When you think of Italian directors -- if you think of them at all, I mean -- the names Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, and Zeffirelli probably come to mind. But when you think of great Italian films, at some point you probably think of Bicycle Thieves (aka The Bicycle Thief), and it wasn't directed by any of those guys, but by Vittorio Di Sica, who is hardly a household name. How did he come to make one of the most beloved Italian films of all time? And what makes the film so special anyway? Let us consider.
The praise: The Oscars didn't have a category for best foreign film until 1956, but between 1947 and 1955 the Academy gave honorary awards to deserving movies, and Bicycle Thieves was the third recipient of such an award. In addition, its screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, only the second time a foreign language script had been so honored. It also won awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, and the Golden Globes. In 1952, the British Film Institute and Sight & Sound magazine's poll of film critics declared Bicycle Thieves the best film ever made. (Ten years later, when the poll was conducted again, Bicycle Thieves fell to seventh place, with Citizen Kane -- which hadn't placed at all the first time -- in the top spot.)
The context: As you may have learned from The History Channel, Italy picked up the short end of the World War II stick. They backed the wrong horse (a horse named Hitler), regretted it halfway through, changed their minds, and wound up on the Nazis' AND the Allies' bad side. When the war ended, in May 1945, Rome had been bombed, the economy was in ruins, and the people were angry and embarrassed. We think of the Italians as being merry and festive. NOT IN 1945 THEY WEREN'T.
During the war, a screenwriter named Cesare Zavattini -- a Marxist, and staunchly anti-Fascist and anti-Mussolini -- had called for a new kind of Italian cinema. Under Mussolini, who enthusiastically supported film production, Italy's movies had been extremely successful but generally all glitz: ornate literary adaptations, frothy romantic comedies, and so forth. Zavattini proposed that movies should celebrate everyday people and their everyday lives, not contrived plots and unrealistic heroes. He advocated using non-professional actors and shooting on location (rather than on sound stages), and favored ambiguous endings, all to enhance authenticity. This philosophy became known as Italian Neorealism, and Zavattini was its godfather.
Neorealism existed only in theory until 1943, when the Fascists loosened control of Italy's film industry (they were losing control of things in general at that point) and the first Neorealist film could actually be made. It was Ossessione (Obsession), directed by Luchino Viconti and based -- without permission -- on the American novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Because of the copyright infringement, it couldn't be shown outside of Italy, and so the second Neorealist film, Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City), released in 1945, was the first to reach the rest of the world.
Rome, Open City, directed by Roberto Rossellini, was based on a true story from the cruel winter of 1943-44, when some underground Communists in Rome tried to evade the occupying Nazis. (It didn't end well for them.) Rome's gigantic film studio, Cinecittà, had been bombed during the war, so Rossellini had to shoot on location -- on, as it happened, the very streets where the real events had taken place. He had little money, so he had to use cheap film stock -- which made the film look like a newsreel. He employed non-actors alongside the professionals. As a result of all this, Rome, Open City felt like a documentary. Some of Rossellini's practices were born of necessity, but they also lined up with Zavattini's Neorealist ideals.
The film was a huge success throughout the Western world. In the United States alone it made $500,000 ($6 million in 2010 dollars), at a time when American interest in foreign films was in its infancy. The film won the Grand Prix at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival, and its screenplay was nominated for an Oscar.
Rome, Open City is the granddaddy of Italian Neorealism, the one that influenced the rest of the movement ... and yet it is not the most popular or the most fondly remembered. That honor goes to Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), directed by Vittorio Di Sica, a popular actor-turned-filmmaker who became friends with the writer Zavattini during the war and adopted his cinematic philosophies afterward. Bicycle Thieves, adapted by Zavattini from a novel by Luigi Bartolini, was released in Italy in late 1948 and in the United States a year later, earning rapturous reviews everywhere. It was shot on the streets of Rome, with regular people instead of actors, and vividly reflected the harsh reality of postwar Italy, where the unemployment rate in 1948 was 22 percent, about the same as it had been in America during the worst of the Great Depression.
The movie: Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a loving husband and devoted father, manages to get a job at a time when many are out of work. But the job requires a bicycle, and Ricci's is promptly stolen. He and his little boy, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), spend the rest of the film searching for the thief, desperate to retrieve the bicycle so that Ricci can keep his job.
What it influenced: It's fair to say that any film influenced by Italian Neorealism was in fact influenced by Bicycle Thieves or Rome, Open City, and probably both. Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni -- possibly the two greatest filmmakers Italy ever produced -- got their start working on Neorealist films, and their own early films show the influence.
Moreover, Italian Neorealism led directly to the French New Wave, whose influence on American cinema we discussed previously. Neorealism also established several things that are common now but virtually unheard of before: shooting on location instead of on studio sets, using non-professional actors, and allowing for improvisational dialogue.
