Bicycle Thieves ★★★★★

Film School Drop Outs Challenge 2017 Week 10 - Movement - Italian Neorealism (1943-1954)

This film broke my fucking heart.

The Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittoria De Sica is an Italian Neorealist film made and set in post World War II Rome. Widespread unemployment is rife and the majority of the population are living a precarious existence. Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) has finally scored himself a much coveted job plastering up posters of Rita Hayworth all over the city. But this is a strictly BYOB, or Bring Your Own Bicycle, kind of job. Well, you have probably noticed the title. So naturally, Antonio’s bicycle is stolen, which threatens the very subsistence of himself and his family. With his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola, by his side he therefore sets off on an episodic odyssey through the city in search of his misappropriated property.

Naturally, having read that the period of film known as Italian Neorealism was rather important within the film history context I thought I better go and learn a bit more about it. From what I can tell there are various notions of what it is but whatever the case they all share some essential characteristics. First and foremost, Neorealism appears to be important for what it wasn’t. Before World War II, Italy was apparently known for its lavish studio set films featuring the biggest of stars, all of which performed in highly stylised ways. In other words, it sounds like what we might think of as Classical Hollywood Italian Style.

During the war, the lavish studios at Cinecittà were destroyed. Hence, partly because filmmakers had no choice, films were no longer created in the studio but out on the streets of the cities and in the countryside. In addition, the stars were no longer affordable and were given the boot. Instead, the directors pulled amateurs of the street and threw them in front of the camera to act as they would in real life. The films were also meant to be low-key productions and light on spectacle giving them more a documentary edge rather than espousing a lavish fantasy of escape (as symbolised by the Rita Hayworth posters Antonio has to plaster about). The films also eschewed contrived stories and plots and focused on the prosaic everyday of real life.

By removing the artifice of the studio, the big name actors and the larger than life spectacle, the Neorealist films were able to collapse the space that existed between what was depicted on the screen and their audiences. The locations on the screen were the same ones inhabited by the audience, the actors on the screen could have just as easily have been friends and family sitting amongst the audience, the things the actors were doing were the same things the audience might have done that day and will probably do tomorrow. Fellini was a neorealist before he became a modernist director and I like it when he said:

"Neo-Realism is a way of seeing reality without prejudice, without conventions coming between it and myself - facing it without preconceptions, looking at it in an honest way - whatever reality is, not just social reality buy all that there is in a man".

Having said all that, Italian Neorealism isn’t exactly Dogme95. These films might have been more direct than what had come before, but by today’s standards they are not aesthetically as radical as all that in casting off the conventions of classical cinema. Well at least, it does not seem to be the case with De Sica and The Bicycle Thieves. His film is exceedingly well shot and each composition is beautifully poised. Crowded streets scenes on location in Rome are choreographed with great deliberateness and care. There is a sweeping musical score that hits all of the right emotional notes. The film might have been made without the artifice of the studio but it was not made without the art of a skillful filmmaker. Therefore, it might be more accurate to so that this is reality tempered by the touch of a poet (not to be confused with poetic realism, which is a different aesthetic, even if it does try to evince a more psychological realism). In fact, I partially lifted this idea from De Sica himself who reflected that Neorealism is “Reality transposed into the realm of poetry”.

Beauty, poetry, aesthetics and all that aside, there is no escaping the slab of social reality that The Bicycle Theives drops in our laps. From the very first moments the on-location setting amongst the dusty unpaved streets, barbed wire fences, drab buildings and partially standing ruins on the outskirts of Rome immediately present to us the grim reality of post World War II Italy. More than anything else, the crushing weight of widespread unemployment hangs heavy over the multitude.

The opening act of this film illustrates just how desperate and dire the situation is and the impact it is having on the city. Having finally landed himself a much coveted job that might finally lift him out of his abject penury, Antonio desperately needs to get his bicycle back. You see, in absolute desperation he has already pawned it. As a last resort, his wife finally takes the pragmatic step of literally hocking the sheets right off their bed. In this sequence of events leading from getting the job to getting his bicycle we see just how horrible things are. In particular, there is this one significantly potent shot, where we see that he is not alone in his suffering. After having pawned his sheets, the camera stays with the pawnbroker as he takes them into a large store room full from floor to ceiling with the sheets of all those desperate souls that have already pawned their sheets before Anonio and Maria. It is a towering monument to the tragic state of affars of Italian post-war society.

The remainder of the film follows Antonio and his son Bruno as he searches for his bicycle and/or it’s theives. This journey highlights the inadequacy of any of the typical social institutions to respond to the situation and provide assistance. From the church, to the labour union to the police, each institution is stretched to its limit by the sheer magnitude of the problems they face. Where ever he turns he is met with tired, annoyed and angry officials. It would seem that scarcity stresses everything to the limit and makes everyone either anxious or cranky.

The most heartbreaking part of this film is witnessing how these dire situations might bring us to act in dischord with our most cherished values, undermining our virtuous behaviour and undoing our dignity and respect. Essentially, it comes down to being a good man or a starving man. And when you have a son that you love more than anything else and a responsibility to model and instil within him good values and to also strive to help him develop his own virtuous behavior, then you end up in a double bind. By standing on firm ground and sticking to these values and actions, your son and family also starve. After all is his love, respect and the moral education of a son enough for one’s family to survive in times such as these.

It is these complicated questions that left me floored and sobbing at the end of the film. The acting by Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola as father and son contributed a great deal to this. They were so damn perfect in their depiction of fear and suffering without overdoing the pathos. They may have been amateurs but De Sica knew exactly what he was doing when he picked this pair of the street. I haven’t seen many Italian Neorealist films, maybe Rome: Open City, Paisan and Obssessione, but for me The Bicycle Thieves is not only one of the best of this movement in film but one of the greatest films of all time.

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