The film Bicycle Thief was directed by Vittorio DeSica in 1948 and reflects Italian Neorealism. Italian Neorealism was an influential film movement, lasting from the end of WWII until 1951.The ease of perception of reality and credibility in the film, without doubt, was achieved not through improvisation, but a talented scenario of DeSica. By using techniques typical to neo-realist films such as mise-en-scene, deep focus and medium to long shots De Sica emphasizes physical and psychological world that exists beyond the main character of the film (Lombardi). In this essay, I will focus on Formalism as an approach to film criticism and will discuss how mise-en-scène and cinematography explain the meaning of the film. Also, I will discuss the stylistic approach and its effect on the audience and the overall importance of neorealism in the film.
Italian neorealism became popular in the late 1940’s after Italy had been free from the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini (Cardullo). During the war, Mussolini forbade all imports of films produced by the enemy and especially by Hollywood. The positive impact of this was that the break from Hollywood films gave Italian cinema a chance to expand in Italy. Neorealist films focused on the harsh truth demonstrating the life of many people in the country. A popular theme was poverty which was vast among most of the Italian working class at the time. Bicycle Thieves has an open plot, wherein the adventure becomes more important than the goal. De Sica described the literary source of the film, Luigi Bartolini’s Bicycles Thieves as a ‘festive, colorful, picaresque text (Zhong, Huang). The primary components of neorealism were as follows: to portray real or everyday people using nonprofessional actors in actual settings, to examine socially important themes, and to promote the real flow of life, in which complications are seldom resolved by coincidence or miracle. These components were significantly different from prewar cinematic style that used professional actors in studio sets, conventional and even fatuous themes, and artificial, gratuitously resolved plots (Cardullo).
The main character of the film is Antonio Ricci who is searching for his stolen bicycle. The action in the film takes place in post-war Rome. It would have remained just a failure, if not vast unemployment, which fits in the Italian society of 1948. The incident itself does not have any dramatic significance. It acquires meaning only by the social position of the victim. The film developed on the sequence of accidents: rain, seminarians, Catholic “Quakers,” and a restaurant. All these events seem to be interchangeable. The choice of a bicycle as a key object of drama is typical for Italian urban mores and for an era when mechanical means of transport were still rare and expensive. The film has all the stylistic and plot characteristics of the genre, telling about what is happening around, without resorting to the decorative embellishment of reality and expressing sympathy and compassion for the primary victims of the war -the simple Italian people. In the film there is no crime committed in a state of affect, there is no grandiose police coincidence that would transfer viewer to the exotic nature of the proletarian environment.
The technique of filmmaking fully meets requirements of Italian neorealism. Despite a relatively sizable budget, De Sica opted for a very consciously neo-realist approach to production by shooting on location and using non-professional actors to achieve a specific visual authenticity. The film makes excellent use of film form, mise-en-scene, and cinematography to tell the story compellingly. The film progresses linearly and has no significant lapses in time. There are different shades of lighting present in the film even though it is made as black and white. For example, low-key lighting is used when Antonio is in his home or when he visits the Seer, emphasizing Antonio’s desperation in these scenes. High-key light is used in the most of the outdoor scenes, highlighting the size of the city. Also, it allows the viewer to imagine the enormous area that Antonio has to search to find his bicycle.
The selection of the costumes also helps viewers understand the status of the characters. The clothing that Antonio’s family wears throughout the movie is very plain lacking any decorative accessories, and it reflects their lower-class status. It is especially notable during the restaurant scene where wealthy people wear expansive clothes and accessories. The mese-an-scene in the film also describes Antonio’s poverty. His home is very bare and has few decorations. In contrast, the seer’s home is furnished wealthy and with great taste. A large number of bicycles throughout the film makes viewers wondering if the main character will spot his bicycle and at the same time describes the sadness of Antonio’s situation.
Aside from the mise-en-scene, the film also makes great use of cinematography by using different sizes of shots to capture emotion. Close-ups of Antonio’s face occur throughout the film, and each shot reveals the enormous frustration and exhaustion he is feeling. It helps the viewer relate with Antonio, and makes them feel what he is going through emotionally. Long shots are also used during several parts of the film. At the end of the film, Antonio decides to steal a bicycle. A long shot reveals a rack of bikes at the stadium, and viewers can sense his contemplation of taking one. Viewers can see how his character has changed. At first, Antonio had the high moral standard, but by the end of the film, he compromises his values. It is notable in the scenes such as where he was threatening to kill people, becoming ruder with his son, and attempting to steal a bike. In order to show what it was like to live in post-war Rome, it’s enough for the camera to just give a panoramic shot of the pawnshop where Maria and Antonio carried the bale with sheets and pillowcases. Endless rows of shelves clogged with the same bales appear in front of the viewer. Metaphors that de Sica uses are simple. He turns a bicycle into a symbol of life itself and measures well-being by the ability to order a plate of spaghetti in a restaurant.
In conclusion, Bicycle Thieves has become one of the most typical works of Neorealism and a classic masterpiece that constitutes a significant milestone in Italian film history. Neorealism films never offer the audience an answer. Bicycle Thieves” is built like a tragedy which captures the attention of the viewer. There is no a single shot that is not filled with exceptional dramatic power. All of the elements in this film such as mise-en-scene and cinematography work together to create a film filled with emotions and suspense.