In the past several years I have been developing an ever growing appreciation of classic films, but I have yet to see many foreign films – apart from British films, which never seemed very foreign. This is partly due to a lack of access, but also a lack of familiarity. I don’t know the actors, the directors or even the genres or historical background. For example, Italian Neorealism.
My understanding is that Italian neorealism partly came about as a virtue created from necessity: some of the Italian studios had been destroyed during WWII. After the war, directors became extremely interested in realism, shooting on location (no studios left), and using non professional actors. The directors were particularly interested in poverty, unemployment and other social issues. Many of the directors had expected there to be a socialist revolution after the war, which did not materialize.
The premier example of Italian neorealism is Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio De Sica. It tells the story of a man, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), who’s been out of work for some time and gets a job putting up posters, on condition that he have a bicycle. But after his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell) hocks their bed sheets (part of her dowry) to get his bicycle out of hock, it is stolen on his very first day of work. The next day, he and his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola) search Rome, visiting several outdoor bicycle markets, a church, a brothel and a seer, with a stop at a restaurant. They come close – they even find the man who stole his bicycle – but Antonio cannot prove that he stole it and all the man’s neighbors back the thief. Meanwhile, Antonio becomes increasingly desperate.
Bicycle Thieves initially feels like a documentary, with the camera unobtrusively watching while Antonio searches for his bicycle and interacts with his family, no highly obtrusive music, though the further into the film the less of a documentary it feels like and the more obvious it is that this is a finely developed work of art as it builds to its dramatic and emotional climax.
There are two main dynamics in the film: a man’s desperate search for his bicycle, which means his job and also his ability to provide for his family (at the beginning, when his wife reproaches him for pawning his bicycle, he points out he did it so so they could eat and then says that he feels like he’s in chains because he has no other options), but also Antonio’s relationship with his son. Bruno is perhaps seven or eight years old, but wiser than his years, always brushing off his father’s hat or cleaning his bicycle. He even knows his father’s bicycle and it’s serial number better than his father does. Enzo Staiola was chosen to play the role of Bruno when De Sica saw him watching production of the film from the streets and he certainly has the most speaking eyes. He is always watching his father with wide eyes. He never says much, is simply watching, never judging. De Sica was known particularly for being able to draw out excellent performances from his chosen cast of non-actors.
And while Bruno is watching, Antonio is on an increasingly desperate search for his bicycle, sometimes forgetting about his son while Bruno is running along after him. Perhaps Antonio would simply rather forget he has his son along with him, because as the day goes along he is increasingly humiliated in front of him. He is powerless, jeered at, loses his cool and finally, in the ultimate humiliation and act of desperation, tries unsuccessfully to steal a bicycle.
Lamberto Maggiorani was also not a professional actor and was chosen by De Sica when he brought his son in for an audition. His voice was apparently dubbed by a professional, but the acting is all his. In fact, in many ways the film is primarily a visual film, people’s expressions, their body language, what they do is more important than what they say. Or perhaps it only seems that way because I don’t understand Italian and need captions. But most of the important moments seem to be primarily visual ones.
Vittorio De Sica admired Charlie Chaplin and has been noted how the ending of Bicycle Thieves is a Chaplin-like ending. I’d heard much about the sentimentality of the ending, the ambiguity, so I was not quite prepared for how crushing it actually is. Antonio tries to steal a bicycle and is almost instantly caught. He is being yelled at and pushed towards the police, when the man who owns the bicycle catches sight of Bruno’s tear-streaked face, following along afterwards and absently brushing of his father’s hat that had fallen on the ground. The man decides not to press charges and Antonio, now utterly humiliated, walks away stunned. Bruno follows after him, still with his tear-streaked face, and takes his father’s hand and they grip each other tightly. They disappear in a crowd.
Sentimental? Ambiguous? Certainly, but my overwhelming reaction was one of sadness. It is a reprieve that he won’t go to jail and it is touching that his son’s love is unwavering and still adoring, but that moment when Antonio looks at his son and has to fight back tears of shame is almost unbearable.
It is extremely interesting to see what Rome looked like in 1948: the clothing, the buildings, the streets. There are virtually no cars – or even that much traffic. There are buses (overcrowded), some street-cars and lots of bicycles. But ultimately, the streets don’t seem that crowded. The only time there is a large crush of people is at the Stadio Nazionale PNF (a football stadium), the church were people sit through a service before getting some soup, and in the side street where Antonio finds the bicycle thief where there are a whole host of men hanging around, presumably because there is no work. Many people are so desperate that they visit a seer for answers to the daily problems in their life. Antonio initially makes light fun of his wife for seeing her, but later goes himself when there seems to be nothing else for him to do.
Ironically, Bicycle Thieves was not very well received in Italy. The film was removed from the theater to make way for the much more popular American film Duel in the Sun. In fact, Italian neorealism was never that popular in Italy, remaining primarily an export industry and receiving great acclaim in other nations. The people who presumably could relate to the emotion and situations best were not interested. In a touch of humor and commentary, the posters that Antonio is putting up are of Rita Hayworth, advertising one of her films. But perhaps it’s entirely natural. If you are unemployed and going to see a movie, it’s probably not going to be one about unemployment.