrimonio all’italiana (1964). But Bicycle Thieves is his most consistently highly praised film, because of the universality of its simple theme: how society strips the dignity and self-respect of a man just trying to do his best to look after his family.