Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) marked Vittorio De Sica’s eighth directorial credit in a prolific filmmaking career, which had included work produced within the dictates of Italy’s government-controlled cinema during the time of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. By the end of World War II, De Sica had begun to transition away from the artificiality of the sanctioned historical melodramas and romantic comedies of the time and towards a way of making films that privileged the experiences of real people.1
Bicycle Thieves opens with the arrival of a bus – a sign of life – and the scattering of young men who assemble and follow a government agent to the steps of a makeshift employment office. Antonio Ricci’s (Lamberto Maggiorani) name is called for work, but he is nowhere to be found. Instead, he sits hopelessly off in the distance by a dusty road, with a sparse landscape and crumbling apartments looming overhead, unaware of the bus’s arrival until one of the men from the steps runs to fetch him. Antonio is offered a job in the city pasting posters on walls; he later tells his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), that it is a “good job” with a “family allowance”, but one that strictly requires a bicycle – something that he no longer has, having pawned it for food money. As Antonio laments to his wife about the job he has accepted (but thinks he’s already lost), Maria comes up with a thrifty solution to get the bike back. Even so, as soon as the bicycle is retrieved, it is lost again to a thief during Antonio’s first day on the job. From then on, Bicycle Thieves follows Antonio and his young son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), on a futile search throughout the streets of Rome.
According to the French film critic André Bazin, what makes the unremarkable story of Bicycle Thieves – much like Italian neorealist films in general – so remarkable and satisfying is the uncontrived way it depicts working-class people and their “genuine problems of living” as the basis for a simple and incidental narrative.2 From roughly 1942 to 1953, Italian neorealist directors became known for shunning the spaces of film studios in favour of using non-professional actors, natural lighting and location photography, all of which lent the “impression of truth.” A further key aspect was their focus on plots derived from the social world and the lives of the working class.3 In fact, Bicycle Thieves is a pivotal example of the Neorealist deployment of non-professional actors, wherein Staiola’s Bruno offers a natural counterpoint to Maggiorani’s Antonio. This is evident from the scene of the morning of Antonio’s first day in his new job, when we learn that Bruno is also getting ready for work. Wearing coveralls, he gets a smaller version of the egg sandwich that Maria makes for Antonio, and saves it in his shirt pocket, just like his father. The gesture echoes something eternal about the relationship between the two, which is again reinforced when Antonio drops Bruno off at a gas station and we see the latter immediately get to work, awkwardly lifting and filling heavy cans with his small and clumsy frame.
Naturalistic moments between Bruno and Antonio are also evident during the course of events that begin at the Porta Portese market, where stolen bicycle parts end up on the black market. In these scenes, the mental and physical strain of the search begins to show, when Antonio runs ahead of Bruno to take cover from a sudden shower of rain and Bruno, as if unrehearsed, slips and falls flat on his face. Antonio yells at him in annoyance, “What happened?” to which Bruno’s wounded ego counters unexpectedly, “I fell!” Next, when they find and lose the only person who has had contact with the bicycle thief (Antonio allows the man to go for lunch before they drag him out of a church, but the man gives them the slip), Bruno admonishes his father for letting the man go. From out of nowhere, Antonio slaps Bruno across the face and calls him a nuisance. In response, Bruno’s hurt reaction builds and washes over his face like the previously observed turn in the weather. After this, Antonio leaves Bruno on a bridge overlooking a canal and continues the search on his own. It’s at this point that the precarity of the young boy’s existence in the world is brought into focus, as people gather and yell that a boy has drowned. In a panic, Antonio finds Bruno waiting for him on the steps of the canal, and redirects his attention to his love and care for the boy – a dynamic brought back to the forefront as they indulge in a meal of melted cheese sandwiches and wine in a nearby café. Never is the contrast and convergence of feelings between the two more apparent than in the heartbreaking finale, when, out of desperation, Antonio tries to steal a bicycle and is caught and publicly shamed by a crowd of men. It’s in Bruno’s action of taking his father’s hand that the despair on Antonio’s tearful face becomes not so much a moment of melodrama as a moment of unbearable tragedy.
According to film scholar Peter Bondanella, De Sica’s approach to directing non-professional actors was anything but non-interventionist or haphazard (as the strictures of neorealism might imply). In fact, De Sica not only went to great lengths to shape his actors’ performances, but also engaged in meticulous planning of scenes for the camera. Moreover, the narrative was less documentary-like than it was “mythical in structure.”4 Still, in remembering the difficulties of finding the right child to play Antonino’s son, De Sica recalls that what struck him about Staiola, was his “adenoidal voice” and “clownlike and melancholic face.” In a similar vein, De Sica’s attention was caught by Maggiorani’s callused worker’s hands and the way he moved, both of which signified his class status, and each of which could never have been replicated.5
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Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 89 mins Italy 1948)
Prod. Co: Produzioni De Sica Prod: Guiseppe Amato, Vittorio De Sica Dir: Vittorio De Sica Scr: Oreste Biancoli, Suso D’Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi, Gerardo Guerrieri, Cesare Zavattini Phot: Carolo Montuori Ed: Eraldo Da Roma Mus: Alessandro Cicognini Prod. Des: Antonio Traverso Snd: Biagio Fiorelli
Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell
- Gino Moliterno, Historical Dictionary of Italian Cinema: Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts, No.28 (Lanham, Maryland, Toronto and Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 2008), pp. 107–8. ↩
- André Bazin, “Bicycle Thieves” in André Bazin and Italian Neorealism, Bert Cardullo ed. (New York and London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), pp. 64–5. ↩
- Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present (Berkley: University of California Press, 1984), pp. 131–2. ↩
- Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, New Expanded Edition (New York: Continuum, 1998), p. 59. ↩
- Vittorio De Sica, “My Secret,” in On Bicycle Thieves: The Criterion Collection DVD Booklet (New York: The Criterion Collection, 2013), p. 58. ↩