The UK gets a re-release of the classic neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves next week courtesy of Arrow and Park Circus. To celebrate this good news, I decided to post the detailed notes I wrote for students in 2002 (the whole thing is 4,000 words plus). A note on titles: The Bicycle Thief is the American title. The UK title is Bicycle Thieves. The latter is more accurate (and a better translation) – see the Synopsis at the end of the Notes.
Bicycle Thieves is a classic of global cinema, a film that every student needs to see at least once, a film that in some sense represents filmmaking at a particular time and in a particular place. It has become associated with the film movement known as Italian neo-realism and its status as a classic to some extent depends upon this association. Vittorio De Sica, the producer/director of Bicycle Thieves, has perhaps been ‘forgotten’ in later theoretical writing about neo-realism, which has tended to concentrate on the more intellectual approach of Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti in such films as Paisà (Italy, 1946) and La Terra Trema (Italy 1947).
Rossellini and Visconti became established directors during the latter part of the Fascist period, but De Sica was already a highly successful actor by the early 1930s and very much the star – “a legendary figure in his time, only to be compared to Charlie Chaplin or Orson Welles” (Sorlin 1996). He began directing by the late 1930s and produced one of the earliest films to have subsequently been associated with neo-realism, The Children Are Watching in 1943. He went on to direct Sciuscià (Shoeshine) in 1946, the first of a neo-realist trilogy about ‘everyday lives’ which continued with Bicycle Thieves and ended with Umberto D in 1951. His films were championed by the influential French critic André Bazin, who proclaimed them ‘pure cinema’. It was De Sica’s success in presenting his stories without obvious stylistic devices or signs of ‘personal expression’ that perhaps caused his fall from favour in the later ‘auteurist’ cinema of the 1960s.
However, in terms of debates about neo-realism, it is important that De Sica worked closely with the writer Cesare Zavattini, who has been recognised as one of the main promoters of neo-realism and the provider of some of its ‘manifesto’ statements. The simple idea at the centre of the story of Bicycle Thieves – a man’s search for his stolen bicycle without which he cannot work – is the perfect example of Zavattini’s claim to be able to create compelling drama out of a relatively insignificant incident in a crowded city. This approach to narrative has been widely influential all over the world since the 1940s and is one of the recognisable elements in the contemporary success of Iranian Cinema, the current ‘critics’ favourite’.
These notes trace the neo-realist elements in Bicycle Thieves and also consider the context of its production and reception in Italy and across the world from the late 1940s and through the 1950s.
Cinema and society in post war Italy
The fighting in Italy during 1943 and 1944, especially after the surrender of the Italian army and the subsequent fierce resistance by German forces against the Americans, British and anti-fascist Italian partisans, had a savage impact upon the Italian economy, exacerbated by the movements of thousands of displaced people. For several years after the complete liberation of Italy, the country was plagued with unemployment, housing problems, severe poverty and the destabilising effects of a rampant black market for goods. This unrest, in both the devastated cities and the rural communities, formed the ‘real world material’ for neo-realism. (But it is important to realise that neo-realist films represented only a tiny proportion of Italian film production in the late 1940s. Pierre Sorlin suggests as few as 60-80 features out of the 1,000 films made between 1945 and 1955).
The politics of the period saw a struggle between the Italian Communist Party, the largest in Western Europe, and strong in the major cities in Central Italy, and the right-wing Christian Democrats, with their strength in the North. Despite the success of the Labour Party in the UK in 1945, American and British support went to the Christian Democrats and with the support of the Catholic church, the communists were denied political power. Politics is not openly represented in Bicycle Thieves, except when Antonio first arrives home after the loss of the bicycle. He stumbles in on a political meeting, but quickly leaves to find Baiocco. Several commentators have pointed out that there would be no story if Antonio was a member of the Communist Party, since the local branch would have either found him a new bicycle or helped him look for his own.
It is clear from several scenes that Antonio is not a Roman – he is probably an immigrant from the South or from a village in Central Italy. He seems uncomfortable in Rome and the ‘natives’ treat him like an outsider. He is an appropriate victim of ‘displacement’. (Ingrid Bergman plays a ‘displaced person’ who becomes a fisherman’s wife in Rossellini’s Stromboli (1949), another neo-realist film made at roughly the same time as Bicycle Thieves.)
