The influence of Italian neorealism in the cinematic world is extremely difficult to overstate. One can highlight its methods in American film noir of the late 40’s and early 50’s, its obvious links to works in the French new-wave, and its influence on international third world film of the time for its depiction of common people and its portrayal of the “real.” Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is certainly neorealist; every principle of the movement is utilized within the film. It is a quiet, tragic anthem to the poverty-stricken working class of postwar Italy, and a beautiful work that has been part of the pallet of the auteur in cinematic movements ever since. It is perhaps the very antithesis to Hollywood film in its subject matter of “life as it is,” as screenwriter Cesare Zavattini has put it.
Bicycle Thieves contains no scenes of intimate sexual relations, and none of the crimes and passionate lives so common in the American film noir pictures that came parallel to it. By those standards, its plot is miniscule in scale. A poor, out-of-work man spends an entire day in vain searching for his stolen bicycle throughout the streets of Rome. This bicycle is his key to wellbeing and a necessary tool in order for him to keep his newfound job. After his efforts prove fruitless, he attempts to steal a bicycle himself. After being caught and released, he is left to suffer the degradation of becoming a thief himself.
This brief plot synopsis does nothing to shed light on the absolute beauty and tragedy of the story. The characters, played by non-professionals (the protagonist came from the Breda factory, the child found hanging around in the street, and the wife, a journalist), have the expressions of lower-class pedestrians because that is plainly what they are. Lamberto Maggiorani’s (Antonio Ricci) face is gaunt and searching, his angular cheekbones are rough sills to soft eyes constantly on the verge of submission. In search of his bicycle, he casts looks of suspicion, curiosity, and most prevalently indifference. Enzo Staiola’s (Bruno) hopeful glances linger past their scenes with an air of uncertainty, all of which is placed in the trust that things will work out in the end. The outfits are worn and baggy, hair is unkempt, and men still stand with their superficial pride masking all of their obviously tragic truths. This is all part of the thesis behind neorealism. It is a passionate desire in itself to realize a hunger for reality, in this case brought out by the breathtaking aftermath of World War II; a Rome made of derelict buildings and rubble fantastically perpendicular to its illustrious majesty before the devastation from the war.
On the subject of pre-war Rome and Italian cinema, the fact stands that neorealism would not hold the emotional power it has on its subjects without the backdrop of the pre-war fascist films produced through the efforts of Benito Mussolini. While De Sica made efforts to capture the provocative photography of common Rome through its dirty streets and worn buildings, fascist filmmakers posed star actors and actresses in front of famous monuments like The Colloseum, statues of Casears, and ornate fountains.
The camerawork behind Bicycle Thieves has traits of documentary-style filmmaking – a characteristic often applied to Zavattini’s works. This is used to exemplify the real, humble, and idealistic sense of realism needed in the film. While American films relied on the necessity of a “story,” neorealist filmmakers understood the richness in reality and sought to exemplify it through a camera lens.
The stylistic characteristics of what is known as neorealism are readily identifiable, perhaps one of the most important being visual representation. The most appropriate subject for representation (at least from a “pure cinema” point of view) is reality itself. This is achieved perfectly in Bicycle Thieves by its method of filming on location, out in the real world, outside of a studio – not a created world inside a studio as was popular in Hollywood films of the time. The director’s note of this characteristic is apparent in the film itself, perhaps most prevalently in the scene where Ricci is hanging up the poster of Rita Hayworth. Her figure is covering a wall of dirty posters and advertisements, and her beautiful made-up character seems shockingly out of place on the dirty street corner full of pedestrians who seem to be too caught up in the harsh reality of things to fall into the illusion of the image on the poster. Zavattini once said regarding postwar Italian cinema, “Making a movie grounded in reality takes just as much imagination as making a fictional film.” Simply filming reality doesn’t make a good realist film. It is a lesson that can be learned throughout history from figures like Picasso, Proust, Joyce, Kafka and the like: everyday life can be transformed into something sublime.
As powerful and provocative a style as it was, neorealism was very short-lived from an historical point of view. Only twenty-one or so films were made in the vein of the movement in a course of seven years, mainly because the creative energy behind it all was completely due to a real historical crisis. By the time Bicycle Thieves was conceived in 1948, the “revolution” of neorealism had reached the end of its rope as a style in itself. Italy was reinvented after the war as a capitalist society stuck in a stasis of unemployment. The film (as noted by the previously mentioned facial expressions of the actors) is balanced on a thin line separating ever-looming melancholy and idealism.
In the mode of pre-war Italian cinema, the soundtrack for the film was completely dubbed. This method became common due to Mussolini’s insistence that films be dubbed over in an effort to have more control over their final production. The non-diagetic music that played through the film has been argued to be disconnected from its events because of this technique, yet changes from major to minor keys seem to play their part in reflecting scenes of both idealism and melancholy, respectively.
One of the most notable things worth taking into account is the creative fusion between writer and director that took place with De Sica and Zavattini. De Sica viewed his chosen non-professionals as “blank canvases,” which he was able to mold into the characters he desired. Because they were not typical actors who needed to shed their layers of stardom and character to play the part of the common individual, De Sica was able to provide the film with an unadulterated cast of pure realistic characters. Zavattini’s writing fit in perfectly with De Sica’s characters – in a way that comes across rarely in cinema. A pivotal scene in the film in which Antonio elects to treat his son to a good meal shows a series of intricate gestures from father to son played out against the subsidiary drama of glances between Bruno and a pampered bourgeois boy at another table. The dialogue between father and son is invariably in analogous sync with the scene played out in the restaurant. Zavattini’s skill as a writer for the screen is without a doubt brought out by this scene. The viewer is compelled to discover how the film will end. This complete inability to predict the outcome in the plot comes as a definitive quality of realism – if one were to see the same story unfold on the street outside their home, a predictable end would of course be impossible. This sort of narrative is difficult to keep up, and only the illusionary art of cinema can be the perfect canvas for such a feat. It is a perfect example of the sort of idea a film can convey that printed literature or other works of art cannot.