Bicycle Thieves a masterpiece of Italian Neorealism

Bicycle Thieves is a 1948 Italian film which came down in the history of cinema as one of the masterpieces of Neorealism and perhaps the most renowned piece by auteur Vittorio de Sica.

Ricci and his son Bruno looking for the stolen bike around the markets of Rome

The plot is fairly simple and revolves around the tribulations of a pater familias, Antonio Ricci, desperate to sustain his family in a war stricken Rome. Among the sea of citizens brought to their knees by poverty, the story starts with an Antonio desperately looking for a job. With a stroke of luck the man finds employment as a billposter; however, to carry out his assignments, he is forced to sell his own bed sheets to reclaim his pawned bicycle.

This bicycle represents everything for Ricci: give his family a better quality of life and be a role model to his young son Bruno. However, everything starts to go wrong when a teenage rascal steals Ricci’s bike while the man was standing on a ladder posting an ad. Ricci seeks, in vain, help from the local police and his employer, with his only option being to find the stolen good by himself; otherwise, he is to fall back to utter poverty (and no bed sheets this time). From that moment, we follow father and son as they wade around the dilapidated streets of Rome and try to gather clues on the culprit.

The realism of this movie comes foremost from the set used for the story. Rather than reconstructing an artificial, and perhaps more idyllic, set in a studio, De Sica chose to film in the streets of a “raw” Rome that lost part of its grandiose scenery to the war bombings. Owing to this, I feel like this movie has a very “documentary” feel to it, especially after the many years in which media and artistic creations had been tightly controlled by the fascist regime. The screenwriter of “Bicycle Thieves,” Cesare Zavattini, had actually been one of the pioneering minds of Neorealism in Italian cinema. According to his philosophy, “realism” can be replicated in cinema only if the role of an actor corresponds to his/her role in real life. To make a more understandable example, if the protagonists of a movie are common people of low social standing, then the director should pick for the role individuals that actually belong to that class. By following this thought, director De Sica chose for the part of Ricci a common factory worker with no experience in acting and a child from the streets of Rome who was offered as payment a bicycle. Therefore, Lamberto Maggiorani (who plays Ricci)’s performance as a low class citizen looks convincing and surely is commendable not just because of his skills in acting, but because he IS a low class citizen himself, and, by understanding the emotions of his character he is able to perfectly portray them on the screen (this argument follows the Neorealist logic of course; I still believe that Maggiorani was a great actor on his own merit).

an example of the “realistic” set of post-war Rome

Unfortunately, this philosophy of thought caused Maggiorani’s success to be short-lived, as De Sica employed him in his future productions only as a mere extra; furthermore, Maggiorani was laid off by the factory in which he used to work owing to his perceived fame as a “rich” movie star.

If I were to discuss particular scenes that I appreciated, I have two. The first is the one in which Ricci is eating a “mozzarella in carrozza” (a type of deep fried mozzarella) with his son Bruno at an Italian Trattoria (I link the video below here)

Ricci and his son Bruno eating Mozzarella in Carrozza

For me, one of the appeals of this scene is its ability to emphasize the “documentary” like quality of the movie. Not only are we able to see post-war Rome in its crude reality, but we get a glimpse into its society through the display of social class divisions. Many are the people like Ricci that are left to cope with the trials of after-war poverty, but there are also those few who are separated from the common plights and live in a completely different reality of leisure and economic comfort. The young girl looks at Bruno with almost a disdainful look, while Ricci is trying to cheer up his son and make him taste some of the pleasures of life. However, as hard as Ricci tries, you can’t run away from the reality of your social condition, and his pretense soon drops.

The second scene I would like to discuss is, without a doubt, the final scene of the movie. If you haven’t watched it yet I suggest you read this last part afterwards; but if you look at the title of the movie, its ending is not so hard to guess after all. First, I would like you to watch this first clip:

In my opinion, one of the most interesting things about this scene is what i call the “flip of morality.” That is, how the director makes us sympathize, and even root for, Ricci’s stealing of the bike. It is interesting because at the beginning of the movie we condemn the young lad who stole Ricci’s bike, we swear at him, keep hoping that the man catches him, feel frustrated and angry when the people of the neighborhood protect the boy and Ricci finds no help from the authorities. It is precisely because we have stuck with the protagonist for so long, that we have rejoiced and felt desperate with him, that at this point we are forced to hope that he can get away with this theft. We know about Ricci’s circumstance and why he needs that bike so desperately; but maybe we should think about the thief boy: what were his circumstances? In this time of war and poverty the boy must have stolen the bike from Ricci for similar reasons, yet we are tricked into thinking that he is the “villain” and Ricci is the so-called “hero.” Yes, so I found this bit about the turning of morals very intriguing.

Furthermore, to add some curious behind the scene information (which is also essential to understand the realistic structure of the movie), the people that were getting out of the stadium were actually doing so. These spectators were unaware that Maggiorani was playing a part in the movie; many of them tried to run after him when he stole the bike, others joined the choruses of “thief” during the last shot of Ricci (tearing for desperation) and Bruno going home while “blending” with the crowds. After reading this I was like, “wow, you can’t get more real than that!!;” and, actually, Maggiorani got almost run over by the tram (as you can see in the final footage).

So… Have you watched the movie yet? Do you agree with my arguments? Feel free to comment anything below!

My rating for this movie is a 9/10! Definitely a THUMBS UP!!!!~


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