Ever since its first release, The Bicycle Thieves has been hailed as an important work: an 'essential' illustrative text for film theory -namely, film realism. Over the years it has been cited in many of the regularly solicited lists of critics' most 'important', 'influential' or 'favourite' films. Whether or not The Bicycle Thieves is truly great cinema cannot of course be proved, but it remains a key piece of film history, representing perhaps the best all-round illustration of an influential school of thought or at least a highly principled approach in the creation of drama for the screen. Although not the first, it can, nevertheless, lay claim to being the most well-known and popular/populist example of the 1940s cinema known as Italian neo-realism. Three major Italian directors are most associated with neo-realism: Luchino Visconti (Ossessione, 1942), Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City, 1945), and de Sica. The core neo-realist 'movement' itself was short lived. Visconti, an aristocratic Marxist who spent the 1930s working in Paris with Jean Renoir, is best known for Ossessione (made in Hollywood as The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1946 by Tay Garnett and in 1981 by Bob Rafelson), but after the neo-realist The Earth Trembles (Terra trema, Italy, 1948) he turned to a grander, operatic style of production. Roberto Rossellini made a great critical impact with both Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), but, following Germany, Year Zero (1947), he gave up neo-realism, and ended up more involved with television during the 1950s. De Sica had already made an impression with realist work directing non-professional actors in 1942 with The Children Are Watching Us, but his great contribution to neo-realism was limited to Shoeshine (1946) and The Bicycle Thieves, which both dealt with the shocking poverty in post-war Italy. Into the 1950s and 1960s, he moved more into acting (his first vocation) than directing, although he achieved great critical acclaim again with occasional subsequent works, most notably the epic study of anti-Semitism in Fascist Italy, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971).
The Bicycle Thieves is an unashamedly political film and the very realism itself that it adopts can be seen as political. The neorealist films of the mid- to late 1940s were made in deliberate reaction against the films of the 1930s and 1940s (especially in the formerly Fascist Italy), which had been epitomised by glossy escapism. The neo-realist films offered a grim reality in which the directors countered past politics and past cinematic styles 'truthfully' to try and depict the social problems of post-war Italy. They were also a rebuttal of the glamorous excesses of the Technicolor (American) dream factory. These films sparked off the now cliched phrase 'gritty realism', which is used to identify 'documentary style', a clear aim served well by the films' contemporary documentary trademark of black and white film stock - a stylistic short cut for 'truth'. The films all contained a social /political message in their stories. They are all typified by location shooting, non-professional actors and documentary-style camerawork - a combination of static and hand-held work, made possible by newer lightweight American newsreel cameras. Following the action in this manner placed an emphasis on the subject that reduced the sense of a director calling shots. Subject matter focused of course on everyday subjects and ordinary people, rejecting the glamorous and extraordinary. The use of non-professionals created a sense of real characters undiluted by the impact of recognisable stars, (de Sica rejected having Cary Grant as Ricci in order to have a larger American budget.) The style of Italian neo-realism might be regarded as having no style at all. The pursuit of an impression of truth sought to avoid drawing attention to the director's technique. Despite favouring mise en scene over the artifice of montage, it remains opposed to expressionism too, where the director's hand becomes strikingly obvious through the overt dramatisation of visual filmic elements. Italian neo-realism is counter to formalism, which might seem like an antithesis to realism in general. In it, content is always more important than style. Realist film-making claims a relationship that is less with the director and more with the world that exists in front of the camera. The subject is everything.
The Bicycle Thieves is the story of a man who has his bike stolen. An Italian worker during the post-war depression, he gets the chance of work putting up posters on condition that he acquires a bicycle, which he does, but only after his wife has had to sell the sheets from their bed - a wedding present. In Ricci's state of complete poverty, the bicycle assumes absolutely vital status, as the key not only to his survival in employment, but to the very survival of his own dignity, his marriage and his whole family. The optimism and pride of his newly found job (with uniform) after he had redeemed the bike are shattered soon after when it is stolen in the street while he is at work (pasting up an image of Rita Hayworth in Gilda). Without his bike, our 'hero' will be unable to support his family. From then on, as an audience, we just tag along with the fruitless search and observe Ricci being slowly broken by the desperation of his plight. When the bike is stolen, he first ignores Bruno's question about it, but soon resorts to lying. His preoccupation so consumes him that he neglects his son, who ends up getting unwelcome attention from a suspect character in a market. By the end, Ricci does not even notice Bruno fall headlong in the rainy muddy road, and is so utterly at a loss that he desperately visits a fortune-teller, whose useless 'visions' he had condemned earlier. The plot is slight, but the film is rich in meaningful detail. If de Sica wants to express his view of the Church's decayed values, he simply leaves a pile of crucifixes strewn on the floor, in the background, as Ricci and Bruno pass by. He rejects dramatic music to heighten moments such as the theft of Ricci's bicycle, and above all he prefers to extract emotion out of simple pathos within action that avoids looking too constructed.
The Bicycle Thieves is uncompromising in its portrayal of poverty. Bruno is seen fighting constantly just to stay clean: cleaning mud from his trousers, beating dust from his father's hat, wiping his face with a handkerchief. Moments of uplift are followed swiftly by a bitter pill: cheerful accordion music turns out to be little children begging. Ricci's treating Bruno to his cheap mozarrella in carozza in a restaurant (sitting near a rich, groomed little boy) feels like the last supper, before their crucifixion. de Sica's film noticeably rejects the (Hollywood?) easy way out of blaming 'bad guy' individuals for Ricci's plight. People are sympathetic: the policeman, employment officials and even the man whose bike is stolen by Ricci in his desperate moment of madness. As for Ricci himself, goaded on by his environment (as a distant chanting football crowd seems to urge him on to his attempted theft), we are left in no doubt that his theft is no crime, simply the final humiliation. By then, de Sica's job is almost done, largely without resorting to heavy-handed statement, and all that remains is to show us the other thieves: Ricci and Bruno disappear into a crowd. Music and soundtrack fade as the screen fills with faceless people walking away from the camera, silent and anonymous. There, but for the grace of God, go the other bicycle thieves.
Some Things to Watch out for and Consider
• Does a great film have to be an optimistic film?
• Compare and contrast montage with mise en scene in filmmaking.
• How might Eisenstein have shot The Bicycle Thieves and De Sica Battleship Potemkin?
• Is it really possible to speak of the 'style of no style'?
• In what ways does Ken Loach's Kes (UK, 1969) continue the traditions of neo-realism?
• How completely are you able to suspend disbelief?
• Is the music in The Bicycle Thieves really justified within the ideals of neo-realism?
• What connects (and separates) Dogme (see chapter 45) from neo-realism?
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