Watching the De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves (Ladri Di Biciclette) today, in a world about as far removed from the gritty and downbeat working class lifestyle of post World War 2 Italy as it gets, it’s amazing how deeply the film still resonates emotionally. Although Roberto Rossellini will perhaps be forever remembered as the man that pioneered global awareness of the Italian Neorealist movement, it was Vittorio De Sica that hit the roof with his film about a fella who just needed to find his bike.
The film movement itself was essentially a reaction to the horrible standard of living that the Italian masses were subjected to as a result of the upheavals of the war. It emerged shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War and by the time the mid fifties rolled around it was well and truly over. The films generally dealt with the economic turmoil of the country and the moral chaos of its people. They were defined by two key elements; destitution and desperation.
The Bicycle Thieves (also commonly known as The Bicycle Thief), is no exception to these ideas, but rather a shining example of the rule. The film adheres to the traditionally Italian neorealistic characteristics. Aside from the strong focus on the plight of the proletariat, the film also chiefly used non-professional actors and the entire production was filmed on location in and around the Roman streets, both distinctly Neorealistic traits.
The film follows Antonio Ricci, an unemployed man living in Rome with a young wife and two children to support. Amidst a swarm of jobless men, Ricci alone is singled out for employment, a job sticking up posters around the city, because he owns a bicycle. The catch however: without the bicycle he can’t keep the job. To elaborate on the plot would be pointless considering the title of the film. It will be pretty clear to anybody watching what is going to happen and ultimately, like many neorealist films, it’s not so much about what is happening to the individual, but the greater message regarding the working class that is at the heart of The Bicycle Thieves.
Aiding the distressingly moving compassion behind the film is Lamberto Maggiorani as Ricci. Legend has it that when famed producer David O Selznick was planning on making the film, he proposed casting Cary Grant in the lead role, which De Sica rejected before suggesting Henry Fonda. That De Sica eventually decided on committing to non-professional actors is something we can all be thankful for, as Maggiorani, who was a factory worker prior to The Bicycle Thieves is nothing short of outstanding.
It would be remiss not to mention the unforgettable character of Bruno (Enzo Staiola), Ricco’s eldest son. Acting as a sort of sidekick to Ricco as they tear through the maze-like city streets in desperation, Bruno eventually becomes the moral centre of the film. As the hopelessness of Ricco’s situation increases, he struggles to maintain his image as a father, while Bruno, sometimes looking like an extremely short forty year old, begins to realize that his father needs his support just as much as he needs his father’s. The complex relationship a son has with their father has rarely been captured as accurately as in The Bicycle Thieves, a notable exception being Andrei Zvyagintsev’s wonderful The Return (2003 – not that Sarah Michelle Geller horror flick).
Though the particular era depicted in the film is long over, the essential themes behind The Bicycle Thieves remain as relevant today as they were in 1948. The Neorealist films were often injected with a strong sense of broadminded political ideals, with many of the filmmakers leaning towards a liberal or Socialist way of thinking. De Sica’s camera skillfully highlights the idea of individual struggle dwarfed by the struggle of the masses. When Ricco and his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) pawn their bed sheets in order to reclaim Ricco’s bicycle, we see the pawnbroker scale a gigantic set of shelves, tossing their sheets amongst hundreds of others in a shot almost reminiscent of the famous ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980). Little details, such as a rich looking gentlemen ignoring the pleas for money from small beggar children, remain imprinted on the memory. And ultimately during the tragic finale, as Ricco and Bruno disappear into the Roman crowd, we are reminded that we have witnessed just one story amongst thousands that share a common crisis.
The Bicycle Thieves has gone on to become one of the most critically acclaimed films in cinema history. In 1950, four years after its initial release, it was awarded an honorary Oscar. It constantly shows up on critics’ top ten lists and has reached as high as #1 on Sight and Sound’s ‘Greatest Films Of All Time’ list. But as great as awards and honour can be, it’s the influence and the authority the film has held and continues to hold over cinema that is arguably The Bicycle Thieves’ greatest triumph.
Martin Scorsese is but one legendary director who feels the impact of De Sica’s work. In My Voyage To Italy, Scorsese (whose recently released Hugo, highlighting his passion for classic cinema) details the influence that Italian Neorealism has had on his work. The gritty realism of the movement continues to inspire modern cinema such as 2010s Oscar nominated Winter’s Bone (2010) and last year’s grisly Australian crime flick Snowtown (2011).
As provocative and influential as it was however, Neorealism was a remarkably short-lived era in film history. The artistic force behind the movement was chiefly powered by the socio-economic situation and as Italy’s state-of-affairs improved, there was a strong shift in the country’s cinematic interest. Filmmakers such as Frederico Fellini, who had in fact worked on many Neorealist films as an apprentice, particularly with Rosselini in films such as Paisà (1946) and Rome, Open City (1945), pushed Italian cinema into new directions. Moving away from the problems of the working class, films such as La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963) began investigating the frailty of the human condition.
All in all there were just over twenty true Neorealist films made. Nowadays when people look back and look at the films of the Italian Neorealist movement, they are often regulated into a classic work of art category, important for the time and the movement they belonged to, but dated in today’s society. That sort of idea seems to completely disregard the strength of perhaps the key aspect of the films; compassion and the empathy for the lesser fortunate. The Bicycle Thieves is a film that will always be relevant.