Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Bicycle Thieves (1948)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #33

Italian neorealism - a cinematic movement that would define Italian cinema on the international scene  and would become hugely influential throughout film history - was born in the ashes of World War II. After the Italian military had been thoroughly defeated, the nation was left in a state of disrepair, embarrassed both by the regrettable reign of fascism and their humiliating defeat in the war. In the midst of all of this turmoil, the Italian film industry struggled to recuperate, losing its center and becoming adrift. A group of filmmakers and film critics together, over the next few years, laid down the tenets of the neorealist movement: a focus on the middle and lower classes, the use of non-professional actors and on-location shooting, and stories about economic struggles in post-war Italy. Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943) and Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1946) were among the first major works of the movement, with the latter earning international attention at that year's Cannes Film Festival.


Actor/director Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, however, may be the seminal work of Italian neorealism. Based loosely on a novel by Luigi Bartolini, the film follows the plight of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), who at the beginning of the film is looking for work to support his wife Maria (Lianella Carell), young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), and newborn child in post-war Rome. Antonio uses the money made from hocking his wife's dowry bedsheets to purchase a bicycle in order to commute to work, but one day his bicycle is stolen by a petty thief, leading him on a search across Rome with Bruno to recover the bike and, with it, his employment.

In many ways, Bicycle Thieves functions as a "rosetta stone" for the Italian neorealism movement, cataloging all of its major tenets within its brief 93 minute running time. More so, it provides a primer in how "independent" cinema movements spawned across the world ever since, each of which can at least draw some line back to neorealism and this film.

More after the jump.


The first major aspect of Bicycle Thieves worth looking at is the production of the film. Italian neorealist films were designed to be a contradictory fusion of documentary and fiction, with the fabricated stories being performed by unexperienced actors in real settings. Thus, the films would be more "honest" and "true," allowing the filmmakers to explore contemporary themes of everyday life without the film appearing to be a fantasy. De Sica shot Bicycle Thieves entirely on location in the streets of Rome; the camera moves in a way that places the viewer directly in the action, eliminating some of the barriers that traditionally-made studio pictures create to assure audiences of the fiction. De Sica did not shy away from depicting poverty in the film; one notable scene, when Antonio sells the sheets, shows a pile of sheets that other struggling couples have sold to get by.

Similarly, the casting of nonprofessional actors was meant to give the film a sheen of veracity, as these actors would be free of the learned, exaggerated mannerisms of professional actors. For example, Maggiorani had never acted before, but was rather working in a factory when he was cast. The effect is powerful, especially in the performance of young Staiola in the film's final act. When Antonio, desperate and angry, decides to take matters into his own hands and steal a bicycle himself, Bruno's confusion and horror at his father's actions come across as heartbreakingly genuine. In this moment, Bruno is at once a very real child and a symbol of an Italian society shocked that the nation could so hopelessly lose its way morally; he becomes both a person and a totem. A performance such as this would not have been as powerful had it come from a professional actor.


Moreover, Bicycle Thieves set a standard for "independent" cinema. In 1946, De Sica had released Shoeshine, a film about two young boys who are wrongfully arrested for theft. The film was considered controversial in Italy upon its release, namely for its forthright depiction of delinquency by the main characters. After the film flopped, De Sica could not find a studio willing to fund his next film, and so he instead had to raise the money himself. The result was that he was given the ability to make the film he wanted, without the interference of the studio. De Sica allowed his own style to permeate the film, turning it into a neorealist document with a definitive author.

But Italian neorealism was more than just a collection of production values. It thematically drew from the historic-political ideology of communism, with a stronger focus on the working class rather than the bourgeois that most popular fiction had been fascinated by at the time. By placing the narrative within the perspective of the oppressed, films were given the opportunity to make powerful political statements through their stories and characters. This was especially critical in the post-fascism era; Bicycle Thieves could be read as an allegory of how Mussolini (the thief) steals the ideas of Italian morality (the bicycle), leading the Italian people (Antonio) on a path to follow in that immorality. It also functions as a portrait of the socioeconomic destruction that fascism had wrought on the Italian people, to say nothing of the moral corruption Mussolini's reign had spawned.

By being a quintessential document of Italian neorealism, Bicycle Thieves was able to garner international success, spreading the movements ideas and format around the globe. The film has been cited as an influence by many prominent filmmakers, including India's Satyajit Ray and Britain's Ken Loach. Similarly, the movement it represented went on to influence a number of national cinemas: the French New Wave, Polish Film School, Indian Parallel Cinema, Brazilian Cinema Novo, British "Kitchen Sink Realism," Romanian New Wave, Japanese New Wave, L.A. Rebellion, and Iranian New Wave are just a few of the cinematic movements of the past five decades that have roots in Italian neorealism.

Though Bicycle Thieves was certainly not the only film to find international acclaim from the movement, it has perhaps done more to spread its ideas around the world. De Sica's film continues to stand as the seminal work of Italian neorealism, and will likely continue to inspire filmmakers well into the future.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Citizen Kane (1941)

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