Bicycle Thieves turns 70: A look at neo-realism through the prism of Vittorio De Sica's classic
The determination to not make the protagonist a saint just because he is suffering is what makes Bicycle Thieves a byword for neo-realism.
Bicycle Thieves, the Vittorio De Sica film that’s become a byword for neo-realism, turns 70 this year. The critic Megan Ratner (a contributing editor at Film Quarterly) wrote a terrific primer on the movement, explaining it from both a social and an aesthetic perspective – and it’s useful to revisit it before getting into Bicycle Thieves. The seeds of neo-realism were sown during the time Federico Fellini described thus: “For my generation, born in the 20s, movies were essentially American. American movies were more effective, more seductive. They really showed a paradise on earth...” This was hardly reflective of the lives of working-class Italians, and the single greatest influence on neo-realism was the anti-Fascism that marked the post-World War II period. As early as 1935, anti-Fascist journalist Leo Longanesi urged directors to “[step out of the studios and] go into the streets, into the barracks, into the train stations; only in this way can an Italian cinema be born.”
Ratner lists the following as some of the key elements of neo-realism: a docu-style emphasis on real lives, an entirely or largely non-professional cast, and a focus on the collective rather than the individual. Solidarity is important, along with an implicit criticism of the status quo. Plot and story come about organically from these episodes – like the stealing of the bicycle in Bicycle Thieves. Given that this is what the narrative motor is, you’d expect something Hollywood-style — say, a tensely crafted set piece, set to a background score that (a) makes you feel for the protagonist in poverty-stricken post-War Rome (he’s just gotten a job after years of waiting, and it’s a job that’s dependent on his having a bicycle), and (b) gets your pulse racing at the will-he-catch-the-thief? aspect of the chase.
What De Sica gives us, instead, is a “realistically” shot stretch where the thief takes off with the bicycle and the protagonist (Antonio Ricci, played by Lamberto Maggiorani) gives chase – but before we get to the scene, let’s look at Maggiorani’s life, which was itself right out of a neo-realistic film. The plucked-from-obscurity angle is pure Hollywood – he had been a machinist at the Breda steel works in northern Italy for 16 years, and he’d had no dramatic training. But what happened after the release of Bicycle Thieves? A story titled “Fame Mocks a Movie Star” – in the 23 January, 1950, issue of Life – reported that Maggiorani was “broke, jobless and worse off than he had ever been before the movies made him a star.”
For the three months of the shooting, he was driven around by a uniformed chauffeur, and his fellow workers gave him a medal for “bringing honour” to the factory. With his salary (600,000 lire, or $1000), his wife bought a new set of furniture and the family went for a holiday. After exhausting the money, Maggiorani went back to work at Breda (he didn’t sign the movie till he was guaranteed that he’d get his $3-a-day job back), but his manager fired him, saying, “Your companions are grumbling. They say you made millions from the movie. It’s not fair to fire them and keep you.” Maggiorani then found a couple of part-time jobs, as a brick-layer and a movie extra. The Life story fills in the rest: “He is in terror of being evicted from his apartment and his eldest son is tubercular...” This could be Bicycle Thieves’ Antonio Ricci after his bicycle is stolen.
But let’s return to the scene of the stealing. There’s no music. The only sounds during this entire stretch are the footsteps of people on the road and the noise from traffic. It’s only when Antonio gives up the chase, certain he has no chance of catching the thief, that the strings kick in, reflecting his desperation. But even here, it’s hardly melodrama, for the collective is very much present during this depiction of this individual’s plight. The music starts around the 20:52 mark and continues till the scene ends, at the 22:09 mark (see clip below): he begins to walk back to where he was when the bicycle was stolen. He was putting up posters (that’s why the job required a man who owned a bicycle) of – wait for this! – a Hollywood film, starring Rita Hayworth at her most glamorous. It’s exactly the kind of cinema neo-realism turned against.
This walk back to where he was is a beautiful stretch of neo-realism. Antonio sees the street in front of him, with cabs and trams and pedestrians. The camera always frames him amidst this world – a woman crosses the road in front of him, or a passing car cuts him off from the frame for an instant. At the end, when he sits on the rungs of the ladder he was on while pasting the poster, the camera moves in to observe his face (not a close-up, though), and in the next scene, he’s at the police station, saying what happened: “Yes, there was a crowd. But they just went about their business.” Once again, the outside world claims the scene. The cop he is narrating the story to hears his name being called out by colleagues outside. It’s something about a meeting. He returns to Antonio and picks up the conversation.
Would the scene have worked if this cop had not been summoned by his colleagues? Yes, but then, we wouldn’t have known about his world, the world that’s not connected to Antonio. This is not to say that neo-realism shunned drama. The first time Antonio asks a kid to look after his bike is when we think it’s going to be stolen. (After all, given this film’s title, the theft is what we expect.) But it’s the tone, the determination to not make the protagonist a saint just because he is suffering. When a boy he suspects of being the thief ends up with epileptic fits, Antonio seems to care less about the boy’s condition than the fact that he wants his bicycle back. He tells a cop, “There he is. He’s pretending to throw a fit.” It’s sickening behaviour, but it’s also very human. Megan Ratner said, “The aim, method and philosophy [of neo-realism] was fundamentally humanist: to show Italian life without embellishment and without artifice.” That’s exactly what this is.
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (south).
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