“Bicycle Thieves” - Vittorio De Sica (1948)

Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di Biciclette, 1948) is an Italian Neorealist film directed by Vittoria De Sica that not only represents the high point of that particular genre but is also still ranked today among the greatest films ever made. Because of its primal standing in the Italian Neorealist genre, it has ever since served as a model and inspiration for sympathetically minded filmmakers, notably some from Iran (e.g. Dariush Mehrjui, Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, and Jafar Panahi) and India (e.g. Bimal Roy and Satyajit Ray).

As was characteristic of Italian Neorealist films, Bicycle Thieves concerns ordinary people in ordinary situations and was shot mostly on location with nonprofessional actors who were drawn from the working-class social milieu covered in the film.  The basic idea was, rather than retiring to the studio and conjuring up fantasy stories for escapist entertainment, to instead bring the (at-the-time cumbersome) filmmaking apparatus out onto the streets and capture the real world.  The basic situation covered in Bicycle Thieves is very simple: a poor man has his bicycle stolen, and he spends the better part of the next two days trying unsuccessfully to recover his bike. These are circumstances that any poor person could find him- or herself in, and we can all find commonality with the poor man’s plight.  (For more commentary on the cinematic aesthetics of Italian Neorealist films, see my two articles on the subject, “Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: 'Open City" and 'Paisan'” [1] and “Subjective Realism in the Italian Film” [2]). 

Of course there was more to Italian Neorealism than attempts to capture “reality”.  It was motivated and driven by important sociopolitical considerations, as well.  Just after World War II, Italy was recovering from years of extractive fascist misrule and a devastating world war.  The economy was in ruins, and there was massive unemployment and poverty.  So the basic social problems facing society were of fundamental concern to the intellectual and artistic communities. And the dominant ideas and proposals that were presumed best to address these issues came from Marxist (and related Hegelian) thought.  Filmmakers in the Neorealist camp were consequently bent on showing social reality in a way that could facilitate making the social changes that they thought were required. Indeed, De Sica’s longtime collaborator and co-creator, screenwriter Cesare  Zavattini, was a member of the Italian Communist Party, and his agenda was to use cinema in furtherance of desired social evolution.  This was what primarily fired the great excitement about Neorealism at the time, and the early critical reviews of those films often focused on this sociopolitical perspective. Today, however, people often see these films without being inflamed by the social perspective.

So one can look at Bicycle Thieves as a Marxist-inspired social tract or simply as a story about an individual’s personal journey.  The great thing about this film is that it works on both dimensions, as I will attempt to describe below.  And this overlapping and resonating two-level perspective is often what characterizes great literature and art.  In this case the achievement of the combined two-level perspective was perhaps the fortunate outcome of the Zavattini and De Sica collaboration, each of whom probably leaned to one side of the duality.

In any case no matter what the overall goals may be about presenting a revealing social reality, it is always necessary to have a well-structured narrative.  And this is what Bicycle Thieves definitely has. It can be viewed as progressing through seven unequally-spaced stages, we will call them “acts”, that describe the experiences of the protagonist in his quest to recover his bicycle.
1.  A Crucial Bicycle is Regained and then Lost
The first section of the film establishes the situation of the main character, Antonio Ricci (played by Lamberto Maggiorani) and the problem he faces.  He is one of a large number of unemployed workers desperately seeking jobs from the government employment office.  One day he is fortunate enough to be offered a job as a bill-poster, provided that he has a bicycle.  He curses his fate that he has recently been forced to pawn his Fides bicycle (virtually his only possession of any value), but his caring wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), comforts him by pawning her dowry – the  family’s set of bed linens – so that they can recover the bike from the pawn shop. The Riccis live in a small apartment with their two children, 8-year-old Bruno (Enzo Staiola) and a baby.

In a few brief shots, we get a feeling about their happy married life.  On one occasion Antonio discovers that Maria has paid a “clairvoyant” woman (a seer) who charges small fees for her fortune-telling.  He laughingly scolds her for indulging in such superstitious nonsense.

Early the next morning Antonio takes Bruno to where he works helping out at a petrol station.  Then he eagerly sets out to work on the new job, where a coworker shows him in just a couple of minutes how to paste up a poster on a building wall – we can see that this precious job doesn’t take much skill.  Shortly thereafter while Antonio is up on a ladder preoccupied with pasting a movie poster to the wall, disaster strikes when a young man wearing a German WWII cap (Vittorio Antonucci) steals his bicycle.  Antonio gives chase, but the thief’s accomplices lead him astray, and the thief gets away. 

