Such is the profound impact and influence of De Sica’s postwar masterwork that it has arguably become a metonym for the Italian neorealist movement.
Dir. Vittorio De Sica
1948 | Italy | Drama | 89 mins | 1.37:1 | Italian
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell
Plot: In post-war Italy, a working-class man’s bicycle is stolen. He and his son set out to find it.
Awards: Won Special Jury Prize (Locarno); Won Best Foreign Language Film & Nom. for Best Screenplay (Oscars)
Source: Corinth Films
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray)
One of the most lauded works in the history of cinema, Bicycle Thieves is truly one of the greatest films of all-time. Directed by Vittorio De Sica, a key filmmaker of the Italian neorealist movement, Bicycle Thieves has no doubt influenced generations of filmmakers such as Ken Loach, Abbas Kiarostami, the Dardennes and Brillante Mendoza, to name a few.
Such is the profound (and continuing) impact of De Sica’s postwar masterwork that it has arguably become a metonym for the movement it represents. It is difficult not to think of Bicycle Thieves any time anyone mentions neorealism. (The widespread use of the film in nearly every film school’s curriculum over decades also played a huge role.)
A story of a working-class father, Antonio, and Bruno, his young but streetwise son, Bicycle Thieves follows the duo as they try to locate Antonio’s stolen bicycle, which is crucial for him to keep his new job which involves putting up movie posters around the city.
“There’s a cure for everything except death.”
Bicycles are a strong visual motif in De Sica’s film, a symbol of the working class as it is for their (potential upward) mobility. In a vivid sequence at a market, Antonio and Bruno scour the different vendors selling bicycle parts (frames, tyres, bells, pedals, etc.) hoping to find some measure of good luck.
But De Sica’s film is more than just bicycles, poverty and the working-class; it is an immensely moving and powerful work about a father and his son. And through the portrayal of their relationship, by turns fractious, loving, and ultimately one marked by a sombre, mutual acceptance, De Sica manages to bring out the human condition through dramatisation.
Much has been said about neorealism’s propensity toward authenticity, but at its heart, many neorealist films are fictional dramas with the occasional manipulative tendency in dramatising scenarios.
The actors in the film were all amateurs. De Sica decided not to use professionals.
Bicycle Thieves is no different, but what set this group of films from the 1940s and 1950s apart (the movement was short-lived, though its impact is certainly eternal) was the shared circumstance as they came into being—they, and their characters, stories and settings, were haunted by the spectre of WWII and its aftermath.
As such, many Italian neorealist films of the period have this ‘scar’ forever captured on film, revealing its ontological, and some might argue, historiographical qualities. (Roberto Rosselini’s landmark ‘War Trilogy’—Rome, Open City (1945), Paisan (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948) is also another authentic example.)
Come to think of it, how the movement was birthed would quite rightly never be replicated again, which is one of many reasons why its spirit continues to reverberate through time.