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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948): Trendsetting Social Commentary


Directed by: Vittorio De Sica || Produced by: Ercole Graziadei, Sergio Bernardi, Count Cicogna

Screenplay by: Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Gerardo Guerrieri, Adolfo Franci, Luigi Bartolini || Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Vittorio Antonucci, Michele Sakara

Music by: Alessandro Cicognini || Cinematography: Carlo Montuori || Edited by: Eraldo Da Roma || Country: Italy || Language: Italian

Running Time: 93 minutes

After the crippling blow to Italy’s economy, national pride, and societal infrastructure by the rise and fall of Fascism and the Second World War, the Mediterranean country was left scrambling to recover itself after the devastating conflict left much of the planet a ravaged war zone. Italy in particular was hit hard economically, and many of its citizens were left in dire poverty as the nation’s social infrastructure buckled. During this time in the late 1940s, Italian filmmakers became increasingly aware of the plights of the working poor, and turned their creative attention to the lives of those left scrambling to pick up the pieces from a broken, war-torn Italy.

The most famous European cinematic trend during this post-war period, which laid the groundwork for Marxist-inspired 3rd Cinema movements from Africa to Latin America, and paved the way for the highly influential French New Wave of the 1950s-1960s, was Italian Neorealism. Italian Neorealism (INR), of which there is no more famous example than writer-director Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (or The Bicycle Thief), was the antithesis of the then current studio productions of Hollywood. Neorealism would become famous for its use of outdoor sets, location-shooting, natural lighting, non-professional actors, and a narrative emphasis on the working poor. The movement that The Bicycle Thief epitomized was about the average, run-down little man and his fight for survival in an uncaring, often ambivalent world where bad things happened to good people for no apparent reason at all.

The premise for Bicycle Thieves concerns a father (Lamberto Maggiorani) of a poor family whose bike is stolen and is unable to work his job, so he searches for it with his son (Enzo Staolia) on the streets of Rome. Their quest is like searching for a needle in a haystack — in a city of millions, where thousands of bicycles ride the streets or are parked along sidewalks, many of which are frequently stolen, broken down, and sold for spare parts.

Left: Maggoriani (left) and his character’s son (Enzo Staiola, right) prepare to go out for a day of work in the happier, earlier sections of the film. Right: Maggiorani glues a poster of Hollywood starlet Rita Hayworth on a wall in an ironic juxtaposition.

One illuminating sequence occurs when the father and son cross a busy road. The father is distracted by anxiety due to their situation, and crosses the street absentminded of the speeding traffic or his son behind him, who nearly gets run over twice. Had this been a Hollywood movie, the father would have noticed his son’s two near-death experiences and scolded him, with the scene intended to teach some sort of moralistic message to the audience. The two characters simply move on, with the young Enzo hurrying to catch up to his distraught father. This is the “realism” part of Italian Neorealism. Many, if not most things in movies like Bicycle Thieves, are present simply to illustrate the daily grind of life. Bad things happen all the time, and often there is no time for recognition or schmaltzy preaching regarding such things. Most of the time, things just “happen.”

This is Bicycle Thieves and the Italian neorealist movement in a nutshell. Its pseudo full-circle ending, where Maggiorani tries and fails to steel a bicycle out of desperation, further highlights the cruel irony and pessimism of the cycle of poverty of these characters’ lives; on the other hand, the primary message of the movie is that there aren’t any easy answers for the downtrodden. The fact that De Sica doesn’t beat around the bush with making his point is refreshing for a European auteur of that time, as well as compared to the French New Wave filmmakers that would follow.

There are traces of disdain for the gross inequity of wealth in Italy at the time, and indeed in most places all the time, but the film stops far short of the exhausting cynicism later Marxist pictures of the 3rd Cinema movement would hammer into the ground. It’s a humble, depressing drama that never becomes exploitative in its of images of poverty, nor does it ignore the harsh realities its characters face. 


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Vittorio De Sica’s groundbreaking location-photography and realistic cinematographic style influenced filmmakers from Ousmane Sembene to Satyajit Ray to countless others for a reason. He uses his socially conscious camerawork and a powerful story to paint a picture of a forgotten people just trying to survive. Bicycle Thieves’ reliable non-professional cast works well with the material and with each other.


? Screw this, let’s a get a pizza!

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


7 thoughts on “‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948): Trendsetting Social Commentary

  1. Thanks. So full of humanity, charm and pathos. Regards Thom.

    Posted by Thom Hickey | August 16, 2014, 1:20 am


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