Bicycle Thieves – History in Windows and Mirrors

2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the North American release of Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), Vittorio De Sica’s landmark film of a vanquished but unbowed Italy after the Second World War. Accenti contributor Sally Cunningham provides a contemporary take on the film and explains why it is still relevant to audiences after all these years.

I first saw Bicycle Thieves for a film class at Bishop’s University. The course, Film Theory, was less of a how-are-films-made class and more of a why-are-films made – something for which I was very unprepared. On the first day a student named Pierre or Bradley or Tyler asked: “So, which Chaplin films will we be enjoying this semester?” while adjusting his beret. As an English literature major, this was all new territory. I had never dealt with montage or contiguity before, and I preferred my movie nights to be spent watching old Disney cartoons instead of French New Wave. But I was excited all the same.

Most of my time as a humanities undergraduate is spent answering questions phrased as “yes, and?” Yes, that is a simile – and why does that matter? Yes, and what does that mean for the poem? Yes, and what does that mean for us?

Yes, and?
Yes, and?
Yes, and???

There is no finish line, there is no solve for “x,” which usually I love, but in film theory I struggled. Films like Man with a Movie Camera and Strike would not give me enough secrets to answer the infinite yes, ands. I missed seeing colour on a screen. I missed the ease of decoding words without pictures. I still didn’t understand the Kuleshov effect, and at that point I didn’t ever want to.

By late October, I was thrilled that the assigned movie had dialogue, no matter that I didn’t speak a lick of the original screenplay’s Italian. I would embrace the subtitles with open arms. All I knew going into Bicycle Thieves was the title and that the prerequisite reading contained the word “realism,” which seemed straightforward enough. What I did not know is how much the film’s simplicity and truthfulness would haunt me. Here I am over a year later still working out the yes, and?

Overall, Ladri di biciclette is a portrait of Rome after the Second World War as painted by director Vittorio De Sica. The 1948 Italian drama’s premise is simple: a bicycle is stolen. This seemingly mundane conflict creates a space in which De Sica explores truth and what it looks like on screen. The story itself is fictional, but the circumstances and emotions are not.

The plot follows Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) who, at the beginning of the film, accepts a job putting up posters around the city. However, the job is only available if Antonio has a bicycle. Unfortunately, the family recently pawned their bike to afford food. Antonio’s wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), sells the sheets off their bed so her husband can get the bicycle back – the Ricci strip their beds bare in the hopes of a stable future.

Antonio accepts the job as a billposter.

The opening minutes paint Rome as desperate and hungry, loud and hopeful. Men wait for jobs, women fetch water, kids run around. Families are on the verge of starvation and everyone is talking, talking, talking. The city is poised for better times, waiting for the next break, but not expecting it to come soon.

The plotline follows Antonio on his first day of work, where – true to the film’s title – his bicycle is stolen. A lot is riding on this bicycle, so Antonio chases the culprit down busy streets, even hopping on a passing car to keep up. But he can’t catch the thief and only one man moves to help. Defeated, Antonio goes to friends for ideas and enlists his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) to comb the streets of Rome.

Their quest takes the father and son all over the city, allowing the audience to experience snippets of daily Italian life. Travelling from a working rehearsal hall to an unhelpful police station, from a fancy trattoria to a bustling brothel, the entirety of Rome is unearthed in the search. The heart of 1948 Italy shines through all its contexts: this is a city of people doing their best. Yes, a sense of loss and desperation permeates the film, punctuated by Alessandro Cicognini’s award-winning score, but this is a city that wants to survive.

Structurally, the film is shot on location, has many long takes, and uses non-professional actors to bring to light the reality of post-war Italy. These are the concrete elements you might be asked about in an exam. But this is also where the “yes, ands” start coming into play.

Filming on location makes the setting tangible for viewers.

Filming on location allows viewers to see real places and real people. It has a different feel than the cultivated Hollywood studio. There are different allowances and different limitations. Bicycle Thieves takes us on a tour-de-Rome, showing the highs and lows of the city. There is scope to the search beyond indoor sets. The same goes for the non-actors. Instead of shiny, practiced faces, the people in the film look more realistic.

Long takes are not very common in contemporary films. Editing rooms have become voracious, slicing for only the essentials to be shown in the final cut. In a long take, it can feel like the camera is waiting for something to happen. Bicycle Thieves uses these long takes to nurture a sense of realism. Interludes of mundane moments in the film help to situate the viewer. It is easier to see elements of yourself in the film if you are given time to recognize what is on screen.

My favourite moment of realism comes about halfway through the film as a torrential downpour starts up. Drenched Romans flee the streets, and varied camera angles remind us just how many people there are, how busy the city is. As Antonio and Bruno run for cover, Bruno trips and splays out on the slick street. Once he joins his father, Bruno wipes himself down aggressively, indignant and soaking wet. Antonio missed the fall and asks what happened, to which Bruno yells back, pointing at the offending street, “I fell over!” While the scene doesn’t do much to advance the plot, it is truthful. A kid falls, he is angry his dad didn’t see. The kid is Italian so he is passionate about it all. There is an innocence in Bruno’s self-importance that creates a moment of realism: a bittersweet levity against the hopelessness of the search for the stolen bicycle.

Bruno explain what happened.

Bicycle Thieves commits to realism, no matter how desperate or uneventful. A bike is stolen and not returned. This is a story anyone can recognize and empathize with. One where things just don’t work out. There is no deus ex machina ending, there is only truth. Even if it seems bleak, the truth can be comforting: “you are not the only one suffering” says this ending, “you are not the only one whose life is not a movie.” And it isn’t like a movie ending. There is no bicycle. There is no backup plan. There are no sheets on the bed and no one to help Antonio.

Instead of placating an audience with entertainment and escapism, Vittorio De Sica holds up a mirror. He shows a version of the truth – a version that is not altogether pretty, but not without hope either. There is still kindness, children still laugh, people still grow. Antonio will go on; he will find a way.

Yes, and?

This is a film meant to show a side of reality, not all of it. It is a window into the struggle and poverty of post-war Italy. We can use this film as a history tool, or as a lesson in vulnerability and humanity, or we can use it as a mirror: to remember to forge on, even if there is no Hollywood ending.

Sally Cunningham is an English literature and film student originally from Vancouver, BC. She is currently in her third year at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, QC. Sally was the co-editor of the 126th edition of The Mitre.

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