Mary Wood (1996) quotes a French film journal, Films et documents from 1952 and its “Ten Points of neo-realism”:
- the message;
- topical scripts inspired by concrete events – great historical and social issues tackled from the point of view of the ‘common people’;
- a sense of detail as a means of authentication;
- a sense of the masses and the ability to manipulate them in front of the camera;
- the truth of actors, many of them non-professionals;
- the truth of lighting;
- the truth of decor and the refusal of studio;
- photography, reminiscent of the reportage style stressing the impression of truth;
- an extremely free camera, its unrestricted movements resulting from the use of post-synchronisation.
Lists like this are useful in setting out an agenda, but they shouldn’t suggest that all neo-realist films will demonstrate all the points or that all films that might be called ‘neo-realist’ will look the same. This particular list is strong on what could be termed the conventions of a certain form of cinematic realism. It is less effective in explaining the motivation of some of the filmmakers.
One of the more ‘theorised’ views of neo-realism comes from Roberto Rossellini:
There are those who still think of neo-realism as something external, as going out into the open air, as a contemplation of misery and suffering. For me it is nothing more than the artistic form of truth . . . I cannot believe in an entertainment film . . . if it is not a film which is at least partially capable of attaining the truth.
The subject of the neo-realism film is the world; not story or narrative. It contains no preconceived thesis, because ideas are born in the film from the subject. It has no affinity with the superfluous and the merely spectacular, which it refuses, but is attracted to the concrete . . . It refuses recipes and formulas . . . neo-realism poses problems for us and for itself in an attempt to make people think.
(Roberto Rossellini in Retrospective, April 1953, reprinted in Overby 1978)
Rossellini’s view is genuinely revolutionary. Instead of a scriptwriter suggesting a story, which is then constructed in cinematic time and space in such a way as to suggest the realism of the event, Rossellini proposes to literally make films out of the reality he finds. Eventually, this would lead Rossellini to making a film like Viaggio in Italia (1953) in which he made up the script as he went along.
Cesare Zavattini, who worked with De Sica on his first two ‘neo-realist’ films and briefly with Rossellini, had what at first seems a similar approach:
A woman goes into a shop to buy a pair of shoes. The shoes cost 7,000 lire. The woman tries to bargain. The scene lasts perhaps two minutes, but I must make a two-hour film. What do I do? I analyse the fact in all its constituent elements, in its ‘before’, in its ‘after’, in its contemporaneity. The fact creates its own fiction. (Quoted in Williams 1980)
Zavattini is a scriptwriter rather than a director so his aim is to present a story to the director. In the case of Bicycle Thieves, the original story idea in fact came from a novel. Zavattini read the novel and immediately wrote a ‘loose adaptation’. He then took it to De Sica who had been searching for:
. . . action which would be less apparently ‘extraordinary’, which could happen to anyone (above all to the poor), action which no newspaper wants to talk about. (De Sica 1948, reprinted in Overby 1978)
What emerges from De Sica’s explanation of the genesis of the film is that he has a clear artistic aim, just like Rossellini, but it concerns the question of how to represent:
” . . . the modern dimension given to small things, that state of mind considered ‘common’. Thanks to the camera, the cinema has the means to capture that dimension. That is how I understand realism, which cannot be, in my opinion, mere documentation. If there is absurdity in this theory, it is the absurdity of those social contradictions which society wants to ignore. It is the absurdity of incomprehension through which it is difficult for truth and good to penetrate. Thus, my film is dedicated to the suffering of the humble.” (op cit)
De Sica’s inherent ‘humanism’ – his interest in the importance of ‘small things’ to the man in the street – is the essential ingredient of Bicycle Thieves. The film does reveal ordinary lives in the face of official indifference and the audience cares about Antonio, Bruno and Maria. The film has a ‘social message’, but not one ‘tacked on’ artificially. Even so it is a film that entertains its audience with the ordinary adventures of father and son. De Sica’s methods and approach fit the time period. Later he would make films that simply set out to be entertaining.
