This is a paper I wrote for my World Cinema Class that I JUST finished. I can't say that I am a huge fan of foreign cinema (at least not from the 38 foreign films I watched during this semester). This one though I must say is worth viewing!
“Today, more than in any other passage in film history, the tactics and ideals evoked by ‘Neorealism’ continue to represent the struggle for authenticity and political engagement in cinema.” (Criterion, Cheshire). Neorealism was a period of filmmaking that began in 1945 with the release of Rossellini’s Open City and ending in 1951 with De Sica’s Umberto D. (De Los Rios). The Neorealist movement strived to present a new level of realism to the cinema at the time. The Bicycle Thief is the most well-known film from the Neorealist period. (Wikipedia, The Bicycle Thief). Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 film, The Bicycle Thief exemplifies the Italian Neorealism style and form in several ways.
Non professional actors were cast for the film. The main character, Antonio Ricci played by Lamberto Maggiorani, was himself a factory worker (Wikipedia, The Bicycle Thief). In his essay Bicycle Thieves: A Passionate Commitment to the Real, Godfrey Cheshire refers to the Italian actors in the background as having “hard-bitten faces” (Criterion, Cheshire). Charles Burnett agrees in his essay Bicycle Thieves: Ode to the Common Man. “The main actors in the film are ideal. Their faces are so expressive. They seem to be playing themselves. The background players’ faces are also always incredibly expressive, which adds to the illusion of reality” (Criterion, Burnett). The use of actual Italian citizen’s in The Bicycle Thief, ads to the authenticity of the film. Because the characters that appeared onscreen were locals, they were speaking in their regional dialect which was typical of a neorealist film (De Los Rios).
Neorealist films were shot nearly exclusively on location, mostly in poor neighborhoods (Wikipedia, Italian Neorealism). The Bicycle Thief was shot completely on location in Rome (Wikipedia, The Bicycle Thief). The film was an attempt to return to regional naturalism by De Sica (De Los Rios). The Bicycle Thief plays out like a portrait of Rome as one of the great “city films.” The film is shot in a documentary-style with actual scenic locations that include a union hall, the Porta Portese marketplace, a church, a brothel, and a soccer stadium (Criterion, Cheshire).
A portrayal of life among the impoverished and the working class is a prevalent element of neorealist films (Wikipedia, Italian Neorealism). It is clear in the film that Ricci desperately needs money. He is attempting to support his wife and two children, but is unemployed at the start of the film. The place where Ricci and his family live is little better than a hovel. He and his wife Maria have to sell their bed sheets to afford buying a bicycle so that Ricci can do his poster hanging job to provide for his family. In The Bicycle Thief, the settings help convey what the character is feeling (De Los Rios). Ricci walks the chaotic city streets in search of his bicycle which emphasizes his desperation and the impossibility of ever finding it again. At one point in the film, it starts pouring rain which articulates the fact that the odds are against Ricci. The Italian restaurant where Ricci eats lunch with his son Bruno is clearly too expensive for him to afford. The two of them look out of place in their drab clothing. As the scene plays out it is clear that Ricci is concerned only with living in the moment and pretends that everything is fine in his life to alleviate the pain of losing his bicycle.
Realism was always emphasized in the neorealist movement (Wikipedia, Italian Neorealism). Objective Realism was at work because of the open-ended narrative and unresolved plot line of the film. It is considered a realistic portrayal of life because of the unclosed end (De Los Rios). Since Ricci doesn’t find his bicycle by the end of the film and the final scene depicts him and his son Bruno walking the city streets in tears, the audience is uncertain as to what will happen to them and there is no sense of closure. Burnett describes how the “unromantic” film typifies real life through Neorealism, “Bicycle Thieves gives meaning to the common man. And, as is often the case in life, reality here doesn’t have a happy resolution…life was basically a continuous struggle” (Criterion, Burnett).
