In the economic depression of post-Second World War Italy, unemployed Antonio Ricci finally finds some work to support his wife and two children. The condition of the job as a poster hanger is that he needs to have a bicycle, but in order to feed his family Antonio had already pawned his bicycle. Facing this crisis, his wife Maria takes the family bedsheets to the pawnbroker to raise the money to redeem the bicycle so he will be able to take the job and bring in an income. With the remaining money she visits a fortune teller, anxious for some positive prospects. Antonio mocks her gullibility in believing in the occult. After starting the job he has his bicycle stolen and, finding the police see this as a relatively insignificant crime, he takes to the streets with his son Bruno and his friend Baiocco and tries to track down the thief. His actions progressively become more desperate and he even visits the fortune-teller, giving her his last remaining money but receiving only the same platitudes that she gives to all her clients. By chance he later discovers the thief who feigns a seizure when the police are called. The thief’s neighbours give him an alibi and the police refuse to act on only Antonio’s word. Despairing, Antonio succumbs himself and steals a bicycle, only to be caught and humiliated in front of his disillusioned son. Antonio is released and he walks off with his son, now a bicycle thief.
The Italian Neo-Realist movement spawned some films that are rightly seen as masterpieces of cinema, but none are as brutally realistic and ultimately as fatalistic as Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Shot on the streets of Rome amid the bombed out ruins of the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the defeat of Mussolini’s Fascists, the desaturated palette offers a bleak realism that lends the simple story a real resonance with anyone who has faced ruin. Poverty seeps from every frame with Antonio and his family forced to sell their property to survive, and the real threat of starvation facing them if he fails them. The pawnbroker’s is overflowing with goods, the soup kitchens are filled with the poor seeking a hot meal, and those who have nothing turn to superstition in the hope it will prove their salvation. Its backdrop of utter privation and immeasurable poverty lends the film a visual style at once both realist and allegorical.
Italy at the end of the Second World War was a broken, occupied country with mass unemployment and unfettered corruption (much of which stemmed from the now defunct Black Shirts, or from the Christian Democrats, or the Communist Party, with each group giving preference its own interests and promoting its members or associates over others). Facing a crisis both politically and socially, poor Italians suffered their society falling apart whilst the rich seemed to continue their lives oblivious to this fact. The poor were faced with the same choice Antonio faces – live a moral life permanently hobbled by extreme poverty, or step into immorality and illegality to avoid starvation.
National Catholic Register reviewer Steven Greydanus states that ‘the heart of this story’s power is not in the style of the telling, but in the power of the situation it describes’ 1 and it is the understanding of the situation beneath the story that makes this film so powerful, and indeed led the playwright Arthur Miller to describe the film as being ‘as though the soul of man had been filmed’. 2 In stating this Miller is leaning towards the suggestion that whilst the Neo-Realist movement as a whole gives realism primacy, Bicycle Thieves does so from a humanist perspective. Miller noted that ‘The film is unafraid to examine, openly, straightforwardly, the terrible, distorted, destructive world which man has made for himself. It has a point of view. It is genuinely angry, in fact, ferocious.’ 3 The film has at its centre an examination of the inhumanity of the human condition and as such stands out clearly from other Neo-Realist works (other than perhaps De Sica’s later work Miraculo a Milano/Miracle in Milan (1951), which offers a more hopeful if surreal perspective). Fellow Neo-Realist Rossellini’s work is pivotal in its realist agenda, yet because of its observational nature it often feels detached, whereas De Sica takes the camera into the soup kitchen, and into the emotions of the characters, acknowledging that the emotional drama of life is as realist as the actuality of the events.
Miller acknowledges the unrelenting despair of the film – something many spectators find difficulty with, whilst others celebrate as an antidote to the implausibility of mainstream (often American) narrative. Antonio has problem heaped upon problem, reaches despair and then is broken. De Sica chooses not to leave the pain at this point, but rather focuses on the despair of Antonio’s son Bruno who not only sees his father in trouble having stolen a bicycle, but also recognises that his father has betrayed himself in an act of desperation. In this moment the audience also recall Antonio’s earlier revelation to his son that if they do not recover the bicycle he will not have a job, and with nothing else left to sell they are doomed to starvation. Bruno’s tears mark the premature end of his childhood, the point where he not only recognises the fallibility of his father but also the nature of the terrible world lying ahead of him. De Sica has been accused of maudlin sentimentality for focusing on Bruno’s anguish, yet of course the demands of true realism should expect nothing less as realism is feeling as well as seeing. The lyricism of Bicycle Thieves is something that could also be seen as counter to realism. One implies subjectivity and the other objectivity, and they are often seen as mutually exclusive sets. However, it is entirely possible to reconcile the two in the admission that an intense personal expression of feeling can be framed by a realist milieu, though not just as a backdrop but as an integral part of constructing the personalised expression.
