The ‘Bicycle Thieves’ was released in 1948 and directed by Vittorio De Sica. It is often associated with the neo-realism film movement. Neo-realist elements helps it succeed as a humanist film with its honest comments on the social conditions in postwar Italy. The film is heavily impacted by the state of affairs in Italy and around the globe. Characterised by the war, unemployment, labour control, poverty and social injustice; the ‘Bicycle Thieves’ shows the poverty of the Roman working-class and emerged as an assessment of Italy’s severe situation. Antonio evolves into an effective metaphor for the average Italian working man.
In this response paper I will argue that through the use of neo-realism elements, the film advocates sever problems in post-war Europe. I will discuss the historical context of the film and the introduction of neo-realism in Italian cinema acting as a critique to society. The social context of the film explicitly reflects both the collapse of the fascist regime in 1943 under Mussolini and the aftermath of World War Two. Following the complete liberation of Italy; housing difficulties, extreme poverty and the weakening effects of an extensive black market resulted in the proliferation of thieves.
Citizens were impoverished and the country was plagued with unemployment as work was limited. Italy’s economy had failed. The crowded scenes of people flooding the main square to hear job requests spoke of how the Italian government poorly dealt with the aftermath of the war. This was intensified by the movements of countless displaced people. Antonio himself is an appropriate victim of’displacement. It is evident that he is not a Roman, but most likely an immigrant originating from a rural community in Central Italy or the South.
In addition, with no local relations and few friends, Antonio Ricci and his family represent a ‘nuclear family’. Reinforcing the idea that he is an immigrant. He is treated like an outcast by the ‘natives’ and shows discomfort in Rome. In this way, ‘real world material for neo-realism was shaped in not only the distressed cities but in the countryside too. The film suggests the need of some of governmental force, to intervene to improve the lives of the people and resolve such large problems shown within the ‘Bicycle Thieves’; such as ‘displaced persons’.
Neo-realism was created within the film ‘Bicycle Thieves’ with its social relevance, location shooting, loose narratives, inconclusive endings and most importantly the use of non-professional actors. Antonio Ricci is played by Lamberto Maggiorani, who was initially a factory worker. His physique suggests that of an ordinary unemployed male, making him an appropriate choice for the role. This successfully adds another layer of realism to the film. In addition, realism was often emphasised through them being shot in the streets with hand held cameras as a result of film studios being destroyed during the war.
The beginning of the film shows the protagonist awaiting a job request that requires him to have a bicycle. The film showed realistic political issues of the time, giving voice to the poverty and desperation that many faced. Additionally the film regularly highlights the hyperbole between the rich and the poor as his wife sells her dowry linens at a pawn shop so he is able to buy back his bicycle and begin work. With a family to take care of and willing to work for any job that becomes available, Antonio represents the Italian everyman of the time.
A memorable shot shows the sheets being stored among hundreds of similar parcels of bedding pawned by other families, showing the Roman working-class poverty in Italy. In addition Antonio’s job is to hang posters of the glamorous film goddess Rita Hayworth in war-torn Rome, adding an element of ironic humour. Right-wing political parties did not want these images of destruction to be seen on Italian screens. However following the fall of Mussolini’s regime, Italian directors were now unrestricted from Fascist censorship, and could show themes of real life context which would not have een tolerated by the regime.
Neorealist films often took a vastly critical approach to society and focused attention upon obvious social problems in Italy. During his first day on the job, the bicycle is stolen, appropriate to the latent Marxist perspective seen in the film. The action centres on the determinations of the underprivileged Antonio and his son Bruno to locate his stolen bicycle in the congested streets of Rome. The chase leads the characters to the soup kitchen of a church occupied with real life homeless people, adding to the neo-realism theme of the classic film.
A significant scene shows Antonio treating Bruno to a restaurant lunch, for a moment they overlook their worries, but on seeing a wealthy family enjoying a fine meal, Antonio is again troubled by his situation and distresses over his losses. In this way the contrast between rich and poor is shown throughout the film. De Sica ridicules charity, fascism of the church and the incompetence of the police in helping Antonio. Furthermore he mocks how the state is unable to reduce poverty but can efficiently regulate a brothel and the labour market.
Again supporting the need for governmental intervention. Antonio is persistently struggling to survive and preserve a sense of dignity against the overbearing indifference of the population in Rome, like many other citizens of this period. Antonio and Bruno find themselves at the home of the bike thief, a youth whose neighbours rebel against Antonio’s accusations and rise to the teenagers defence after he suffers a seizure. Repeatedly Antonio is subject to being an outsider as a victim of’displacement’. The concluding scene shows reference to the film’s title.
It refers to both those who stole Antonio’s bike, and Antonio himself. It shows that Antonio, driven by desperation, chooses to also become a bicycle thief. In addition this scene shows Bruno’s loss of respect for Antonio as no longer looks up to his father, idealized. Bruno watches his father get insulted and disgraced causing him to lose his dignity. The film reflects an undertone to the growth of rebellion and separation against their parents in the new post-war generation. The use of an everyday story and open endings distinguishes Neo realist films from most Hollywood products.
Cinematic history has been undeniably influenced by the introduction of neo-realism. This ‘film movement’ arose at a precise moment in post war society, supporting morality and humanism over spectacle. Circumstances of Roman life and society shape the protagonist’s choice to become a bicycle thief. The film shows how circumstances and obstacles of everyday life can make a good person succumb to a moral bad. Suggesting an underlining covert Marxist perspective; the political philosophy that the working man can’t achieve what he wants, despite how hard he tries.
In this way the film the film expresses the desperation and destitution at the end of the war with vast social problems and suggests the need of some of force, interpreted as the government. The film highlights the need to resolve social problems and help to revive the economy, in a way the film explains the advent of the welfare state in later years as a consequence of the war. In this way Antonio represents an ordinary man; victim of the social problems in Italy and in need of governmental intervention to revive the economy.