Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) is a film one can never tire of watching. A story that is rooted post-war Italy but is also universal, in which the search for the stolen bike becomes a journey of self-realisation for both a father (who will lose himself along the way) and a son (who, in contrast, keeps his eyes firmly fixed on people and objects). Ladri di biciclette is also one of richest vintages of that extraordinary Italian cinematic harvest in what has become known as Neo-Realism.
Leaving aside the issue of that particular term’s definitions, what is striking about that particular cultural climate is the unique combination of an energy drawn from reality and the constructedness of the narrative. The first is evidenced in the faces of the non-professional actors, in their talk, a dialect-inflected language, the way they dress and gesticulate, all potent forms of expression; whereas the second draws on models that boast a long tradition in Italy. In Ladri di biciclette we are also seeing all this refracted through the searchlight of cinema history: young Bruno cannot but make us remember analogous characters from the American comic tradition, while some of the lighting set-ups seems at times to evoke Expressionist cinema, (such as the committee meeting). Ladri di biciclette is a film that is solidly rooted in the past but at the same time proved to be a powerful influence on much of modern cinema: from Truffaut to Pasolini. Pure cinema, as per André Bazin’s definition in his well-known essay. This purity, however, more than being the result of a process of elimination, seems to be the distillation of a whole that is a careful calibration of elements. The narrative construction that observes the unity of time, action and place (with the theatrical staging that is both of and in itself the city) is echoed by a representational approach places characters in their environments, that favours the body rather than the face, the hands more than the eyes, in speech, the tone of voice rather than the content. Without these provisions, the theory of ‘pedinamento’ formulated by Zavattini (who wrote the film’s story) would lose its meaning, and be little more than an aesthetic solution for its own sake.
On the film’s release, (January 1949), amidst a largely positive critical response (including that of Cesare Pavese, who nominated De Sica as “the greatest of contemporary Italian narrators”), some negative voices were also heard. The film was criticised of communism by Catholic critics while from their opposite numbers, of being devoid of a real sense of class consciousness (one of the reasons that led screenwriter Sergio Amidei to abandon the project). Abroad, the film was hailed as a masterpiece; even if, though, it must be said, that in changing the title from plural to singular (“Thief” instead of “Thieves”), many countries showed their misunderstanding of the film’s political point. Distributed in the UK, France, Germany, winning an American Oscar and the Critics’ Prize in Japan, the film became the manifesto for a particular strand in Italian cinema and is still considered a cinematic milestone today. Talking about the film might therefore seem superfluous, however it seems to me that it still has a lot to say within the very culture and the country that produced it. In particular, its bitter reflection on the weight and position work occupies within a country’s consciousness. Work, as a dream to be realised, and the bicycle as a necessary tool to achieve such a goal, the film’s story resonates almost as an admonition to that first article of the Italian constitution, one that still, in the 21st century needs to be asserted and defended. From this point of view, the human landscape of the film – that Italy of big buildings and uncultivated lands, of people who live their lives out between pawnshop and football matches – is not that different from the country as it is today. And if De Sica, alongside the defeated Antonio, could join young Bruno and entrust the country’s future to him, today one has to wonder where Bruno’s cousins are today, and whether they still manage to move through the city streets with as much energy.