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Viewed in retrospect, much of modern cinema can seem to flow from twin fountainheads: Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). Though separated by World War II, the two movies symbolize the cardinal impulses that came to captivate serious audiences, critics, and filmmakers after the war. The tendencies they signaled—ones soon fused into a singular aesthetic by the French new wave—are not so much divergent as complementary.
Where Citizen Kane heralded the age of the auteur and a cinema of passionate individual vision, Bicycle Thieves renounced “egoism” for collective concern, envisioning a cinema of impassioned social conscience. Both films reflect their directors’ personal formal gifts, and their distinct approaches to “the real” transmute the very different production circumstances under which they were created. While Welles’s use of deep-focus and other innovations brought a hyperrealist sophistication to the elaborate fantasy mechanics of the Hollywood studio film, De Sica’s uncommon skills as a visual stylist and director of actors imbued the purist tropes of Italian neorealism—social themes, the use of real locations and nonprofessional performers—with a degree of poetic eloquence and seductive dramatic power seldom equaled in his era.
To an extent almost unimaginable today, the very different forms of realism exemplified by these films were seen as matters not just of aesthetic advancement but of moral urgency, too. Welles’s critique of the collusion of media, political, and economic power was unprecedented, and he later paid the price for his boldness. In Europe, the searching self-examination provoked by a devastating war and the revelation of Hitler’s death camps implicated an entire culture, including a cinema of complicity and vain distraction, typified in Italy by the “white telephone” farces and historical superspectacles of the 1930s.
Born in the fires of war, neorealism served as a chastening, dis-illusioning rejection of Fascism and fantasy, yet its resort to documentary-style, street-level filming (especially in Roberto Rossellini’s trailblazing Rome, Open City, from 1945) was initially a matter of sheer necessity. It soon became an ethical stance, one with consequences both immediate and enduring. Today, more than in any other passage in film history, the tactics and ideals evoked by “neorealism” continue to represent the struggle for authenticity and political engagement in cinema.
Yet neorealism, which by some counts produced only twenty-one films in seven years, was finally less a movement than a moment: a rush of creative energies sparked by, and ultimately tied to, a particular historical crisis. Its authors began in Resistance and thought they were headed for Revolution, but Revolution did not materialize. By the time we reach Bicycle Thieves, in 1948, the neorealist trajectory has reached its apogee. With Italy reborn not as a socialist paradise but as a capitalist purgatory beset with massive unemployment (the postwar boom had yet to launch), the film teeters between ongoing idealism and encroaching melancholy, a place where the earnest formulas of ideology are deepened by the intuitions of tragedy.
The film was the third official collaboration between De Sica, a successful actor and matinee idol turned director, and Cesare Zavattini, a screenwriter who also served as one of neorealism’s leading theoreticians. Like The Children Are Watching Us (1944) and Shoeshine (1946) before it, Bicycle Thieves uses children as characters whose innocence interrogates the dubious adult authority around them. Though loosely based on a book by Luigi Bartolini, the film exemplifies De Sica’s stated desire to “reintroduce the dramatic into quotidian situations, the marvelous in a little news item . . . considered by most people throwaway material.”
The quotidian anecdote dramatized here concerns Antonio Ricci, a young husband who has been suffering a prolonged spell of unemployment when he is offered a job as a bill poster. The catch is that he must have a bicycle, and his is in hock. Rescued by his wife’s willingness to pawn their bedsheets, Antonio sets out proudly and confidently on his new job, only to have his bicycle stolen on the first day. Desperate to stay employed, he mounts a wide-ranging search across Rome, accompanied most of the way by his young son, Bruno.
More than a half century on, it’s hard to recapture how striking Italy’s new realism—with its actual city streets and unfamiliar, hard-bitten faces—was to world audiences in the late 1940s, when any comparable Hollywood movie would have been shot on a studio back lot, with a star like Cary Grant (David O. Selznick’s choice for Antonio) in the lead role. Yet this film’s neorealism is a bit anomalous. Far from being shot guerrilla-style, with minimal crew and technical support, it was mounted by a team of movie professionals working on a budget generous enough to allow for large-scale scenes, hundreds of extras, and even the apparatus necessary to create a fake rainstorm.
