If you’re a film geek, you never forget the first time you saw Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves. That’s because this 1948 movie is so devastatingly emotional that it opens up for many of us the power inherent in cinema. Suddenly you realize just how potent a movie can be.
Neo-realism is the term given to a particular type of film made in Italy in the years after World War II. The country was seriously impoverished and joblessness and homelessness were rampant.
For a group of young filmmakers, this was the opportunity to create a kind of cinema that would capture the spirit of the moment and the possibility of changing what they saw as a fundamentally flawed economic system. (Most of the neo-realists – among them Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini and Michaelangelo Antonioni – considered themselves socialists if not outright communists.)
The idea was to make films about real people in real situations using a minimum of fancy-pants technique. The roles were to be played by non-actors and shot not in a studio but out on the streets. The stories invariably were of economic exploitation.
The Bicycle Thieves is now widely recognized as the ultimate statement of this movement.
Unable to support his hungry wife and son, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) finally lands a job pasting movie posters on walls around Rome. (His first assignment is to advertise the glamorous Rita Hayworth in Gilda.) But his newfound security is threatened when his bicycle – essential to his work – is stolen from outside the family’s tenement.
With his boy (the amazing Enzo Staiola) Antonio begins searching the city, desperate to find the bicycle that will allow him to feed his family.
The Bicycle Thieves is a deceptively simple film that makes no big show of technique (though the more you see it, the more you are aware that it is far from a thrown-together effort). It’s about family and hope and economic hardship ... and 60 years after its creation it can still leave audiences gasping and in tears.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.