Subjective Reality is another Neorealist tool used in the film which emphasis a character’s state of mind within the film. In the scene where Ricci goes to the soccer stadium, still in search of his lost bicycle, he sees hundreds of them. His perception is that he is totally surrounded by bicycles (De Los Rios). In reality, there are probably not that many bicycles; Ricci is just focused on them because of his predicament. The numerous bicycles taunt and torment him which drives him to eventually steal one.
The film also includes people performing relatively ordinary tasks. This is an indulgence in moments unrelated to the plot that draw attention to small details which is also characteristic of Neorealism (De Los Rios). This helped the people in the film appear natural because they were doing normal everyday activities that didn’t require any “acting” abilities. A perfect example is when Ricci and his son Bruno are getting ready the first morning Ricci starts his new job. Bruno is cleaning the bicycle for Ricci, but opens the window in order to have more light. Ricci’s wife Maria is putting the finishing touches on Ricci’s work cap as Ricci comes into the kitchen. The husband and wife exchange a playful goodbye and Ricci takes two packaged omelets Maria has cooked. Bruno fixes his hair, puts on his scarf and he and Ricci pocket their omelets. Just before leaving the house with his father, Bruno closes the window again. None of these moments or details help to further the plot, De Sica could have chosen simply to show Ricci and Bruno depart from their home in the early morning.
Children were often featured in neorealist films as a device to provide the audience with a different point of view and lower their defenses. The audience becomes less likely to turn their back on the story because children have the ability to affect an audience more easily (De Los Rios). In The Bicycle Thief, Ricci’s son Bruno is onscreen throughout most of the film. Bruno’s innocence questions the adult authority around him (Criterion, Cheshire). At the end of the film when Ricci gets caught after trying to steal someone else’s bicycle out of desperation, the only thing that keeps the owner of the bicycle from pressing charges is Bruno’s presence. Bruno’s character will undoubtedly lower audience’s defenses because his love for his father, his good-natured attitude, and his innocent views of life breathes a warm-hearted nature into the film.
Since The Bicycle Thief is set in post World War II Italy, its agenda is to make audiences aware of a bad social condition that needs a political solution, another neorealist element. Thieves are not portrayed in the film as bad people, but as victims of a corrupt society. The theft of Ricci’s bicycle reveals corruption of Italy after the war; especially in the upper classes. In his essay about The Bicycle Thief, Burnett goes on to muse why De Sica chose to have Ricci be in the midst of hanging a poster of Hollywood starlet Rita Hayworth when the theft of his bicycle takes place, suggesting that it is in an attempt to counter falseness (Criterion, Burnett). A true representation of life is present in the film which speaks to a Neorealist attitude toward filmmaking. Throughout the film, the audience is exposed to a “slice of life” of Italian culture (De Los Rios). Cheshire agrees stating that “Neorealism served as a chastening, disillusioning rejection of Fascism and fantasy” in his essay about the film (Criterion, Cheshire).
The Bicycle Thief features non-professional actors that speak in their regional dialects. It was filmed exclusively on location in Rome and featured many scenes shot on city streets. The story is about a poor man living in an impoverished area. Realism is emphasized in the film because of the open and unresolved ending. Everyday tasks are performed by the actors in the film which was fitting since they weren’t professionals. Bruno, Ricci’s son, provides a childhood innocence that lowers the audience’s defenses. This post World War II film’s director De Sica had an agenda for social change. All of these elements combined provide evidence that 1948’s The Bicycle Thief is a true example of Italian Neorealism.
“Bicycle Thieves.” Wikipedia. Web. 22 Dec. 2010.
Burnett, Charles. “Bicycle Thieves: Ode to the Common Man.” The Criterion Collection. Web.
Cheshire, Godfrey. “Bicycle Thieves: A Passionate Commitment to the Real.” The Criterion
Collection. Web. 22 Dec. 2010. http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/467-bicycle-thieves-a-passionate-commitment-to-the-real.
De Los Rios, Riccardo. “Italian Cinema: Neorealism.” Cal State University Fullerton. 23 Sept.
“Italian Neorealism.” Wikipedia. Web. 22 Dec. 2010.