Bicycle Thieves was in many ways a conventionally produced film costing around Lire 100 million (about £50,000, not too dissimilar to UK features of the period). De Sica read thirty or forty scripts after finishing Shoeshine before Zavattini appeared with Bicycle Thieves and he spent a long time casting the film and preparing the shoot. The print of the film currently on video release is of a high quality and a long way removed from the grainy look of Roma – citta aperta (1945), the film Rossellini made using filmstock scavenged from whatever source he could find. Although they shared an attention to seeking ‘artistic truth’, and this is what makes them both ‘neo-realists’ in this period, De Sica and Rossellini were actually very different filmmakers.
Representing social issues
Whatever manifesto statements we accept for neo-realism (e.g. Zavattini or Rossellini), the central feature of all the narratives is their engagement with the social issues of the time. Bicycle Thieves concerns unemployment and labour control. Umberto D is about a pensioner whose savings have disappeared, Shoeshine features child workers on the streets. Other films concerned themselves with rural problems.
The poverty of the Roman working-class is shown in Bicycle Thieves when Antonio and his wife pledge their bed linen and redeem his bicycle. Antonio looks through the hatch to see the bed linen being stored alongside hundreds of similar parcels. These were views of Italy that the right-wing political parties did not wish to see on Italian screens. The popular audience was interested in films about these issues up to a point – some films, like Bicycle Thieves, were good box office, even if they struggled to get a decent release in cinemas. However, it appears that by 1950 the popular audience had moved on to more escapist fare.
Perhaps the right-wing politicians were right to fear the ‘negative view’ of Italy. Certainly, a handful of neo-realist films were enthusiastically received in Paris, London and New York (much as Iranian Cinema is received now, but on a greater scale). It often took a year or two for the films to travel to the UK and Bicycle Thieves opened at the Curzon in Mayfair in 1950. Film Review described it as a ‘sad Italian comedy’ but nevertheless claimed it as one of the two outstanding European films seen in the UK that year (the other being a Jacques Tati comedy). Richard Winnington, the acerbic critic of the News Chronicle (the liberal mid-market paper), was not unusual in his praise of Bicycle Thieves in January 1950 as “a film that spoke, after so long, the fundamental language of the cinema.” He comments, like many others, on the way in which Rome is represented not as a tourist haunt with statues and famous buildings, but as a working city seething with life. For many critics and filmmakers, the experience of neo-realism, watching Italy’s social issues explored with humanity on the same screens that showed Hollywood musicals and westerns, was a revelation. Bicycle Thieves succeeded as a humanist film. The genuine interest in the characters and the brilliant direction of actors in their ‘real’ setting was what worked on audiences. The ‘open’ending of the film distinguishes it from most Hollywood product, as does the focus on such an everyday theme.
There were Hollywood films being made ‘on the street’ in the late 1940s, especially by 20th Century Fox, but mostly these were crime films or ‘social problem’ films with conventional narratives. Nothing matched the character driven account of the everyday presented in Bicycle Thieves.
The neo-realist aesthetic and Bicycle Thieves
The two main aesthetic features of the film are the location shooting and the acting performances. Both are remarkable and are linked through the difficulty of directing non-professionals in scenes requiring complex movements.
The importance of location shooting is not primarily about the ‘authenticity’ of the backdrop. Instead it is about conveying the idea of actions literally taking place ‘out there’ in the real world. Even in contemporary films shot on location, it is not unusual to get the feeling that when the action switches to a new location, the actors have started moving just a few seconds earlier – in other words, the street is just a location for the story. But in Bicycle Thieves, we get the impression that action is going on whether the camera is running or not. This is achieved through careful framing of the action so that ‘background’ activities (i.e. by people not involved in the main story) carry on regardless at the edge of the frame or move in and out of shot. The camera is selecting from life on the street, not simply imposing a story on a backdrop. Mary Wood quotes the example of the scene when Antonio is being shown how to paste up his first poster. The camera not only allows us to see Rome getting on with its business in the background, but also to follow the boys and the man they beg from, panning away from Antonio and the pasting. We hear Antonio and his trainer off screen, but watch the boys. All this helps set up the theft of the bicycle. The theft is shot from a similar angle and we are acutely aware of the dangers on the street which might affect Antonio.