Antonio files a complaint at the police station, but the officials there tell him they have no resources to look all over the city for a stolen bicycle.  They will record the stolen bicycle’s serial number, but it is up to him to find it.  Something so crucial to his own existence doesn’t measure up in their accounting.  At this point the basic problem has been established, and it is evident that the authorities won’t be of much assistance.

2.  Comrades Try to Help
Before going home that night Antonio goes to a local meeting hall and seeks out his friend Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda), who is conducting rehearsals for an amateur music-hall show. At the same hall, a workers political party is also holding a meeting to discuss with their constituents the catastrophic labor situation in the country. A party leader remarks,
“A welfare check solves nothing.  It just humiliates the worker and doesn’t help anything."
This calls attention to a key theme in this film that is alluded to at both the personal and the social levels: the significance of basic dignity to a man’s life.

The more experienced Baiocco tells Antonio that stolen goods are usually quickly sold away at the  Piazza Vittorio flea market and that they must intercept such a sale immediately before it is too late.

Since Antonio didn’t come home for dinner, Maria, having heard about the bike theft from Bruno and now looking for him, finds him in the meeting hall and asks what happened. Antonio in his frustration unjustly accuses her of whining, and she cries.  This is the last time in the film that Maria appears, but her importance to Antonio shadows over the rest of the story.  It seems that Antonio’s deep sense of his own self is to be a good husband for her.

The next morning Baiocco and some recruited friends go with Antonio and Bruno to the Piazza Vittorio market, where a hopelessly vast multitude of bicycles, probably many of them stolen, are on sale.  Antonio finds a Fides bicycle being repainted and has to summon the police to examine its serial number, but it turns out to be a false lead.  After further searching, Baiocco advises Antonio to rush over to the Porta Portese Market and have a try at looking there for the bicycle.

3.  A New Lead is Found
From here on the relationship between Antonio and Bruno becomes key.  On the trip to the Porta Portese market, a rainstorm develops, and Antonio and Bruno dash through the downpour for cover under the eave of a building.  When Antonio finally looks ever at Bruno and complains about his soiled, wet clothing, the frustrated boy, who has been trying to keep up with his dad, yells in frustration, “I fell down!” The spirited young boy has been constantly shown gazing up at his father and trying to be a good helper, but his efforts have gone unrewarded.  Antonio is aware of this but has other concerns on his mind.

At the market, Antonio then notices the thief wearing his telltale cap and talking to an old man.  The thief gets away, but Antonio and Bruno follow the old man into a church that is offering communion and food to the indigent (who are mostly just interested in the food).  Much to the annoyance of the church officials, Antonio grabs the old man and aggressively interrogates him, eventually learning the street where the thief lives.  However, in the commotion of the church ceremony, the old man also manages to get away from them. 

4.  Antonio and Bruno

As they search for the old man outside the church, Bruno asks his father why he let the old man get away.  In frustration with his own failure, Antonio rudely slaps his son, bringing the boy to tears.  This is a memorable moment showing the breakdown of Antonio’s world.
Antonio then tells Bruno to wait for him by a river bridge so that he can go off to look  for the old man more quickly.  However, after running away for a few moments, he hears a crowd yelling in back of him that a boy is drowning. He rushes back to the bridge and is relieved to find that the endangered boy (who is saved) is not Bruno. Antonio finally starts thinking that there are more important things than the lost bicycle. He decides to spoil his son (and himself) a bit and take him to a tavern for some food.

At the tavern, Antonio orders some food and wine, even offering some wine to his young son. But after observing a wealthy family at a nearby table having a feast, he becomes morose again about his own impecunious circumstances and wonders what will become of them.

5.  Visit to the Seer
As a measure of Antonio’s desperation, he finally decides to go to the seer Maria had visited, an old woman whose advice he had earlier sensibly dismissed as rubbish.  At the clairvoyant’s meeting room there is a long queue, but the cheeky Bruno butts in the line and gets his father a seat at the front. However, when Antonio talks to the woman, the only “wisdom” he can get from her is what Baiocco had told him earlier: that either he will find the bike today, or he will never find it.

6.  The Thief Found
Outside the seer’s quarters and walking on the street, Bruno astonishingly spots the German-cap-wearing thief again. He chases him down the street and into a brothel, where the thief tries to hide.  Antonio rushes in, grabs him, and forcefully drags him out, but a crowd of bystanders soon gather round them.  It turns out that the thief is from that neighborhood, and the bystanders press around Antonio showing their readiness to stick up for their local inhabitant.  It looks like a brawl will develop, but Bruno runs off and brings back a policeman to restore order.

The cop is sympathetic, but he privately explains to Antonio that (a) he has no other witnesses concerning the theft and (b) the entire neighborhood will testify in favor of the thief.  So Antonio has no case to make with the justice system.  Disconsolate, Antonio grabs Bruno and they walk away as the neighborhood bystanders issue a chorus of catcalls behind them.