Here, the situational imperatives of early neorealism have become a conscious aesthetic—one, it must be noted, with proven market value in the cinephile capitals of Europe and America (neorealist films were always mostly an export commodity). Yet this isn’t to question De Sica and Zavattini’s sincerity. Though they perhaps elected to compete with Hollywood on a comparable level of technique, they were still embarked on the heroic quest of speaking about the real people and places and social hardships that most moviemakers (then as now) took pains to avoid.
Their commitment to the real finds its most immediately gratifying proof in the movie’s capacious, quasi-picaresque portrait of Rome. Like Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, À propos de Nice, and Wings of Desire, among others, Bicycle Thieves is one of cinema’s great “city films.” But its wide gaze isn’t simply geographic. In a way that subtly links De Sica’s vision to Dante’s, each of its physical spaces also has a social, emotional, and moral dimension—from the union hall where crass entertainment intrudes, to the sprawling thieves’ market of the Porta Portese, to the church where the poor are run through an assembly line of shaving, food, and worship, to the brothels and rough solidarity of the aptly named Via Panico, to the environs of a soccer stadium where Antonio’s solitary ordeal reaches a humiliatingly public climax.
This city symphony is also, at its most intimate cinematic level, a symphony of looks. From the first, we are drawn into Antonio’s alternately hopeful and haunted gaze and what it beholds. In the shop where his wife pawns their sheets, the camera leads our eyes up a veritable tower of such linens, a catalog of forestalled dreams. In the search for the bicycle, Antonio both casts his own looks and receives looks of suspicion, curiosity, and, most prevalently, indifference. Sometimes looks are significantly blocked (by a slammed window, say) or misdirected (Antonio hurries on, looking ahead, while Bruno falls twice in the street behind).
In what’s often regarded as the film’s pivotal scene, Antonio decides to treat Bruno to a good meal. This complex gesture from father to son is played out against the subsidiary drama of looks exchanged between Bruno and a supercilious, pompadoured bourgeois boy at the next table. One could not call this passage especially subtle, yet its haunting power and richness show us what cinema can do that novels and theater cannot.
Looks also cue us to a gradual shift in the drama of Bicycle Thieves. Though it starts out focused closely on Antonio’s poverty and desperate need to recover his bicycle, by the latter sections what most concerns us is not what happens between Antonio and the bicycle or his social position but what transpires between the man and his son. Indeed, a second viewing of the film might suggest that this has been the main drama all along, that Bruno has been “looking after” Antonio in several senses that point us toward the film’s justly famous final moments, when a touching gesture of filial solidarity replaces the class solidarity that De Sica and Zavattini evidently saw as receding in Italy.
Given the importance of individual gazes to his drama, it’s no surprise that De Sica depends far more on variable compositions and cutting than did his neorealist colleagues Rossellini and Luchino Visconti, who inclined toward a more distanced camera style. Yet De Sica resists using close-ups or montage for Hollywood-style emotional overkill. Rather, his directing remains impressive for its vigorous inventiveness, the sense that every scene abounds in moments and details that add to the film’s accruing, multivalent meanings. Additionally, his genius with actors accounts here for the indelible performances of the nonprofessionals Lamberto Maggiorani, as Antonio, and Enzo Staiola, as Bruno.
Much has been made of the fact that Antonio is putting up a poster for a Rita Hayworth movie when his bike is stolen. Apologists like Zavattini, in positioning neorealism as the antithesis to Hollywood, often made claims that today look extravagant if not fanciful. André Bazin was surely closer to reality when he spoke of a “dialectical” relationship than when he vaunted neorealism as approaching “pure cinema.” Yet no important contribution to cinema should be condemned by its most utopian rhetoric. Judged by the brilliant conviction of Bicycle Thieves, neorealism still looks like our most potent reminder that a whole world exists outside the movie theater, to which our conscience and humanity oblige us to pay attention.
Godfrey Cheshire is a New York–based critic and filmmaker. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, Film Comment, Cineaste, the Village Voice, and the Independent Weekly.