An emotional watershed that forever changed cinema
Within the relatively short and prestigious list of classic films in history there are few that changed the course of cinema, and this week’s Italian masterpiece “Bicycle Thieves” ("Ladri di biciclette” also known as “The Bicycle Thief”) is one of those rare beacons. Not all classics have aged well, but this jewel remains just as enthralling and profound as the day it was first released. Its unflinchingly realistic look at a down-and-out man and his son took the world by storm and still holds the power to elicit deep emotion from even the most jaded moviegoer.
“Bicycle Thieves” won many major awards around the world including a Special Academy Award as that year’s best foreign language film before that category even existed (the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category, now called Best International Film, became an official category in 1956). Continually regarded as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made, in 2021 BBC Culture named it the 2nd Greatest Foreign-Language Film of All-Time, in 2012 Sight and Sound placed it at #10 and #33 respectively in their directors and critics polls, and French magazine Cahiers du cinéma called it the 99th Top Film ever in their 2008 poll. This remains truly one fabulous film!
What drives “Bicycle Thieves” is not its plot but its realism and emotion, and at a time when narrative drove movies, this was highly unusual. The film takes place over the course of a couple days in the life of “Antonio”, an unemployed, poverty-stricken husband and father who gets a job pasting posters around Rome. The job requires a bicycle, which he had previously pawned so his family could eat. His family once again sacrifices so he can get his bike back, and as he starts working, someone steals his bicycle. Panicked and distraught that he’ll lose his much-needed job, the bulk of the film follows him and his very young son “Bruno” as they search the unsavory parts of Rome for his bike. Through innocent eyes, “Bruno” watches most of his father’s harrowing and humiliating plight, and the film’s bare storyline becomes less about finding a bike and more about a father and son’s relationship which turns into an existential look at family, society, desperation, oppression, loneliness, and love. It is quite extraordinary.
“Bicycle Thieves” was the crest in a wave of realism washing over Italian films at the time, that became what is referred to as Italian neorealism. And while immensely entertaining, to fully appreciate this magnificent film and its impact it is important to recognize its place in history. Fascist Benito Mussolini had been Italy's Prime Minister since 1922, and under his rule the government funded the film industry, built Cinecittà Studios (the largest and most technically advanced film studio in Europe), and censored films. The most popular films in Italy during the 1930s were lavish Telefoni bianchi light comedies (“white-telephone” films), which promoted the government’s conservative values, and by the late 1930s, Cinecittà was also producing a large percentage of Fascist propaganda films. After Mussolini's fall in 1943 came the German occupation of Italy, and during World War II many of the country’s movie studios (including Cinecittà) were bombed.
Post-WWII liberation brought Italy immediate social and cultural change, and the “Italian Spring” began in 1945, which included a national shift in its film industry. There was a turn away from propaganda, Telefoni Bianchi movies, and artificial Hollywood-type studio films, and a push towards producing films that reflected current social and political issues – including the devastation, desperation, and moral ambiguities felt in Italy in the aftermath of of the war. A group of film directors and screenwriters strove to depict the present-day state of things by eliminating as much fabrication and contrived reality from their films as possible. They worked to show real people in real places in realistic circumstances, making compelling commentary about the harshness (and in an odd way, beauty) of life. These collective works became Italian Neorealism. Neorealism was not without its critics, particularly in Italy, where some were against showcasing the country’s “dirty laundry”.
Largely due to lack of funds and bombed-out studios, filmmakers began filming on the streets of Italy, telling no holds barred stories about the working class, poor, injustice, and/or oppressed. The first Italian neorealist film to make international waves was Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 award-winning "Rome, Open City". Its stark, gut-wrenching realism was a cinematic revelation around the globe. Neorealism at its truest form lasted only about a half dozen years, producing arguably less than two dozen films (there are still disputes over whether some films are considered neorealist or not).
This humanist approach to subjects depicted with a documentary-esque feel crystalized a new type of bold realism which influenced cinema all over the globe, birthing such important movements as the French New Wave, India's Parallel Cinema, and the Polish Film School. Neorealism's frankness even found its way to Hollywood, as seen in film noir and the more realistic and hard-hitting Hollywood films that began surfacing in the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to Rossellini, other Italian directors who helped form the neorealist genre include Luchino Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis, Alberto Lattuada, and the director of “Bicycle Thieves”, Vittorio De Sica, De Sica was a driving force in neorealism and “Bicycle Thieves” is invariably named the genre's pinnacle.
In opposition to the studio style of filmmaking, these filmmakers largely rejected the star system, often using non-actors to help audiences feel they were watching everyday people (no professional actors appeared in “Bicycle Thieves”), and seeing ordinary faces on the big screen was another cutting-edge aspect of neorealism. Emphasizing the disconnect between studio-type films and reality, in “Bicycle Thieves”, De Sica has “Antonio” paste posters of Hollywood glamour icon and movie star Rita Hayworth in a poster for the 1946 film “Gilda” (a film already on this blog) on rundown city walls. The poster also points to how studio movies were a distraction at the time, and its wrinkles and ripped corners imply that even a Hollywood goddess can't remain unmarred by this oppressive world.
