Case Agent: Murdoch
An introductory film course staple, Bicycle Thieves has been lauded by critics since its 1948 debut. But what makes this film a classic? On the surface it seems like any other foreign film made during it’s time with long, dramatic cuts and an emphasis on character development. Throughout my assessment, I’ll be looking at what exactly sets Bicycle Thieves apart by contextualizing and explaining key attributes of the film.
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay: Cesare Zavattini
Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell
First, a bit about the title that has recently sprang up some controversy. The original title of the film is Ladri di biciclette which uses the plural of both bicycle and thief – so it’s often titled Bicycle Thieves. Despite this, the American distribution has always called it The Bicycle Thief since its first translation. However, with the efforts of the Criterion Collection and Janus Films, the American edition has been appropriately named. While it might seem like nitpicking, the plural title speaks for both the protagonist and main-but-hardly-seen antagonist. Some critics still push for the U.S. title as the meaning doesn’t become apparent until after the film.
The film is one of director Vittorio De Sica’s most familiar, along with Umberto D. De Sica boasts a diverse filmography otherwise with several acting roles both on the silver and small screens. Notable is that Cesare Zavattini, along with De Sica, was well-known for theories and work in neorealism. When seeking the primary importance of Bicycle Thieves, we must search in its historical context and how it brought a new wave of cinema.
The film is considered indicative of its period and a seminal step in laying the groundwork for the neorealist movement. The core philosophies of the neorealist movement include: social context, historical actuality, politically progressive, on-location filming, non-professional actors, and cinéma vérité-style cinematography. Let’s pick the film apart using this criteria.
The social context of the film makes it a good timepiece for post-WWII Italy. Jobs were scarce and people were impoverished, the country’s entire economy had collapsed. The beginning of the film shows the lead character, Antonio Ricci, awaiting a job request that requires him to have a bicycle. He has to exchange the family’s bed sheets to get back his old bicycle from the pawn shop. 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, .
Undoubtedly, the historical actuality of the Italian zeitgeist is salient throughout the film. There’s the well-known Italian joie de vivre coupled with the superstition-reliant concerns that many had (Antonio’s wife and later he himself consult a fortune teller) and a fear of survival. One scene shows Antonio and his son, Bruno, feasting on pizza and wine as they shortly give up looking for the stolen bicycle. The scene is raucous with a caricaturized band and chaotic merriment from the clientele. Despite the poor realities of post-war Italty, there are blissful moments of oblivescence.
The film proved to be political through its realistic portrayals of quotidian life at the time. The rest of Europe became cognizant of the defeated Italy’s slow recovery. 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. These shots give voice to the poverty and desperation that many faced. When the thief steals the bike, modern viewers probably see the thief as someone morally bad (stealing is wrong, the thief is wrong). Yet, the viewer grows and feels the desperation of Antonio as he searches for the thief, because we understand what the bicycle represents. We’re being shown circumstances can make a good person succumb to a moral bad. There’s also the feeling of Bruno watching his father, a man he admires, become all too human to the child. He no longer holds his father up, idealized. This theme reflects the post-war generation and it’s rebellion against their parents. It’s also worth noting that many of the directors and screenwriters of the neorealist movement were very liberal or Socialists. This belief is constantly reflected throughout their portrayal of the common man and how he is treated by the economic system. There is a progressive, permeating message of “open your eyes and change”.
The entire film was shot on-location with a loose, cinéma vérité style of camera work. The long, drawn-out cuts add to the feel of desperation and malevolence that Antonio faces in his pursuit of finding his bike. Bicycle Thieves can feel like a quasi-documentary with its unpretentious cinematography. I think this is intended to a certain degree, due to the neorealism penchant for more of a “man on the street” style camera work. Lastly, all the actors featured in the film had little-to-no experience as actors. While you wouldn’t suspect it when watching the movie, it adds another layer of realism to the entire thing. Before being casted, these characters were living very similar lives to the ones they portrayed and might go back to if the film didn’t succeed. Neorealist films went on to heavily inspire both classics and modern films, such as: The 400 Blows, The Hustler, The Motorcycle Diaries, Children of Men, and Winter’s Bone.
De Sica's film did particularly well critically, winning two notable awards along with festival, Golden Globe, and smaller awards. In 1949, it won the Academy Award for the Special Foreign Language Film category. In 1950, it took the BAFTA for Best Film where it beat out another classic, The Third Man. The film has been featured on numerous top film lists and is well regarded as important to the post-war era and the neorealist movement. As a flagship title for the movement and the influence that continues to resonate throughout modern cinema, it’s apparent what makes Bicycle Thieves an unequivocal classic.