The camerawork shows the main features of neo-realist shooting with more long shots than similar Hollywood films, allowing more portrayal of the characters as part of the background. Deep focus is used without the expressionist style shown in films like Citizen Kane and tracking shots with relatively long takes emphasise the continuous narrative space of the action. Bazin claims there is ‘no studio work’, but close analysis suggests that some scenes were probably shot in adapted rooms, if not in a studio – interior lighting of Antonio’s flat etc. would be difficult otherwise. (In Roma – citta aperta, Rossellini converted a building into a crude studio to shoot interiors.) Even so, there is no sense of ‘artificiality’ and exteriors and interiors blend smoothly.
All the main actors are non-professionals, Antonio being played by a factory worker. However, all the dialogue is ‘post synchronised’ (i.e. ‘dubbed’) and Antonio’s lines are spoken by a professional. Dubbing later became a standard feature of Italian cinema, proving especially useful when European co-productions brought many different language speakers together in Italian films. The big advantage for neo-realism was that the camera could be moved freely on location without the encumbrance of sound recording.
Bazin tells us that De Sica spent a long time selecting the cast and he suggests that it is De Sica’s own knowledge and experience as an actor that is evident in the excellent performances. The scenes between father and son are particularly convincing.
The meaning of the film
The best two guides to the meaning of the film are probably Bazin and Sorlin. Bazin says that it is “the only valid Communist film of the whole past decade” [i.e. the 1940s]. By this he means that the social message of the film is not explicitly stated. Instead, it simply arises out of the story – the poor will steal from the poor in order to survive. De Sica shows the differences between rich and poor in the restaurant and satirises the charity and the authoritarianism of the church and the ineffectiveness of the police in helping Antonio. The state can regulate a brothel and regulate the labour market, but it can’t reduce poverty.
The pairing of father and son is crucial. The boy is a witness to his father’s humiliation and also an inspiration – e.g. in the scene by the river when Antonio fears the boy may have drowned and thinks again about his priorities. Visually, the tall man and the small boy make more interesting protagonists than the man alone.
Sorlin (1991) is more interested in the sociological messages of the film. He points out that Antonio and his wife and son are a ‘nuclear family’ with no local relations and few friends. This supports the view that Antonio may be an immigrant. He is clearly uneasy venturing into central Rome and is unable to break down the solidarity of the community which protects the thieves. Theft is a ‘profession’ in the society, but the thieves need to prey on ‘outsiders’ like Antonio. He, by contrast is an ‘amateur’ when he tries to steal a bicycle himself. But, as Sorlin points out, Antonio is the future – men like him will create the new Italy in the 1950s. The nuclear family is ‘modern’ and so is the apartment block in Val Melaina (even though it was begun in the 1930s and similar construction took place around Rome for another ten years or more). The image of ‘new housing’ linked to ‘displacement’, ‘social engineering’ and ‘reconstruction’ is common across Europe in the post-war period and its appearance in a wide range of feature films is a sign of the impact of the neo-realist approach.
The “origins of neo-realism” and its influence on world cinema
Neo-realism has undoubtedly been one of the most influential ‘film movements’ in the history of cinema. Crucially important was the timing. All film industries post 1945 were struggling to come to terms with new circumstances. The immediate impact of neo-realism was on critics and filmmakers in Britain, America and France. Although the lasting effects of exposure to neo-realism were limited in the mainstream cinema, it was a ‘forming’ experience for filmmakers with a more ‘personal vision’ and proved an inspiration for the French and British New Waves, as well as filmmakers in Germany, Spain and Czechoslovakia. With the development of academic interest in film history and film studies generally (fostered by the ‘critics turned filmmakers’ of the French New Wave), neo-realism has come to be recognised as a major artistic movement generating a ‘re-think’ about the possibilities of cinema and taking its place alongside earlier movements such as German Expressionism and Soviet cinema, both in the 1920s.
