{Bicycle Thieves} by Vittorio De Sica

Synopsis

In economically depressed post-war Italy, an out-of-work man, Antonio, is offered a job requiring a bicycle. Not having one, his wife Maria pawns some household items in order to acquire the needed transportation. On Antonio’s first day of the job, his bike is stolen, and the culprit escapes after a brief chase. Antonio and his son, Bruno, begin searching the streets and fruitlessly question a suspicious elderly man. The two eventually find the thief but are unable to prove their case due to a lack of evidence or witnesses. Dejected, Antonio tells his son to get on a bus as he eyes an unattended bicycle nearby. Bruno misses the bus and turns to see his father trying to steal the bike and being chased by a group of people. Antonio is caught and chastised by the pursuers, although the owner decides not to press charges. Father and son begin walking down the street, and Antonio starts to cry as the two disappear into a crowd.

Analysis

Vittorio De Sica’s film, “The Bicycle Thief” follows a young man named  Antonio who lives in post-World War II Italy. The film begins with a crowd of men all eagerly seeking work so that they may feed their families. Already the film displays the terrible economic conditions that Italy is in at this point in history. Antonio is lucky enough to get a job, but with a catch: he must have a bike. However, during his very first day of work, his bike is stolen, and the film follows Antonio and his son on their search for the bike. While this film has many different many different stylistic techniques within it to portray various ideas and themes, I will focus on only two: the mise-en-scene and the cinematography. Throughout the duration of this film, the mise-en-scene and cinematography work together perfectly to convey the relationship between Bruno and his son , the conditions of post war Italian economy, and the inevitability of Antonio’s chase for his bicycle.

De Sica arranges every shot in such a way to where although the viewer may be consciously following Antonio, the working conditions of Italy are not forgotten. Usually this is done through the massive amounts of people arranged in each shot. However, it is not just the mass amounts of people, but where they are within the context of the story, and within in each frame. For example, in the early stages of the film, Antonio’s wife sells their sheets so that they can repair Antonio’s bike. As she goes up to the counter and speaks to the clerk, rather than having her back to the camera and viewing the clerk, or viewing them at a side angle, we see Antonio’s wife, as well as the line behind her, and see constant movement in the people so that the viewer does not forget about the crowd.

Another fantastic example of reminding the viewer of Italy’s condition is in the scene where Antonio confronts the old man (who is an accomplice to the bike thief) during the church service. In a particular shot, the camera centers on a man sitting next to the accomplice to the thief, and then pans over to him and Antonio. While on the surface this may not seem like much, this actually conveys a lot. We see an elderly man earnestly reading along the church service program. Through mise-en-scene, we can see the way he is dressed and the way his face looks worn, implying he has a dismal financial situation. Through his earnest expression we can see that he is in need of some spiritual guidance and peace. Also, we can still see a large number of people attending the service behind him. The cinematography is involved because it focuses on this man before the main characters. Through this shot we remember that in the middle of this service, every single person has their own story during this crisis in their country. While Antonio has fallen upon hard times, so has every single person in that room.

The technical elements of mise-en-scene and cinematography also work together to display the inevitability of Antonio’s search for his bike. This also plays off of the placement of large crowds of people within the frame. In the scene where Antonio and his son look at the second bike market and it begins to rain, we see Antonio and his son in the mid-ground of the frame. In the foreground and background, all around him we see carts and carts of various bicycle parts, and hundreds of other people running around. Antonio and his son are placed in the middle of the frame, almost seeming lost in the crowd, much like them losing the bike thief to the crowd. Their placement in the frame hints at how many people there are and how impossible it would be to look for the bike.

When Antonio and his son chase after the bike thief’s accomplice in the church, we can notice that they lose him in a camera angle with a lot of depth to it, and a room full of people. In the next consecutive shots, we see Antonio and his son in shots that are very flat, and are nearly absent of people, yet Antonio is still looking for the man. As viewers, in the shots we can see that the accomplice is already gone, yet Antonio does not give up, even through the inevitable circumstances.