7.  The New Thief
Walking home, Antonio and Bruno go by a football stadium where a huge number of bicycles have been parked outside. At his wits’ end, Antonio succumbs to temptation and decides that his only choice to save his family is to steal one of those bicycles for himself. He grabs one parked outside of a building, but he is quickly tracked down by onlookers and held for the police to grab him. When the bike owner sees Bruno crying, though, his heart softens, and he asks the supportive bystanders to let Antonio go.
Reduced to being what he despises – a thief – and totally humiliated in front of his own son, Antonio has now reached a new low.  The closing shot shows Antonio grimly walking away, with his crying son walking along beside him and clasping his hand.
So each of the seven episodes of Bicycle Thieves begins with an opportunity to pursue, and each ends in failure or discouragement.  Nevertheless and taken collectively, these seven episodes can be viewed on the social plane or on the individual plane.

The social perspective was what attracted early critical attention, and this focus was partly driven by the film’s principal screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini, who forcefully articulated this point of view.  In an essay written during this period, Zavattini argued that whereas Hollywood artificially first constructs a narrative and then tries to give it a convincing (real-looking) window-dressing, what we should really do is find narratives naturally situated in real life [3].  We should start with the real, not just begin with an artificial story and then bedeck it with real backdrops and method acting.   The idea is that when we start with the real, we naturally incorporate all the contextual circumstances that characterize it.
“Neorealism has perceived that the most irreplaceable experience comes from things happening under our own eyes from natural necessity.” [3]
But Zavattini goes further than just emphasizing starting with the “real”.  He feels Neorealism must not only start with that, but it must also sustain Neorealism’s motivating moral impulse.  In fact he seems to prefer injecting analysis from a social perspective into whatever narrative one may start with.

Andre Bazin, a major French film critic and co-founder of the famous film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, went further still and entirely dismissed the personal perspective. In a 1949 article, he argued that Bicycle Thieves “takes on meaning only because of the social (and not psychological or aesthetic) position of the victim” [4]. Bazin in fact seemed to think that Neorealism was fundamentally anti-narrative, and he hailed features he took to be inherent in Neorealism – the disappearance of acting, the disappearance of mise-en-scene, and even the disappearance of the story. By this I presume he means that everything should be natural and organic, not artificial.  In the last analysis, though, I don’t think Bazin really understood the true nature of narrative (story).  In fact I think Bazin, writing in 1949, was actually reacting to cinema’s still-close connection with (and derivation from) theater, which of course necessarily had artificiality as part of its presentation.  Over the ensuing years since that time, cinema has broken free from any restrictive bonds with stage plays and has certainly not abandoned narrative expression, but instead explored its further reaches.

In spite of these skeptical comments from the critical community concerning the use of narrative techniques, De Sica did employ effective cinematic narrative techniques to tell the story of Bicycle Thieves.  There are notable tracking shots, for example when Antonio and Maria come home on the first day. There are effective action cuts, such as when Antonio slaps Bruno and when he surprises his son momentarily off taking a leak.  There is effective use of cross-cutting, for example when Antonio agonizes over whether to steal the bicycle at the end.  And the musical sound track has a melancholic tone that pervades the overall viewing experience.  These techniques support the storytelling on both the social and the personal planes.

The Social Level
On the social level we can view the narrative as progressing through various aspects of Antonio’s interactions with institutional mechanisms in society.

  • In Act 1 Antonio interacts with several government institution mechanisms that are intended to support the populace: the government employment office, the municipal pawn shop, and the police station.  In this connection there is a revealing shot at the municipal pawn shop showing the vast number of bed sheets that have had to be pawned by indigent families – a direct indication of a dysfunctional economy.  In each case that is shown, these institutional organizations, despite their foundation on good intentions, seem unable to provide support for a poor man in need such as Antonio.  These organizations are faceless and mechanical and consequently unable to get at the underlying root of the society’s problems.
  • Act 2 shows support coming from the workers party cadres and Antonio’s fellow working-class comrades.  But they, too, are unable to solve his problem.
  • In Act 3 the Church is shown in connection with its interactions with the poor, but the efforts depicted in the film seem ineffective and out of touch. A symbol of this ecclesiastical remoteness is presented when Antonio and Bruno take shelter under the eave during the rain storm.  They are quickly joined by a group of seminary students also seeking shelter, several of whom are conversing in German rather than Italian.  There’s no way to make a connection with the Church here.
  • In Act 5 Antonio even seeks help from those in society who are cynically purveying magic and superstition, for a price. This is an extractive social element that lives off ignorance and misery.
  • In Act 6 Antonio interacts with the policeman about his problem.  But the policeman informs him that the rules of evidence are such that nothing can be done for him.
  • Finally in Act 7 Antonio turns against society itself and all the social institutions that have failed him.  But this, of course, is not a solutions, and he fails here, too.
The overall message on this level is that more fundamental social change is necessary, as was argued by the workers’ party spokesman.