But the immediate impact in the 1950s and 1960s was on the emerging cinemas in Africa and on more socially committed filmmakers in India (e.g. Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak in Bengal) and Latin America. For twenty years or more neo-realism was an inspiration for low-budget filmmakers with some form of social agenda and it became the dominant aesthetic of the international film festival circuit.
None of this is contentious, but one aspect of the analysis relates to the idea that neo-realism was a form of ‘New Wave’ which was conceived as a backlash against what had gone on before – in this case against the Italian cinema of the 1930s. Even the excellent short account in Abrams, Bell and Udris (2001) succumbs to the generalisation of ‘the white telephone films of the 1930s’ (a phrase used to describe the escapist world of middle class melodramas). The Italian filmmakers of the late 1940s who were labelled ‘neo-realist’ were conscious of the social and political context of the period. They had changed as people and as filmmakers, and they did want to create something new. But it is important to recognise that the roots of neo-realism were laid in the 1930s and that Visconti, Rossellini and De Sica had all made films before 1945 that show the developing signs of the neo-realist approach. De Sica had also appeared in a series of films by director Mario Camerini. These presented De Sica as something of a ‘matinee idol’ in films which nevertheless satirised social mores in the middle and upper classes. In the same way, those films that are described as ‘neo-realist’ also carry on earlier traditions, particularly of melodrama and comedy. The use of music is noticeable and also the moments of comic ‘business’. The triumph of Bicycle Thieves is that they become an integral part of the story (such as the priest hitting the surprised Bruno on the head when he peers into the confessional).
If there is a major break with previous modes of Italian cinema, it is the move away from escapism and propaganda under Mussolini towards notions of presenting the ‘truth’ about contemporary society and this is why, of course, the films were attacked by the right. However, it would be wrong to see the neo-realists as ‘new filmmakers’ adopting a revolutionary approach as a conscious attempt to produce something different from their predecessors – which was the case with Godard, Truffaut et al and with the signatories of Dogme ‘95.
Neo-realism and contemporary cinema
If the striking feature of Bicycle Thieves is the simplicity of the narrative ‘concept’ – man needs bike, bike is stolen – the two relatively recent films which are most like it as neo-realist films are Raining Stones (UK 1994) and Not One Less (China 1999). In Ken Loach’s Raining Stones, a father needs money to buy his daughter a confirmation dress and thieves steal the truck he buys in order to look for work. This film would make an excellent comparison with Bicycle Thieves, in both subject matter and visual style. Loach is a confessed neo-realist admirer. In Not One Less, a more unlikely director, Zhang Yimou (best known for sumptuous melodramas) tells the story of a mountain village girl who is put in charge of the school when the teacher has to visit a dying relative. She will only be paid if the children keep attending. When one goes off to the city, she is forced to follow and attempt to bring him back – again direct parallels with the ideas of Bicycle Thieves.
An earlier Zhang Yimou film, The Story of Qiu Ju (1992) sees Gong Li, the glamorous star of earlier melodramas, playing a pregnant peasant woman whose husband is injured by a kick from the village chief. She demands justice and pursues her case through each level of bureaucracy up towards the Communist Party hierarchy. The film is an interesting ‘test’ for ideas of neo-realism, since on the one hand the camerawork suggests ‘authenticity’ but the star presence of Gong Li works against it (much as Julia Roberts amidst the social realist view of California in Erin Brockovich). Some critics also see this film and Not One Less as examples of Zhang Yimou bowing to government pressure and showing a ‘propagandist view’ of China.
A full realisation of the brilliance of Bicycle Thieves probably depends on students attempting to tell a simple story ‘on the street’ themselves and investing it with the same drama and humanity. It isn’t simply a matter of pointing the camera at a scene.
Analytical exercises might include:
1. Imagine that an American producer had commissioned De Sica to make Bicycle Thieves for a major Hollywood studio. De Sica claims that this did in fact happen and that a sizeable budget would have been available, had he been prepared to cast Cary Grant as Antonio. What other changes do you think there might have been to the casting, the story and the way in which it was filmed?