De Sica chose to use non-actors and real locations to express the feeling of poverty and desperation. In doing so he avoids the emotional inflation trained actors bring, and restricts the construction of the mise en scène by ensuring the ‘reality’ of the location frames and structures any additional set dressing. The (non-)actors bring a sense of realism born out of their own desperate post-war experiences and accordingly an emotional intensity De Sica chooses to prioritise. Whilst other directors may have chosen perhaps to focus their energies more on sequences of the flea market where thousands of stolen bicycles are sold on or dismantled and sold as parts, emphasising the socio-economic situation, De Sica focuses on the realism of Antonio’s inner journey. His internal crisis as he moves from hope to despair, from responsibility to a desperate act of criminality, is as ‘real’ a story as any external narrative. De Sica’s ability to connect with the realism of human failing is all too evident in his focus on Antonio’s wife Maria and the duality of her faith in religion and in the occult. Her minor subplot could so easily have been either cut or used simply as a transitional device, and yet it is testament to the power of De Sica as director and to Cesare Zavattini as writer that the desperation of her story, both echoes and mirrors Antonio’s. She is shamed in her primitive beliefs by Antonio, who is himself shamed by his fall into criminality and his own replication of the act (the theft of a bicycle) that has brought him so low. De Sica here captures not only the realism of gender politics but also the simple realism of interpersonal relationships. It is De Sica’s simple aesthetic realism that allows the tale of a man who spends a whole day looking for his stolen bicycle to become such an emblematic and powerful film, one where the banality of the commonplace is recognised as the true drama of life. A man denied the tools of his livelihood, is a man denied his livelihood: there need be no greater drama added than this.
Andre Bazin described Bicycle Thieves as the ‘only valid Communist film of the whole decade’ 4 and goes on to state that:
“Its social message is not detached, it remains immanent in the event, but it is so clear that nobody can overlook it, still less take exception to it, since it is never made explicitly a message. The thesis implied is wondrously and outrageously simple: in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive.” 5
It is this simple idea, of the poor stealing from each other to survive, which is central to the film’s impact on its audience. There is no sense of exterior forces here – even superstitions are shown to be impotent in the face of the dereliction of humanity – there are only the poor, bonding and disseminating. De Sica even manufactures an opportunity for Christianity to assist the plight of Antonio and his son when a group of Austrian clerics shelter in a porch with them, and yet fail to notice their distress and so fail to help them. In De Sica’s reality there is no God to lift the troubled out of their travails, there is just humankind. It is the true crime of humanity that it betrays itself, and De Sica shows this both through the criminal society that protects the thief, but also through Antonio’s own descent into criminality. He does not show the future of Antonio, and does not comment on the further choices available to him, instead offering realism within the confines of the event. It is the fact that De Sica respects these confines that allows this film to be something more than a vehicle for a social message, with its sense of realism rising to the fore so that the message becomes part of the realist schema as opposed to the realism serving the message.
A pivotal moment in Antonio’s descent arrives when he comes to the decision to steal the bicycle. His shame is to the fore and so he sends his son to wait at the tram stop, and Bruno is shown in distress not at being sent away but in the recognition of what his father is about to do. Antonio’s crime is then witnessed by his son which only serves to amplify his pain, but De Sica does not depict it thus out of sentimentality, but rather does so to show that these events are witnessed by children and that pain accompanies this.
Similarly, the final moments of the scene where Antonio and Bruno walk off together is ripe for an assault on the audience’s emotions, and indeed the moment where Bruno slips his hand into Antonio’s is often seen as a slip into sentimentalism. However, this is perhaps an over-simplistic view of the end of the film and one that does not do justice to its genius. In one simple gesture De Sica captured not a sentimental moment, but rather a moment of change in a familial relationship. The moment where the roles reverse, the son realises his father is not superhuman, and the father realises he can no longer command the respect of his son, but rather has to earn it. This ending is not a dramatised event but is the capturing of an event that goes unnoticed in relationships, and in doing so completes the film by focusing not on the grand narrative but rather on the minutia, the everyday detail that is realism.
1. Steven Greydanus (2010) ‘The Bicycle Thief (Bicycle Thieves) (1948)’ at Decent Films Guide. Available at www.decentfilms.com/reviews/ bicyclethief (accessed 23 November 2012).
2. Arthur Miller, ‘Italians’ Secret: Humanity’, New York Times, 8 January 8 1950.
4. Andre Bazin, ‘Neorealism and Pure Cinema: The Bicycle Thief,’ Cahiers du cinéma (1948). Available at http://kit.kein.org/node/366 (accessed 23 November 2012).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Italy. Production Company: Produzioni De Sica. Producer: Giuseppe Amato and Vittorio De Sica. Director: Vittorio De Sica. Screenwriters: Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci and Gerardo Guerrieri. Cinematographer: Carlo Montuori. Music: Alessandro Cicognini. Editor: Eraldo Da Roma. Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani (Antonio Ricci), Enzo Staiola (Bruno Ricci), Lianella Carell (Maria Ricci), Gino Saltamerenda (Baiocco), Vittorio Antonucci (the bicycle thief), Giulio Chiari (the beggar).]
Andre Bazin, What is Cinema? Volume 2, Berkley, CA, University of California Press, 2004.
Robert Gordon, Bicycle Thieves, BFI, London, 2008.
Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present, Berkley, CA, University of California, 1986.
Milicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1986.
Stephen Snyder and Howard Curle, Vittorio De Sica: Contemporary Perspectives, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2000.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.