As mentioned earlier, location shooting was another cornerstone of neorealism, and “Bicycle Thieves” was filmed entirely on location, using only one truck, one taxi, and one chair for De Sica. Rather than focus on famous landmarks, De Sica filmed on Rome’s more nondescript streets, accentuating the feeling that this was the real world. The city is essential to this film, and the people, vehicles, and hustle-bustle often going on in the background give it a very human and alive flavor, placing the film in a specific time and place in history. Scenes such as those at the pawn shop or the church were shot at an actual pawn shop and church, and the homeless people waiting for food at the church were actually poverty stricken and homeless, wearing their own clothes, waiting for food and a shave, annoyed about having to endure filming multiple takes, impatiently wanting only to eat.
This film came about because, wanting to make it into a film, screenwriter Cesare Zavattini presented De Sica with the 1946 novel by Luigi Bartolini titled “Bicycle Thieves”. Zavattini and De Sica had worked together on several previous films, including 1946’s “Shoeshine”, which was awarded an honorary Academy Award, becoming the very first foreign language film to receive an Oscar. The two co-wrote the screenplay for "Bicycle Thieves" using only the book’s title and not its story. Other writers who contributed to the screenplay include Oreste Biancoli, Suso D’Amico, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi, and Gerardo Guerrieri, though the bulk of the film was written by De Sica and Zavattini. They traveled around Rome looking for characters and story ideas on which to base their script. Zavattini alone earned a Best Screenplay Academy Award nomination for the film. This was his second Oscar nomination, his first was for “Shoeshine” .
Italian-born Cesare Zavattini was an important screenwriter and one of the first advocates for a neorealist approach to film, and his work is central to the movement. In 1944, he teamed with De Sica for the brilliant neorealist precursor, "The Children Are Watching Us", which was followed by neorealism award-winners "Shoeshine" and "Bicycle Thieves", and the additional neorealist classics “Miracle in Milan” in 1951 and 1952's “Umberto D.”, which earned Zavattini a third and final Oscar nomination. In one of cinema’s most impressive and successful writer/director pairings, Zavattini and De Sica collaborated on approximately twenty films, which include the subsequent classics "Two Women", "The Gold of Naples”, “Sunflower”, "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, "Indiscretion of an American Wife", and "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis". In a career lasting over fifty years, Zavattini worked with many top directors and contributed to or wrote over 80 screenplays, others of which include "It's Forever Springtime", "Before the Postman", "A Place for Lovers", "Blood Feud”, "Love in the City”, and the 1978 Mexican-American film "The Children of Sanchez". He also wrote, directed, and starred in his last work, the 1983 Italian TV movie "The Truuuuth”. Cesare Zavattini died in 1989 at the age of 87.
What director Vittorio De Sica does so expertly in “Bicycle Thieves” is to turn the mundane into something exquisitely dramatic. Simple shots of men riding bicycles while holding ladders, or a crowd in line to board a bus become arresting displays of life, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. Even though this film looks like a low-budget slice of life, it was very much a crafted film with a budget, script, crew, extras, and actors (trained or not). Multiple cameras were used in some scenes, and although De Sica filmed almost all of “Bicycle Thieves” on Rome's streets as he found them, one exception was the scene in the rain, which had the fire department providing rain via hoses. Even so, because of De Sica’s gift at filmmaking, nothing ever seems forced but always as if he is capturing life as it is happening.
An actor with a 55 year-long career, Vittorio De Sica began acting in 1917, and by the 1930s was a matinee idol in Italian films. Alongside acting, he began directing in 1940, and would often act in films to get money to use to direct his own films. In addition to his honorary Oscars for "Bicycle Thieves" and "Shoeshine", later films he directed, "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" and "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" each won Best Foreign Language Film Academy Awards, and he also earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for the 1957 Hollywood film "A Farewell to Arms”. Besides his partnership with Zavattini, De Sica is also famous for his work with actress Sophia Loren (they made nine films together), and for making her a star. You can read more about the life and career of Vittorio De Sica in my post on his Oscar-winning “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”. Just click on that film’s title to read more.
De Sica had a fantastic instinct with people and actors, and the fact he could extract such authentic, heartfelt, and moving performances from untrained actors, let alone children, again points to his immense talents. He would create a mood on the set to get his actors into a desired emotional state for every scene, would act out every part for every actor in his films, and then the actors would imitate him.
De Sica wanted ordinary faces for “Bicycle Thieves” and chose Lamberto Maggiorani to star as "Antonio Ricci”, the man looking for his stolen bicycle. The Italian-born Maggiorani was a previously unemployed factory worker with zero acting experience who brought his son to audition for the film. But as soon as De Sica saw Maggiorani's melancholic look, specific walk, and callused hands, he immediately screen-tested and cast him as “Antonio”. And Maggiorani is outstanding. With a genuine sensitivity and humility, he makes it clear that “Antonio” truly loves his family, that a lost bicycle can be a life threatening circumstance, and that desperation can lead even the kindest and simplest of people astray. "Bicycle Thieves" made Maggiorani an international film icon.