2. De Sica appears to have decided to concentrate on the Antonio-Bruno relationship. What lies behind this decision? What does Antonio’s wife, Maria contribute to the narrative? How might the film have been different if the husband-wife relationship was at its centre?
3. What view of life in Rome in 1948 does the film offer? What do we discover about Italian society from the experiences of Antonio and Bruno?
4. De Sica claims that there is nothing ‘extraordinary’ about the actions in the film. Nevertheless the script does take Antonio and Bruno through a series of ‘adventures’ in order to make an interesting story. What can you say about the different situations that the father and son encounter and why do you think they were selected by De Sica and Zavattini? (Analyse specific situations like the scenes in the church or the restaurant.)
If you don’t want to know the full story, be warned – it’s all in here:
There is mass unemployment in postwar Italy, but on the new estate of Val Melaina on the outskirts of Rome, Antonio Ricci is offered a job as a bill poster by the council labour co-ordinator. The job requires that Antonio provide a bicycle. His wife Maria pawns the family bed linen in order to get Antonio’s bicycle out of hock. On the way home, she slips into a fortune-teller’s flat to pay her some money – the woman had predicted that Antonio would get a job.
Next day Antonio sets off for work proudly, but almost immediately his bicycle is stolen while he is pasting bills. Dejected, he must walk home with his small son, Bruno, back to Val Melaina. In despair he turns to his friend Baiocco, a refuse collector and leader of the community theatre in the apartment block. Early the next morning (Sunday) Antonio and Bruno join the refuse gang in searching through the massive bicycle market where they expect the thieves to sell the bicycle. The market traders are angry that someone should suspect them of handling a stolen bicycle and Antonio has to call the police in order to check the registration number on a bicycle frame. But it isn’t his.
The refuse men go home, but Antonio and Bruno keep looking after sheltering from the rain. Antonio sees a young man with a bicycle exchanging something with an old man. Antonio thinks he recognises the youth and gives chase. Failing to catch the boy on the bicycle, Antonio and Bruno search for the old man, finally tracking him down to a local church with a soup kitchen, but the old man also gives them the slip.
Antonio and Bruno end up having a meal in a restaurant which they can’t really afford and then they visit the fortune-teller who will only tell Antonio that either he will find the bicycle quickly or not at all. Soon after leaving the fortune-teller, Antonio again sees the youth he believes is the thief and this time he catches him when the youth runs into a brothel. But they are thrown out by the madam and it is clear that this is the youth’s neighbourhood as an angry mob soon surrounds Antonio. Bruno fetches a policeman, but he can do little since Antonio has no proof other than his own assertion that this is the thief. Antonio and Bruno are effectively run out of the neighbourhood.
Father and son reach a football ground and Antonio casts his eyes over the racks of bicycles left by the spectators. He tries to send Bruno home and then attempts to steal a bicycle himself. But he is caught. The owner, perhaps recognising how desperate Antonio is, does not press charges and Antonio and Bruno, who has witnessed his father’s humiliation, walk off into the dusk. FINE
Nathan Abrams, Ian Bell and Jan Udris (2001) Studying Film, London: Arnold
André Bazin (1971) What is Cinema? (Vol 2), Berkeley and London: University of California Press
Vittorio De Sica (1948) ‘Why Ladri di Biciclette?’ in La fiera letteraria, February, reprinted in David Overby (1978)
James Hay (1987) Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy: The Passing of the Rex, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press
David Overby (ed) (1978) Springtime in Italy: A Reader on Neo-realism, London: Talisman
Pierre Sorlin (1991) European Cinemas, European Societies 1939-1990, London: Routledge
Pierre Sorlin (1996) Italian National Cinema, 1896-1996, London: Routledge
Roy Stafford (2000) ‘There’s life in neo-realism yet’ in in the picture 40, Autumn
Christopher Williams (ed) (1980) Realism and the Cinema, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul/BFI
Mary Wood (1996) ‘Bicycle Thieves – a neorealist film?’ in itp Film Reader 1, Keighley: itp
All text in these notes © 2002 Roy Stafford/itp publications unless otherwise indicated.