Hailed around the world as one of the greatest movies ever made, Vittorio De Sica’s Academy Award-winning Bicycle Thieves defined an era in cinema. In postwar, poverty-stricken Rome, a man hoping to support his desperate family with a new job loses his bicycle, his main means of transportation for work. With his wide-eyed young son in tow, he sets off to track down the thief. Simple in construction and dazzlingly rich in human insight, Bicycle Thieves embodied all the greatest strengths of the Italian neorealist movement: emotional clarity, social righteousness, and brutal honesty.
Bicycle Thieves should be required viewing by any modern film-maker. Without money, without hype you can still make something genuine and powerful, in fact, more so. When you think about the story, there is no escaping the misery. Antonio finally has a job, but his bicycle is essential and it’s in the pawn shop. His wife, Maria, pawns her linen, which was part of her dowry, to get the bike back. And then on Antonio’s first day, it gets nicked! The following day, he and his son Bruno traipse around the city trying to track it down, while a sense builds that this is part of a cycle (no pun intended) and the people who stole it are not malicious, but suffer the same daily problems. How long can a good man survive? And that is it so far as a plot is concerned.
Barrel of laughs that one, eh? But there is a point to Italian Neo-Realism, which is easiest thought of as the opposite of German Expressionism, which uses visual storytelling to wring potential out of every scene, usually via a set or even a scale model of a set, so every angle can be controlled. Mise en Scene becomes essential as everything is carefully tailored to express the meaning behind the story. Neo-Realism never uses manipulation like that. Locations are real and everything is stripped back to bare essentials, to reveal a social conscience with absolute honesty. Casts are often made up of normal people and dialogue is succinct and real. Small moments normally dismissed as superfluous become huge, while a sense of mood and the tiniest gestures take on paramount importance.
In this story, while chasing that bike, you see what’s really important for Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani). You might hardly notice on a first viewing the way his relationship with his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) is drip-fed in with the most delicate touches and it is the same for the character who in a sense is losing focus of what’s important. Not to downplay the importance of that bicycle, it really is essential, but the longer he spends running around after it, the more likely things will get worse. So a story that on paper is sorrowful becomes magical. The key to this is in no small part to the natural charisma of Staiola as Bruno and his expressions in the pivotal cafe scene are wonderful. If you want an emotional connection to characters, there are none better than Bicycle Thieves and you will be rewarded with a sublime ending.
It’s a technique I’d love to see used more full-blooded these days too. I suppose it’s a technique that offers nowhere to hide so if the film is rubbish, you can’t rescue it in editing. It will always be crap! Bicycle Thieves is one of the reasons I get frustrated by “greatest films” lists. I love Citizen Kane, but this film, which came eight years later or so, is just as important for an entirely different approach. How can one be “better” than the other? Hitchcock, steeped in German Expressionism, nevertheless would be quicker to thank the Italians for elements of I Confess or especially The Wrong Man.