Friday, November 15, 2013

Bicycle Thieves in Italy

            The 1948 film The Bicycle Thief focuses on a man’s search for his stolen bike. Though seemingly simple, Antonio has a family to support and has been unemployed for some time. When he is finally offered a job, it is only to find that he must own his own bicycle. After pawning his sheets, he purchases a new bike only to have it stolen his first day. Through all of this, the film employs techniques from the Italian Neorealism movement in order to emphasize the hardships experienced by normal, working class families during this time.
            The Italian Neorealism movement developed out of a desire for freedom from the conventions of typical Italian cinema. The lavishness of film was no longer appealing to the younger generation of directors. Instead, they wanted to make films that better represented the lives of the majority and not the privileged minority. In that, they decided to make films more based around actual social conditions, actual lives, than the optimistic, wished conditions that were more commonly seen in film.
            Centered around a fiscal conflict, as is the case with many films of this movement, The Bicycle Thief is about a poor family’s struggle to improve their lives. There are no miracle fixes.  There is no release in the slew of bad luck that attacks them. When Antonio loses his bike, no one runs after the thief with him, no matter how hard he yells. Through the film he becomes increasingly desperate to reclaim his hope for a better life, becoming so much so that at the end, he tries to steal another bike. However, men swarm all around him, bringing him down with no effort at all, causing his failure where “his” thief succeeded. He cannot catch a break from the onslaught of reality, unable to even steal his way to a decent life. In all of this, the film emphasizes that for some people, reality is painful. No matter what they try or how hard they try, they are unable to break free from their problems.
            This leads into the idea of ambiguity. It is impossible to know all of reality. We are only aware of things as we see them, are only able to process events through a subjective filter made up of our emotions and past experiences. We also are only aware of the universe up through the present moment. There is no way for us to see ahead and determine what is to come.
This concept of limited awareness was replicated in many neorealist films. Often times, aspects of reality were left ambiguous, unclear as to what direction they would turn. In The Bicycle Thief, the entire ending is left as such. We know that he did not find his bike. However, he and his son still have the ability to walk down the street together. It is possible that the bike may be returned someday, or maybe he’ll find a new job, or maybe the family will succumb to their conditions. The point is not what will happen, but that we do not know, as would be the case for the father and son in that moment. This carries over into the idea that neorealist films tend to have unhappy endings, Antonio’s inability to locate his bike, emphasizing idea that life is harsh and doesn’t always work out as planned.
            In terms of aesthetics, The Bicycle Thief largely takes place outside, Antonio and his son wandering the streets of the city, the country at the outskirts in their search. Many neorealist directors had to shoot on location. They did not manufacture the world around the characters. Instead, the characters simply live and exist in the same space as real human beings. As a result, the use of real locations, such is as seen in this film, adds to the realism of the films, adding to the overall goal of the Italian Neorealism movement.

Further, non-actors were often cast in the starring roles. In this film, Antonio himself was not actually an actor. He was cast because for the role in question, having someone who worked and survived in the real world, someone who wouldn’t see the story as a fantasy but would instead see it as something true, provided a more truthful performance. The lead was someone who could relate to the story on a personal level. Therefore, the film’s realism was increased by casting a real factory worker as the lead role.

Through all of this, The Bicycle Thief created a world in line with the values and directives of the Italian Neorealism movement. The poverty of the family reflects the real world issues that people were suffering from, allowing the audience to view life as it is rather than life as someone dreams it to be.


Reading on Italian Neorealism (1942-1951)

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