The Personal Level
Irrespective of all the supportive social theory, however, it is on the personal level where this film achieves greatness. And De Sica’ great accomplishment was to artfully employ cinematic expression so as to reflect the relatively introverted Antonio’s turmoil by means of his loved ones, Maria and Bruno.  In particular on this personal plane, Antonio’s relationship with Bruno, his alter ego, becomes the ultimate central focus, because Bruno’s heartfelt concerns reveal Antonio’s inner turmoil.  From this perspective the narrative goes through another progression, this time concerning Antonio’s pursuit of justice and the loss of his dignity. 
  • Act 1 emphasizes Antonio’s personal life at home with his wife and children.  In this context we are shown his soaring aspirations and belief that he can elevate himself and his family in society.  When his bicycle is stolen, his faith in common morality lead him to seek justice, but the police station official offers little assistance.  Antonio will have to solve his problem on his own.
  • Act 2 shows sympathy from his working-class friends, but again after this episode he realizes that he is on his own.
  • Act 4 returns Antonio’s attention to his closest relations, in this case with his son Bruno.  After slapping his son, he realizes that he, himself, has committed an injustice, and he tries to make amends.
  • After the failures shown in Act 5 and Act 6, Act 7 shows Antonio, who had up to this point been his son’s model concerning the quest for justice, abandoning justice and disgracing himself.
This final act was the ultimate degrading experience, and the film shows how society drove a basically good man to this point of self-destruction. 

As it turns out, Antonio’s loss of his own dignity is more disturbing than his material poverty. And this is reflected and magnified by what happened to his son Bruno. His father was the guiding light of his entire world and hence a fundamental constituent of Bruno's own being.  This beacon from which he had got his bearings was now shattered, which was not just sad but undoubtedly terrifying to the young boy.  This is the real tragedy that we are witness to at the end of the film.

Note that although I regard dignity to be important, I do not believe that dignity is an objective human right. Even though dignity has been (inappropriately) enshrined in the “UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights” [5], it is really a personal regard, not an objective attribute, and I have commented on the unsuitability of dignity to be a human right in connection with my review of The Last Command (1928). As Arthur Schopenhauer commented long ago, the concept of dignity is “the shibboleth of all empty-headed moralists” [6]. Steven Pinker, referring to the “stupidity of dignity” has made similar comments about the misuse of this term in connection with human rights [7]. In fact dignity refers to a state, like happiness, to which we aspire, but its attainment can only be judged at the personal level and so cannot be a universally recognized right.  Nevertheless, society should provide institutional mechanisms that provide an environment in which dignity and happiness can possibly be attained by all participants.  A more realistic social perspective that takes off from and develops this point of view has been adopted by Amartya Sen in connection with the “Capability Approach” [8].

De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves does not really offer a solution to this problem, but it turns our gaze sympathetically in the proper direction so that we can see the wide-ranging scope of what is wrong and begin making meaningful changes.  For telling this story so movingly and so well, it continues to deserve its ranking as one of the great films.

  1. The Film Sufi, “Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: 'Open City" and "Paisan'”, The Film Sufi, (2008), http://www.filmsufi.com/2008/11/aesthetic-considerations-of-two.html.
  2. The Film Sufi, “Subjective Realism in the Italian Film”, The Film Sufi, (2009), http://www.filmsufi.com/2009/01/subjective-realism-in-italian-film.html.
  3. Cesare Zavattini, “Some Ideas on the Cinema”, Sight and Sound, 23:2 (October-December 1953), 64-9, edited from a recorded interview published in La Revista del Cinema Italiano 2, (December 1952), translated by Pier Luigi Lanza.
  4. Andre Bazin, “Bicycle Thieves”, What is Cinema? Vol. II, edited and translated by Hugh Gray, (1949/2004), University of California Press.
  5. “United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights” (1948), http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/.
  6. Arthur Schopenhauer, The Basis of Morality, (1837/2005), Dover Classics, p. 51.
  7. Steven Pinker, “The Stupidity of Dignity, Conservative Bioethics' Latest, Most Dangerous Ploy”The New Republic, Wednesday, May 28, 2008.
  8. “Capability Approach”, Wikipedia (April 2015).

1 comment:

Leox said...

good blog and good analisis