Bicycle Thieves (1948)

aka: Ladri di Biciclette, The Bicycle Thief.

D: Vittorio de Sica
S: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola.

Bicycle Thieves is not a documentary. The film has been long perceived as the flagship of the neo-realist movement which arose in post-war Italy as a reaction to the escapist melodramas of the fascist era. Its primary screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini, was one of the most outspoken proponents of the so-called verismo style, urging a realistic depiction of social problems and an emphasis on the everyday instead of spectacle and myth.

Bicycle Thieves was based on an original story by Luigi Bartolini which was shaped into a screenplay by Zavattini, director Vittorio de Sica and five other writers, all of whom strived to create that sense of authenticity. De Sica deliberately cast amateur actors in the leading roles and, like Roberto Rossellini on Rome, Open City (1945), opted to shoot on the streets of the real post-war Italy, capturing the sights and sounds of the everyday in a way that few films had done before.

Yet all of this was cinematic craft. As it strove for naturalism, Bicycle Thieves was supremely artificial. It was a carefully structured drama about the relationship between a father and son which indirectly addressed many social and political issues. Its cinematic forebears include Charles Chaplin's The Kid (1921), and in many ways Bicycle Thieves is equally sentimental and manipulative. De Sica himself had long experience in comedy before making the film. Like Chaplin, he was well versed in timing and pathos. He employed both to win the audience's sympathy while delivering the political blows.

Stars Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola may have been amateurs, but de Sica had cast them because they looked right for the part. In his hands they became the puppets to fit the play. Their amateurism left him even more free to use them as part of his overall vision of the film because he did not have to deal with star egos.

Yet the result is inspirational. Bicycle Thieves is a powerful depiction of life in post-war Italy which argues for the dignity of the individual and decries social inequality. It boasts an appealing story and naturalistic direction which draws you in to its world completely. Events appear random and incidental (precisely because they have been designed to appear that way) and the film has an emotional heft which the almost documentary-like use of camera and setting gives greater immediacy.

Its story of the man who becomes a boy and the boy who is ultimately more of a man than his father feels real because of the context in which it is set and the authentic environment which we see. Is it any wonder that as the film reaches its deeply moving finale it is the child who has a better grasp on contemporary reality than the adult given that it is all he has ever known?

As father and son disappear into the crowd in the final scene, there is a natural ambiguity which comes from the uncertainty of the everyday. We do not know if they proceed to a better destiny, but we know that something important has transpired between them. So, in the tradition of classic Hollywood films before it, it ends with narrative resolution, yet with a politically charged suggestion of social irresolution which befitted the ideals of the neorealist movement.

Bicycle Thieves would mark the pinnacle of neorealism's international success (winning a special Oscar in 1949). Yet by 1952, when de Sica and Zavattini came to make the even more realistic Umberto D, the style (and some of its directors) had fallen out of favour. It is with the benefit of hindsight that we can see how artificial Bicycle Thieves really is, but this makes it no less great a work of art: on the contrary, it proves how masterful it really is.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.