5. Bicycle Thieves – Vittorio De Sica, 1948
Following World War II, a film movement now known as neorealism dominated Italian cinema. This movement brought earnest filmmakers to the streets, filming stories of the impoverished populations affected by a newfound lack of identity and need to rebuild what was destroyed in battle. Partly out of necessity and the crumbled Italian economy, and partly because these filmmakers understood the need to address important issues rather than escape from them, these directors created a new and influential low-budget aesthetic. Using non-actors and filming on location, viewers from all around the world were confronted with and challenged by harsh present-day realities. We see the impact of these pioneers in the many directors today that use handheld camerawork to tell ground-level stories of poverty and war, and while this aesthetic has perhaps become cliché, it is nevertheless powerful in the hands of the right artist.
Enter Vittorio De Sica, a comedic actor turned director who, for a time, drew from his own lower-class upbringing and the pains of war to create some of cinema’s most lasting and affecting images. While 1952’s Umberto D., a film that studies the convergence of lonely poverty and old age, is certainly moving, De Sica produced one bona fide masterpiece – his devastating examination of fatherhood and poverty, Bicycle Thieves. It is, to this day, the very best film about fathers and sons I have ever seen, and has so many moments of pure emotion, both tragic and endearing, that it is impossible to shake.
What makes a great neorealist film is not simply a raw assessment of poverty, but a study of the real people fighting for meaning in the midst of their struggle. Parenthood is, thus, the perfect topic for neorealism, for parents cannot escape the reality that they have inherent meaning in the eyes of their children. This film potently asks what happens if a parent recognizes this reality, but finds his own perceived identity slipping away. Much of personal meaning is found in what we produce, and what meaning can a father pull from to instruct his child if he has no means to produce for his family? Bicycle Thieves communicates the frenzied despair of fighting against a sense of hopelessness, and the desperate cyclical abuses that result. What this film so poignantly conveys is that the pains of its father protagonist are universal – all fathers have at some point disappointed their sons, and all sons have at some point had to accept that their fathers are many times as lost as they are.
Having recently seen Bicycle Thieves for the first time, I find devastating to be an apt descriptor. I was moved to tears by the film's tender and flawed father-son relationship facing oppressive poverty and an inability to escape from it. The story takes place in post-WWII Rome, where unemployment is at an all-time high. In the film, a man with a wife and two young children is offered a job, but needs a bicycle for his duties. He immediately sells some of his possessions (bed sheets) in order to buy a bicycle and begin work, only to have his bicycle stolen on his very first day. From this point, it is a desperate search for the bicycle he so badly needs to feed his family and a gradual realization that there may be nothing he can do.
The film communicates that everyone in Italy is in the same boat as Ricci (the protagonist), struggling to get by amongst people who are desperate to survive, even if that means that they will resort to stealing. De Sica clearly wanted to show, as simply as possible, the plight of the people around him. The non-actors are perfectly cast, and fit well into the time period, allowing viewers to see the real problem driving of the plot - the cyclical power of poverty. There is a scene in which Ricci visits a police station to report his bike stolen and get help finding it, but the police turn him away, saying they are too busy with more important matters than stolen bikes, and that his report will simply allow him to claim it when he finds it. This sends Ricci into further desperation as the plot progresses, and De Sica emphasizes that this tiny incident that is so easily brushed off by the authorities can mean a spiral into devastation for his family.
Let us not forget that films like this may not be fun to watch, but they are important and shed light on darker aspects of the human condition that need light and should be talked about. And should all this poverty and heartbreak sound boring or tedious to you, let me just lighten up a bit and point out that the little kid who plays the son is CUTE. You will fall in love with him and want to pinch his chubby little cheeks and dry his eyes when he cries. Take a look - it's a beautiful film that is soon to be added to my list of personal favorites.