In November 1948 the film Bicycle Thieves was shown for the first time in Rome. The audience’s reaction was very negative. In fact, the spectators were disappointed and asked for their money back. Its director, Vittorio De Sica hoped that the film would be more appreciated abroad. In Paris, the unexpected happened: three thousand people, in particular critics, greeted the movie with applause and enthusiasm. After that, the movie quickly achieved worldwide success.
Nowadays, Bicycle Thieves is considered a manifesto of neorealism, a movement born in Italy after World War II thanks to the initiative of certain authors, directors, and screenwriters. They created a new cinematographic language that broke traditional structures. Realism defined this cinema shot on the streets, on location, with non-professional actors. It was a cinema that drew from reality without manipulation and that paid particular attention to the social conditions of the lowest in society. For many critics, Roberto Rossellini‘s film Rome, Open City (1945) marked the birth of this trend. Around this director, other authors gathered, such as Luchino Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis, and De Sica himself. These artists shared the same desire for rebirth for their country. But what characterized De Sica was the sensitivity of his gaze that captured small events and made them universal.
Neorealism not only involved cinema but also the literary and artistic fields with the development of resistance literature. Writers like Beppe Fenoglio, Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese, Elio Vittorini told of their experience as partisans during WWII through their works.
A thief out of desperation
Bicycle Thieves, inspired by Luigi Bartolini’s book of the same name, differs from its original contents. The story, while quite cheerful and colorful in the book, is sad and melancholy in the film. The main character in the film is a poor worker from the suburbs of Rome. The miserable man, accompanied by his son, faces a series of misadventures trying to find his stolen bicycle, which he needs to do his job. Clearly, this is a man in a precarious economic condition, driven by desperation in his search for the bicycle.
“Why pick extraordinary adventures when what passes before our eyes and what happens to the most inexperienced of us is so full of real anguish?,” said De Sica to explain why he had chosen to make this movie that might seem an insignificant story.
An inspirational movie
The strength of this film lies in the fact that starting from a trivial event like the theft of a bicycle, it comes to address social and human issues of great importance. It focuses not only on the specter of unemployment in post-war Italy but also on the complicated relationship between a father and a son. It shows that in some precarious situations the boundary between right or wrong can be very close and precarious.
The film won numerous awards including a Golden Globe, a BAFTA award, and an Academy Honorary Award for best foreign-language film. Moreover, it ranked 4th on Empire’s 2010 list of the “The 100 best films of world cinema – The greatest films not in English”. After a complicated start, Bicycle Thieves became one of the most important Italian films ever made, which inspired generations of filmmakers from all over the world.