|The key to Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette)—and to a large extent neorealism in general—is in a single line of dialogue. The film’s protagonist, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), is at the police station because his bicycle, which he must have in order to work and support his family, has been stolen. The police investigator tells him that little can be done and he should assume the burden of finding the stolen bicycle himself. As Antonio protests, begging for assistance, another police officer who has noticed the exchange approaches the desk and asks, “Anything serious, Captain?,” to which the investigator replies, “Just a bicycle.”|
Just a bicycle. The words are said with such casual flippancy, yet they embody the philosophical heart of neorealism as a film movement and Bicycle Thieves as a deeply moving portrait of human struggle. It may be just a bicycle, but for Antonio it means his ability to work, which means he can provide for his family at a time when a significant portion of the country was unemployed following the devastation of World War II. The bicycle, in essence, is life for Antonio and his family, and the fact that the police officer and so many other characters in the film, most of whom are associated with official institutions (the church, charities, the welfare office), don’t recognize this is a fundamental component of the neorealist outlook.
For Cesare Zavattini, the Italian screenwriter who was neorealism’s philosophical founding father, the cinema should strive for an unvarnished realism, one that finds true drama and human value in the everyday—what might be otherwise be dismissed as “humdrum” or “tedious.” This was not so much an aesthetic impulse as it was a moral one. For Zavattini, it was the cinema’s moral responsibility to attend to reality and what was happening in the here and now.
Bicycle Thieves is a crucial neorealist film in this sense because it strikes so deep at the heart of what Zavattini envisioned for the cinema. The story is little more than Antonio and his young son Bruno’s (Enzo Staiola) search for the stolen bicycle, which takes them through various parts of Rome, exposing the day-to-day realities of the down-and-out in postwar Italy (these range from a church service for the homeless, to a restaurant in which a middle-class child with foppish hair turns his nose up at Bruno’s unsophisticated manners, to a house of prostitution). The film’s texture is largely unadorned with cinematic flourishes, yet it is uniquely vibrant. You can feel the dirt on the street, the chill in the air, and the roughness of Antonio’s increasingly rumpled suit. Even more tangible are the emotions, which are displayed with such naked intensity and poignancy that the film slips through the web of its fictionalized narrative and becomes akin to real life.
The irony, of course, is that neorealism as a film style is just that—a style—which means that it relies on forms of representation just as much as any Hollywood film. It just hides them better. The film’s emotional rawness is the result of De Sica’s genius in working with nonprofessional actors. The three main characters—Antonio, Bruno, and Antonio’s wife Maria (Lianella Carell)—were all played by nonprofessionals with no previous film experience. For example, when he was cast as Antonio, Lamberto Maggiorani was a factory worker, and Enzo Staiola, who plays Bruno, was literally cast off the street. Despite (or perhaps because of) his lack of acting experience, Staiola’s portrayal of Bruno is one of the most moving and least canned child performances in the history of the cinema. Constantly looking to his father for guidance, he transcends any simple notions that equate childhood and purity; his performance feels natural and lived in, and when De Sica gives us a close-up of his face as he watches his father make a terrible mistake in the film’s final reel, he turns it into one of the most heartbreaking sequences ever committed to film.
While Bicycle Thieves has been rightly praised for its realism, repeated viewings make you realize just how carefully constructed it is. While the black-and-white cinematography lacks the high-shine polish of Hollywood productions, it is still graceful and evocative, with De Sica utilizing subtle tracking shots and specific framing to evoke feeling and make thematic connections. Most noticeable is the film’s use of an orchestral score, that most artificial of film conventions, to help guide the viewer’s emotions.
While these stylistic and artificial flourishes help account for why Zavattini did not consider Bicycle Thieves to be truly neorealistic (like virtually every other well-known neorealist film, he felt that it was ultimately metaphorical in nature because it relied on an invented story), they in no way take away from the film’s emotional core. In fact, they are testament to its power, as De Sica is able to deploy cinematic means both conventional and unconventional to craft a film whose overall effect is one of transparency. There is little sense that you’re watching something fabricated, and the emotions that Bicycle Thieves engenders feel natural and right, never forced or contrived. It has passages of beauty and heartbreak that suggest a genuine humanism that is all too often lacking from movies whose primary goals are to thrill, excite, or otherwise distract from life itself.
Copyright ©2007, 2016 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (4)
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