The Bicycle Thief (1949) Directed by Vittorio DeSica. Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola (90 min.)
A heartbreakingly simple story set amidst the rubble of war-ravaged Rome: a man and his son desperately comb the city streets for a stolen bicycle. “If you have seen The Bicycle Thief, but not for years, you will discover that such is its power that it is like seeing it for the first time.” (Kevin Thomas, LA Times.) “The Bicycle Thief is an unchallengeable peak of what we may take to be the art of motion pictures.” (Parker Tyler)
The Italian neorealist filmmakers were left-wing political philosophers, filled with moral indignation and opposed to the Fascist regimes of both the Nazis and Mussolini. Rejecting the escapism of pre-war Italian cinema, they were inspired by a resurgence of a realist aesthetic in Italian literature. They believed that non-professional actors filmed in real locations would create a revolutionary cinema of truth and ideas. There was also a practical consideration, since money was scarce, film and equipment were hard to come by and the studios were in ruins, like the rest of Rome. Devastated by World War II, Italy was occupied in defeat by Allied troops. Poverty was suffocating, and unemployment rife. The poor workman in The Bicycle Thief or more accurately translated, Bicycle Thieves needs his modest transportation in order to continue posting the image of the insanely unattainable Rita Hayworth in Gilda. Vittorio De Sica used the neorealist philosophies to make “what was surely the most universally praised movie produced anywhere on the planet during the first decade after World War II” (Hoberman).
De Sica had been a matinee idol in the 1930s, “the Italian Cary Grant” in what were called the “white telephone films” as Italian cinema attempted to recreate the gloss of Hollywood moviemaking. He had started out as an accountant, but his father insisted he abandon the profession for show business, in what Martin Scorcese calls in Mi Viaggia in Italia “surely a first in the history of the world.” Screenwriter Cesare Zavattini had discovered a book he thought director De Sica would find appealing after his earlier neo-realist success, Shoeshine. Little from the novel migrated to the screenplay, since the main character was a “disgruntled and supercilious artist who opines the most reactionary prejudices about the poor” (Cardullo) and who owns ANOTHER bicycle when one is stolen. De Sica’s vision synthesized two of his idols, King Vidor, whose silent film, The Crowd dealt with the universal needs and desires of the working poor, and Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin himself had grown up in bitter poverty, and films like A Dog’s Life and especially, The Kid, evoke the universality of being desperate and broke. Chaplin was a great admirer of De Sica’s as well. Appropriately, French film critic Andre Bazin concluded that “the Neopolitan charm of De Sica becomes, thanks to the cinema, the most sweeping message of love that our times have heard since Chaplin.”
De Sica’s heros, in his great neorealist trilogy, Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D are not unique or heroic compared to other men, but tell one story of countless stories. His indispensable scriptwriter and collaborator for all three films was Cesare Zavattini. Shoeshine, like Roberto Rossellini’s groundbreaking Open City, had been a failure in Italy, where film critics and audiences alike were contemptuous of filmmakers who showed the underside of Italian society. Shoeshine won an American Oscar for Best Foreign Film (as would The Bicycle Thief) but was denounced in the Italian press as “stracci all’estero” –rags for abroad.
De Sica struggled to raise the capital for The Bicycle Thief. American producer David O. Selznick expressed a desire to supply the funding–on the condition that Cary Grant be cast as the lead! Eventually, the budget was raised from several Italian sources, and the film was appropriately cast. The Bicycle Thief was eventually re-released in Italy following international acclaim, but Italian audiences were reluctant to embrace a cinema that emphasized the post-war woes of poverty, hunger, rubble, housing shortages and faces of the suffering children as embodied by neorealism’s stubbornly drab non-professional casts. De Sica’s tenderness in dealing with a set of complicated emotions between father and son create what many consider the peak achievement of neorealism. The film’s timeline suggests one resonant in Italian Catholic culture, Friday through Sunday at dusk, echoing the death of Christ on Good Friday and the resurrection, as well as Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.
The city of Rome, far from the tourist’s playground shown in a film like Roman Holiday, made only a few years later, is an endless nightmare of twisting streets and shabby plazas. Lamberto Maggiorani brought his sons to audition for the role of Bruno, but was himself singled out of the crowd and cast as the father. “I did a film test of him immediately; the way he moved, the way he sat down, his gestures with those hands hardened from work, the hands of a working man, not an actor I made him promise that after the film he would forget the cinema and would go back to his job ”(Curle and Snyder) Despairing of finding the right child, De Sica began filming with Maggiorani, attracting an unwelcome crowd. “I noticed amongst them an odd-looking child with a round face and a weird nose and large expressive eyes. It was Enzo Staiola–I felt our Neapolitan Saint Jannarius had sent him to me. Indeed, it was proof that everything was alright that first day’s shooting of Bicycle Thieves was one of the most satisfying of my life.” The close-up of Staiola’s face towards the end, as he watches his father do something he thought he would never see, is one of the most heart-breaking images in cinema. Enzo Staiola made a handful of other films; you may have noticed his unmistakable face as a busboy earlier this season in The Barefoot Contessa, filmed in Italy in 1954.
De Sica’s understanding of the acting profession provides a sensitive touch with his untrained cast, sometimes lacking in other neorealist films. De Sica said, “The man in the street, particularly if he is directed by someone who is himself an actor, is raw material that can be molded at will. It is sufficient to explain to him those few tricks of the trade which may be useful to him from time to time; to show him the technical and in the best sense of the term, of course, the histrionic means of expression at his disposal. It is difficult–perhaps impossible–for a fully trained actor to forget his profession. It is far easier to teach it, to hand on just the little that is needed, just what will suffice for the purpose at hand.” (Bondanella) .
What this means, in effect is, like Chaplin, he acted each part himself, and expected his actors to copy him scrupulously. So, unlike the actor who directs himself in a starring role, all the actors here are, in fact, De Sica. Far from being improvised, The Bicycle Thief required careful preparation. The actual theft of the bicycle was filmed simultaneously by six cameras, opening up the criticism that the film, rather than simulating documentary is actually a work of art, as if that is failing rather than a strength–not “pure cinema.” Its influence is felt most keenly these days in many of the films coming out of Iran, which use non-professionals in both a portrait of what to Americans is a truly foreign way of life, but using the simple humanity of the stories to promote social change, and social acceptance.
Cesare Zavattini wrote: “Neorealism it is also said, does not offer solutions. The end of a neorealist film is particularly inconclusive. I cannot accept this at all. With regard to my own work, the characters and situations in films for which I have written the scenario, they remain unresolved from a practical point of view simply because ‘this is reality.’ But every moment of the film is, in itself, a continuous answer to some question. It is not the concern of an artist to propound solutions. It is enough, and quite a lot, I should say, to make an audience feel the need, the urgency for them. In any case, what films do offer solutions? ‘Solutions’ in this sense, if they are offered, are sentimental ones, resulting from the superficial way in which problems have been faced. At least, in my work, I leave the solution to the audience.” (Curle and Snyder). Or, as Martin Scorcese states, it’s “a film of powerful simplicity, and that’s a rare quality in movies.”
(Photos from the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive. Sources include, Vittorio De Sica: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Howard Curle and Stephen Snyder, Vittorio De Sica, Director, Actor, Screenwriter by Bert Cardullo, Italian Cinema, Neorealism to the Present by Peter Bondanella, Italian Film by Marcia Landy, Classics of the Foreign Film, by Parker Tyler, Videohound’s World Cinema, J. Hoberman’s review in the October 6, 1998 Village Voice and Martin Scorcese’s documentary, Mi Viaggia in Italia.