Issue 11: Analysis—Bicycle Thieves (1948)

As part of our short series on Italian neorealism, this issue’s analysis focuses on maybe the most well-known and best-loved example, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette). This simple story of one man’s search for his stolen mode of transport has been fixating film lovers and inspiring filmmakers for nearly seventy years…

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Writers: Oreste Biancoli, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi and Cesare Zavattini (phew…)

Based on: The novel of the same name by Luigi Bartolini

Bicylcle Thieves3Synopsis: *Spoilers*  Postwar Rome, Italy. Struggling to support his family in the depressed post-WWII economy, impoverished Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) manages to secure the job he’s so desperate for, as a bill poster. The only requirement is that he must have a bicycle.

With his bike in the pawn shop, Ricci’s wife, Maria (Lianella Carell) takes the sheets off their bed and pawns them so her husband has the money to get his bike back and start work.

Bicylcle Thieves2However, on his first day at work, Ricci’s bike is stolen.

Collecting his eldest son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), Ricci goes in search of his precious mode of transport so he can keep his job.

The long search finally leads him to the culprit, but he is unable to prove the man’s guilt.

Desperate, Ricci finally steals another man’s bicycle but is caught and ridiculed by a mob. The man who’s bike he stole declines to press charges.

Ricci walks away without a bicycle, knowing he will lose his job.

Analysis: *Spoilers* As film plots go, it doesn’t get much simpler than Bicycle Thieves (or The Bicycle Thief, as it’s known in the US):

Man loses bike; man tries to get bike back; man fails to get bike back.

(It’s also a good example of the central story arc.)

However, this simple plot belies a touching story of a man desperate to stay alive in very difficult circumstances. Ricci needs his bike to keep his job so he can feed his family. So the thieves take more than just a mode of transport; they take his livelihood.

Its a powerful message and one that’s underlined throughout the film as Ricci’s increasingly desperate search brings him into contact with more ignored and beaten down people struggling to get by in the midst of an economic depression.

The contrast between their lives and those of the more affluent is evident most clearly in a restaurant scene in which Bruno looks longingly at a posh family’s meal.

What elevates the film to greater heights is the use of real locations and non-professional actors, as is the trademark of neorealist films. Maggiorani, in particular, comes across as an authentic working man – because that’s what he was. While the story is fictional, what we’re watching is real life.

In the words of De Sica himself, the film is about: “Uncovering the drama in everyday life, the wonderful in the daily news” (La fiera letteraria, 6/2/48).

While the film wasn’t the first of the Italian neorealist era, it is one of the more enduring and endearing entries. It received an Academy Honorary Award in 1950 and is a regular entry on those ‘best films of all time’ lists.

But does it really stand the test of time?

Overall, the answer would have to be ‘yes’.

By telling such a simple story, De Sica created something timeless that modern audiences can relate to. After all, the themes of desperation, struggle and feeling isolated in the big city are as relevant today as they were back in post-WWII Italy.

That’s not to say this is a perfect piece of cinema. The plot does contain some anomalies – the most glaring being the fact that Ricci spends so long away from work (as in several days) looking for his bike, that surely he’d have lost his job anyway, even if he’d got it back. However, that’s being a bit mean and churlish.

The real locations are well utilised and the non-professional cast is clearly highly invested in bringing their ‘characters’ to life. I put an emphasis on the word ‘characters’ as the cast (especially Maggiorani) really plays themselves, to the film’s great credit.

In fact it’s this devotion to authenticity that makes Bicycle Thieves, and Italian neorealism in general, as important today as 70 years ago.

What can screenwriters take away from Bicycle Thieves?

Firstly, that a simple story well told can become a timeless classic.

Secondly, the importance of context. If you have awareness of the societal issues affecting the world your characters live in, you can tell a story that really resonates – today and for a long time to come.

Issue 12 of RSL is out on 30 November.