It has often been said that the media including film has never really be able to capture reality as it is because the reality being represented is usually tainted by the film makers need for subjective interpretation. Bicycle Thieves is deemed a ‘realist’ film purely on the basis of an aesthetic approach that favoured a documentary look, a rejection of artifice, and a belief that the ideological value of the film had the radical potential to ferment revolution and externalise the marginalised sentiments of the working class people. The film is ‘real’ because the crisis faced by the central protagonist, that of unemployment and poverty, were social problems that had traumatised the Italian working class in the post war maelstrom of self destruction. European society had imploded, and nations like Italy had not only been ostracised from the world community for their collusion with the rise of fascist sentiments, they were trying in vain to desperately find an articulate and honest means of expression that would allow them to reconstruct and reinvent the tarnished image of a deeply divided and unequal nation.
The greatest asset film makers like Rossellini and De Sica had at their disposable was the genuine lack of resources available to them – the destruction of CineCitta, the major hub of Italian film making at the time made way for reinvention and improvisation. The dire economic situation of the post war era in Italy was not only indicative of the widespread collapse of economic power, it also inadvertently laid the groundwork for a new approach to cinema, one that would dispense with the orthodoxy, traditions and the conservative rhetoric of an Italian cinema which had ensured the alienation of the working class from mainstream film making.
The political gap left by the fall of the fascists seemed for a short lived moment to furnish the left wing communist parties with the initiative to seize cinema and utilise it’s ideological potential for political education. Key figures and theoreticians who wrote extensively about neo realism as political movement were inspired by the writings of Antonio Gramsci who had been the leader of the Italian Communist party in the 1950s. Imprisoned by Mussolini, Gramsci’s notebooks were smuggled out of prison, detailing his political thoughts on how and why working class revolution had failed took hold as a widespread ideal, thus being unable to prevent fascism from taking hold of Europe. Gramsci came to the influential conclusion that the ruling elite not only used military force as a means of coercing the masses and maintaining their hold on power but also used ideological means of propagation to circulate ideals and values that were grotesquely representative of the elite.
The political theory of hegemony influenced Zavatinni who strongly advocated that cinema should be used as a tool for addressing the inequalities that existed within society, thus encouraging film maker’s to shift the focus away from the narratives of middle class lives to those of the forgotten working class people especially those who inhabited the rural lands of
The Andreotti Law demanded that all film maker’s who sought financing were asked to submit their scripts in order to seek approval from the government – such institutional impositions reflected an attempt at censorship and helped shape the demise of the movement. The influx of American films seemed also to have an effect on the neo realist film maker’s and contributed to undermining the potential of a culturally significant indigenous film movement from radically transforming an industry that had always sought to imitate the genres and trends of Hollywood. De Sica collaborated with Zavanitti, an Italian Marxist and left wing political radical, on the screenplay for Bicycle Thieves. Zavattini’s contribution to the film is strikingly evident throughout a story that see’s a despondent and impoverished Antonio come up against a society that is morally bankrupt.
The poetic beauty of Bicycle Thieves remains with a linear and very simple story – the theft of a bicycle and the consequences it has for an ordinary man trying to survive and maintain some sense of moral dignity. The comedy of the film originates from the burlesque humour produced by the pairing of father and son which reverses traditional roles and underlines De Sica’s fondness with using children as a sentimental technique to manipulate the emotions of the audience.
Many characteristics would come to define the neo realist movement including stylistic techniques like natural lighting, location shooting, improvisation, episodic plot less narratives, non closure, and ideological ones – emphasis on the working class and humanism. The film opens with Antonio Ricci, a symbol of the working class, alone and despondent on wasteland, framed by a devastated landscape. Antonio is not even present at the call for work as he feels finding work is a futile exercise, and such was the case in Italy at the time – unemployment seemed to largely affect the working class who De Sica chooses to depict as a mass, and the motif of the crowd as a metaphor for the collective unity of the working class is repeated throughout the film.
Another key scene that is overlooked in the film takes place when Antonio takes Maria to see the local fortune teller who predicted that Antonio would find work. This moment seeks to illustrate the ideological differences that exist between Maria and Antonio. Maria places her trust and faith in the powers of destiny, fate and superstition whilst Antonio ridicules the fortune teller for exploiting the fears of working class people who have nothing left to hope for. Antonio’s rejection of religion, superstition and society was indicative of a deeply leftist ideological position that was a manifestation of Zavattini’s Marxist preoccupations.
The restaurant scene is not only crucial in terms of strengthening the affectionate bond between father and son that forms the social humanism of the film, but it also brings to light how the ruling elite appeared unaffected by the crippling poverty faced by Antonio and Bruno. It is at this point in the film that we also discover the abject humiliation and shame felt by Antonio towards poverty, and he even makes Bruno share his sentiments when he emphasises the relative cost of buying a meal in an expensive restaurant.
The final sequence in which Antonio is forced to steal a bicycle and then caught, berated in front of a crowd of people and eventually set free with the aid of his son, Bruno, illustrates a number of crucial ideological points. Antonio learns why somebody would steal his bicycle as he is forced into the position of a thief – finally his poverty consumes him and is reduced to tears.
Bruno’s intervention suggests how humanism becomes a form of redemption, and this is appropriately symbolised in the sentimental gesture of Bruno taking his father’s hand, reinforcing how their relationship is so much important and valuable to society and to them than a bicycle which can only provide a temporary answer to this poverty.
Without Bicycle Thieves, Godard would not have been able to further his own political ideals regarding an oppositional/counter cinema in the 1970s, and without the Italian neo realists contribution to world cinema, the French Nouvelle Vague could never have adopted many of the principles pioneered by De Sica and Rossellini. Most importantly, the neo realist film makers provided cinema with the much needed inspiration that traditions could be challenged and that alternative perspectives had the potential to make the spectator take up a position of political empowerment.
Bicycle Thieves is De Sica’s masterpiece and one of the great works of cinema, and stands alongside Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’ and Loach’s ‘Kes’ as cornerstones of the neo realist tradition.