Many films trace Bicycle Thieves specifically as their inspiration. For example, if you're a fan of Indian director Satyajit Ray (especially the Apu trilogy), you have Bicycle Thieves to thank. Ray said that seeing Di Sica's film, in London in 1950, led him to emulate the Italian Neorealist style in his own work.
The reggae-themed Rockers (1978) and Chinese Beijing Bicycle (2001) are both loose retellings of the story. Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985) has enough similarities to be more than coincidental, including the central storyline of a stolen bicycle and Pee-wee's consultation with a psychic to help him find it. (The same goes for Broadway Danny Rose's  fortuneteller scenes.) The final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), showing the huge warehouse of artifacts, is probably inspired by the scene of Ricci hocking his linens and seeing them put on a similarly massive shelf along with thousands of other pawned items.
Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful (1997) owes a lot to Bicycle Thieves. A bike is the main character's mode of transportation; he has a refreshingly sweet relationship with his wife; and the overarching theme has to do with a man's love for his little boy, which is partially what Bicycle Thieves is about. And maybe I'm imagining things, but Nicola Piovani's music in Life Is Beautiful -- one of my favorite scores of all time -- reminds me a lot of the sad, plaintive, beautiful music in Bicycle Thieves, composed by Alessandro Cicognini.
What to look for: Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's description of Neorealism, in their book Film History: An Introduction, is a good one to keep in mind:
Scene B is apt to follow scene A simply because B happened later, not because scene A made it happen. The bulk of Bicycle Thieves is organized around the search for the bicycle and traces the chronology of the day, from the morning through lunch to late afternoon.... Presented with a plot consisting of events that may not be causally connected, the viewer no longer knows which are the "big scenes" and which are simply filler material. Neorealist storytelling tends to "flatten" all events to the same level, playing down climaxes and dwelling on mundane locales or behaviors.
Bicycle Thieves has more climax and foreshadowing than that outline would suggest, but you get the idea. The film depicts a sequence of events that happened chronologically, with the search for the bicycle running through them.
Consider just how neo this Neorealism must have looked at the time. In an essay for the Criterion DVD, film critic Godfrey Cheshire writes, "It's hard to recapture how striking Italy's new realism -- with its actual city streets and unfamiliar, hard-bitten faces -- was to world audiences in the late 1940s, when any comparable Hollywood movie would have been shot on a studio back lot, with a star like Cary Grant (David O. Selznick's choice for Antonio) in the lead role." We take those things for granted now, but such a lack of artifice was groundbreaking then.
I think the film works on three different levels, any of which you might hone in on as you watch. First, it's a snapshot of real life in Rome in the late 1940s, and thus an invaluable document of that period. Second, it's a "parable of alienated man in a hostile and dehumanized environment" (that's from David A. Cook's A History of Narrative Film); as a parable, it is timeless, and applicable to any era. Third, it's a story about a man's relationship with his little boy, and the lengths to which a desperate father will go to help his family.
Cheshire's essay (linked below; don't read it before you've seen the movie) also points out how much the film relies on the simple act of looking: people looking at each other, at the world around them, at the thief who has just sped away on their bicycles. Pay attention to the many glances, gazes, and stares that fill the story, and consider that Ricci isn't just "looking" for his bike -- he's also "looking out" for his son.
What's the big deal: The Neorealist films are all about humanism: the inherent goodness in people, and the need to find rational answers to the problems that face us. (The fortuneteller is no help.) Bicycle Thieves depicts a common man whose ordinariness makes him easy to identify with. He could be any of us; faced with the same obstacles, we could easily make the same choices he does. The film is simple and heartbreaking, yet hopeful, too -- because if Antonio Ricci can endure these trials without being broken, then so can we.
Further reading: You'll want to avoid these until after you've seen the movie, lest its treasures be spoiled for you.
Filmmaker Charles Burnett wrote a nice appreciation of the movie at the Criterion website. If you've seen Burnett's Killer of Sheep you will not be surprised to learn he is a fan of Bicycle Thieves.
Godfrey Cheshire's Criterion essay, written in a very scholarly manner, has some excellent insights.
As always, Roger Ebert's appreciation of the film is well written.
A strange footnote: For more than half a century, the film was known in the United States by the wrong title. Its Italian name is Ladri di biciclette, which is Bicycle Thieves. ("Ladri" is plural.) But when it was released in America, the title was translated The Bicycle Thief -- singular, and with The added. No one knows why, either, but that's how it appeared in the subtitled prints, in advertisements, and in just about all of the hundreds and hundreds of reviews and essays about it. It was subsequently called The Bicycle Thief on video, Laserdisc, and DVD. (That's the version Netflix uses for its Watch Instantly feature.) It wasn't until Criterion released its definitive DVD edition in 2007 that the correct title was restored, the authorities at Criterion having decided it was time to put a stop to this nonsense. Since then, most writers have identified it as Bicycle Thieves, silently acknowledging that, whoops, we got it wrong for 60 years. Once you've seen the film, you'll realize how significant this seemingly minor alteration is.
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Eric D. Snider (website) found his stolen bike in the basement of the Alamo.