Maggiorani was paid 600,000 lire ($1000) for the part (a lot of money at the time), which he used to buy furniture and take his family on a vacation. He took a leave of absence from his factory job to shoot the film and when filming was completed, returned to the factory to find he was let go because his bosses thought he was now rich from making the film (which he wasn’t) and that others were more in need. Struggling to find work, he occasionally landed odd jobs (such as bricklaying) and tried to land more acting parts in movies. But the film industry pretty much shunned him, and he was only able to get extra and bit parts. In 1952, Zavattini wrote a treatment based on Maggiorani’s predicament titled "Tu, Maggiorani", but it was never made into a film. Maggiorani appeared in a total of seventeen films, including very small roles in De Sica's "Umberto D." and "The Last Judgement", as well as Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Mamma Roma”. He struggled financially for the rest of his life. His final appearance was in "Ostia" in 1970. Lamberto Maggiorani died in 1983 at the age of 73.
De Sica had an amazing flair for working with children, as evidenced in “Shoeshine”, “The Children Are Watching Us”, and by Enzo Staiola’s incredibly moving performance in "Bicycle Thieves" as "Antonio's" son, “Bruno Ricci”. “Bruno” seems half adult and half child from the first time we meet him while he inspects his father bike and gets ready to go to his own job at a gas station. "Bruno" goes through many emotions during the course of the film, from being excited and proud of his father to being devastated, yet always with a purity and hopeful spirit. The maturity of the character and all that he witnesses makes a statement that children had to grow up fast in such bitter times.
Italian-born Enzo Staiola happened to be watching De Sica audition other boys, when De Sica turned and saw his round face and expressive eyes. He immediately asked Staiola if he wanted to be in the film to which he replied "yes". Staiola auditioned with one other boy and got the part (the other boy got a bicycle, which the nine year old Staiola wanted even more than the role). On the strength of his work in this film, Staiola continued working in films until he reached the awkward age where he could no longer play a child and was not yet able to play an adult. He quit acting and later became a math teacher. Staiola has appeared in a total of fifteen films to date, including "A Tale of Five Women”, and as a busboy in the 1954 Hollywood film "The Barefoot Contessa". In 1977, he appeared in the Italian film "The Pyjama Girl Case" starring Ray Milland, which is Staiola's final film to date. As of this writing, Enzo Staiola is 82 years old.
Lianella Carell plays “Maria Ricci”, wife of “Antonio” and mother of "Bruno". Carell is also very believable in her part, and from the moment we see her filling pails of water by the pump and carrying them through the dirt and up the stairs to their barren apartment, she greatly assists in making “Bicycle Thieves” seem like we’re watching real life. Like her costars, this was her film debut. She was a journalist who showed up to interview De Sica when he happened to be auditioning women for the part of “Maria”, and as soon as he saw her he wanted her for the role. Though she had no initial intention or desire to act, she accepted the role.
On the shoulders of this film, Italian-born Lianella Carell was able to continue a career in film, starring or playing supporting roles in 18 films over a solid decade, including "The Gold of Naples" ("L'oro di Napoli"), "A Woman Has Killed" ("Una donna ha ucciso"), and her final "Gli zitelloni" in 1958, at which point she turned to screenwriting. Carell wrote scripts for total of ten TV shows and films starting in 1958, and ending with an episode of the TV show "¡Hola Raffaella!" in 1993. Her screenplays include "Love and Troubles" and "Me, Me, Me... and the Others". Lianella Carell died in 2000 at the age of 73.
Sixteen year old soon-to-be Italian film director Sergio Leone worked as an uncredited assistant on “Bicycle Thieves" and also appears in the film as a German-speaking priest taking shelter from the rain. He would later be credited for creating the Spaghetti Western film genre (Westerns made in Europe during the 1960s), and in particular for his work with Clint Eastwood in "A Fistful of Dollars", "For a Few Dollars More", and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", as well as films such as "Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Duck, You Sucker!”. Sergio Leone died in 1989 at the age of 60.
In the big scheme of cinema, Italian neorealism at its purest lasted little more than the blink of an eye. As Italy began experiencing an economic boom, audiences wanted to get lost in more joyful and escapist storylines and the genre was gone by 1953. Neorealist screenwriter turned director Federico Fellini was one of the directors who bridged the gap, helping take Italian cinema from neorealism to a more magical place. You can read a bit more about that in my post on one of Fellini’s early classics, “La Strada”. Be sure to check it out.
As short-lived as Italian neorealism may have been, it forever changed the face of cinema, infusing a stunning dose of realism into movies that continues today. Simple yet complex, movies don’t get much better than this week’s timeless classic. Enjoy a true masterpiece, “Bicycle Thieves”!
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