The final theme I will discuss is the changing relationship between Antonio and his son. During the beginning of the film, the shots are usually not close-ups on the characters. We are not necessarily emotionally connected with Antonio yet, we are more of observers as we watch his tragic circumstances unfold before him. However, when he and his son get into a fight, the camera involves the viewer much more in the story of each individual character, and the physical distance between them. Immediately after Antonio has a fight with his son and slaps him, the shots of each character are very close up, and we see much more emotion between the characters. Then in the shots that follow, they are placed very far apart from each other. Thus, the camera moves close on each character individually to empathize with their emotions, and then when it focuses on both of them, it presents a very physical distance between to display their emotional divide as well.

Through the use of mise-en-scene and cinematography, “The Bicycle Thief” focuses very heavily on the relationship between his son, the inevitability of Antonio’s search for his bike, and the horrible conditions of Italy at this point in history. Even through simple distances between characters in shots, and through the distance between a character and a camera, various themes can be display throughout this film.

a) Ideologically, the characteristics of Italian neorealism were:

  • a new democratic spirit, with emphasis on the value of ordinary people
  • a compassionate point of view and a refusal to make facile (easy) moral judgement
  • a preoccupation with Italy’s Fascist past and its aftermath of wartime devastation
  • a blending of Christian and Marxist humanism
  • an emphasis on emotions rather than abstract ideas

Stylistically, Italian Neorealism was:

  • an avoidance of neatly plotted stories in favor of loose, episodic structures that evolve organically
  • a documentary visual style
  • the use of actual locations – usually exteriors – rather than studio sites
  • the use of nonprofessional actors, even for principal roles
  • use of conversational speech, not literary dialogue
  • avoidance of artifice in editing, camerawork, and lighting in favor of a simple ‘style-less’ style

b)  YES. Major feature of Neorealism is the use of nonprofessionals, even in leading roles.  For the adult ‘star’ of Bicycle Thieves, De Sica chose a factory worker – Lamberto Maggiorani: “The way he moved, the way he sat down, his gestures with those hands of a working man and not of an actor … everything about him was perfect”. Hollywood funding had been available for the film if De Sica had agreed to cast Cary Grant in the lead – thankfully, he refused. This distinction between Hollywood ‘stars’ and the ‘real people’ used in neorealist films is shown to great effect when Ricci is told to avoid putting creases in a poster of Rita Hayworth – real people, unlike Hollywood stars, have wrinkles. In keeping with the use of ‘real people’, everyday conversational speech, rather than literary dialogue, was used. Children also feature prominently in Neorealist films, perhaps due to the innocent, untainted objectivity they bring to what they see – an objectivity which the Neorealist filmmakers wished to themselves achieve.

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Perhaps even more influential was the Neorealist sense of narrative form.  Reacting against Hollywood and white-telephone conventions, Neorealist films tend to focus on character and the plot seems to evolve organically rather than being strictly dictated – the story comes from the characters and their situation rather than character being determined and limited by a particular story line. Shots are no longer treated, as in Hollywood (continuity) editing, as units of information – their job being to convey the essential information as quickly and clearly as possible and cut to the next unit.  Rather, Neorealist films provide true continuity, and will even will allow events which have no causal import to intrude – these events are casual as opposed to causal (consider Ricci’s son stopping to pee in Bicycle Thieves).  Neorealist films also differ from their Hollywood counterparts in terms of their lack of a happy ending or a resolution of any kind – a form of what might be called epistemic ambiguity – evident in the final scene from Bicycle Thieves (have a box of tissues at the ready).

This ambiguity (moral as well as epistemic – was Ricci wrong to steal the bike?  Was the initial thief?) seems to admit that the totality of reality is just never fully knowable. If Realist films offer us a window on a small portion of the world (slice-of-life) then we cannot ever hope for the omniscience that Hollywood offers us over their creation.  In Neorealist film, as in life, sometimes there are no answers.

In conclusion, Italian Neorealism provides us with the paradigm example of Realist film making.  Its main focus is on the everyday struggles of poor, working class people in difficult sociology-political conditions.  Stylistically, it employs a well developed mise-en-scene to achieve objective reality, as opposed to the Formalist techniques of montage which emphasize how cinema can manipulate reality.  In terms of narrative, Neorealism differs from Hollywood film making – focusing on character, and allowing plot to develop organically. There is often an ambiguity with reference to the outcome of events and no judgments are made as to the morality, or otherwise, of characters and their actions.   All of this allows space to the viewer to interpret the scene or film for themselves and come to their own conclusions.  Despite being short-lived, Italian Neorealism has had an enormous impact on the development of film which continues to this day.

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