Defining italian neorealism

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From Closely Watched Films Italian: An Introduction to The Art of Narrative film technique by Marylin Fabe


Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief


In my history of film courses I have at various times taught three films defined in film histories as quintessential examples of Italian neorealism: Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945), The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948), and Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica, 1952). Open City is fa- mous for launching the movement, The Bicycle Thief for reaffirming the neorealist aesthetic, and Umberto D for being the last “real” or genuine neorealist film. Before showing the film, I try to define Italian neoreal- ism by listing the stylistic and thematic features of the movement that the film will exemplify. The problem is that for each film I have to cre- ate a different list.

While neorealism cannot be pinned down or defined according to one style or even in terms of the themes or kinds of stories told, scholars agree on its origins and some of its basic traits.1 Neorealism emerged in Italy in the aftermath of World War II, the product of filmmakers who were trained in Mussolini’s state-subsidized film school (the Centro Speri- mentale) and who learned to make films in the lavishly well-equipped studios that Mussolini fostered (in a complex called the Cinecittà), but many of whom were politically on the left and in revolt against the kind of cinema produced under Mussolini’s fascist regime. So, in some respects, neorealism is best defined by what it is not. Mussolini’s cinema was a cinema of distraction, one whose primary goal was to entertain, and in- deed the films had enormous popular appeal, rivaling Hollywood on the world market. Although scholars are continually pointing to exceptions, discovering films made under Mussolini’s regime that anticipated neo- realism, the fascist cinema’s most characteristic genre was scornfully de- scribed by Giuseppe De Santis, a neorealist film director and critic, as calligraphism, which he defined as decoratively photographed adapta- tions of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction. Since cal- ligraphism drew on materials from the past, it was seen as an escapist retreat from the social and economic problems of contemporary Italy. Mussolini’s cinema was for the most part studio-bound, representing the world through elaborately constructed sets. The plots were also elabo- rate constructs, following formulas and conventions similar to those of the classical Hollywood film.

When Fascism fell, not only was Italy liberated from the Nazis, but its most talented filmmakers—such as Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, and Giuseppe De Santis—were freed from mak- ing what they saw as artificial, contrived, escapist films. Rather than pro- jecting a falsely optimistic picture of Italian society, as they felt the films under Fascism tended to do, by focusing on the wealthy classes and the images of Italy that tourists see, neorealist filmmakers sought to expose the poverty and social malaise of a postwar Italy in shambles. Vittorio De Sica wrote: “We strove to look ourselves in the eyes and tell ourselves the truth, to discover who we really were and to seek salvation.”2

Neorealist films tell stories that take place in the present day, not in the distant past. They also focus on the lives of the lower rather than the upper classes: on workers, not professionals; on the poor, not the rich; on the ordinary man, not the superhero. The problems and conflicts of neorealist protagonists derive less from inner psychological turmoil than from external social conditions. Most of the filmmakers associated with Italian neorealism were political leftists whose goal was to bring about social change through the creation of a new, socially engaged, national cinema, one that would replace the sanitized, retouched Italy of the films made under fascism with films that reflected the reality of contemporary life in Italy.

In our postmodern era, of course, we look with skepticism upon the claim that any film or group of films can reflect reality. All film images are representations, different ways of signifying the world. Even in a medium based on the seeming objectivity of the photograph, there is no such thing as a direct, objective recording of reality on film. As the

Czechoslovakian filmmaker Alexander Hammid observes:

the camera records only in the manner in which the man (or woman) be- hind it chooses to direct it . . . even if we put the camera in front of a sec- tion of real life, upon which we do not intrude so much as to even blow off a speck of dust, we still arrange: by selecting the angle, which may emphasize one thing and conceal another, or distort an otherwise familiar perspective by selecting a lens which will concentrate our attention on a single face or one which will reveal the entire landscape and other people; by the selec- tion of a filter and an exposure . . . which will determine whether the tone will be brilliant or gloomy, harsh or soft. . . . This is why, in films, it becomes possible to put one and the same reality to the service of democratic, so- cialist or totalitarian ideologies, and in each case make it seem realistic.3

Although we can agree that no film movement has a pipeline to the “real,” neorealist films broke with the conventions and practices of Mussolini’s cinema of distraction in a number of ways that made their films seem more real, especially in comparison to the films that came before them. The most obvious way neorealist films differed from their predecessors was that rather than being made in the well-equipped studios of Cinecittà, neorealist films were shot on location. At first this was out of necessity. At the end of World War II, Cinecittà had been heavily damaged and was mainly utilized to house refugees. Thus, Rossellini and his crew took to the streets to photograph Open City, a tense drama of partisan resist- ance to the Nazi occupation. After the huge international success of Open City, it soon became evident that shooting in the streets of Italy was an aesthetic plus, lending an aura of authenticity to the filmed fictions.

A second way neorealist films differed from their predecessors was in their use of post-production sound. Because of the difficulty and expense of filming on location, Italian neorealist directors, beginning with Ros- sellini in Open City, shot their films silent, dubbing in the dialogue and sound effects later. Unburdened by cumbersome sound equipment, the camera had greater freedom of movement, creating the effect of captur- ing events fortuitously, on the run, the way images of life appear in doc- umentaries and newsreels. Open City, moreover, was shot on a very low budget at a time when film stock was scarce, mostly of poor quality, and had to be bought on the black market in bits and pieces. These circum- stances, in combination with Rossellini’s lack of reliable power units, gave the film a grainy, grayish, uneven, rough-hewn look which also con- tributed to its documentarylike aura. And some of the footage of Open City does not just resemble documentary footage, but is actual docu- mentary footage secretly taken of German troops in the final days of their occupation. So powerfully did the documentary appearance of Open City heighten the dramatic effect of the film’s story that future filmmakers im- itated its location shooting, post-production sound, and low-budget look, even when they could afford better. These stylistic traits became hallmarks of Italian neorealism.

I also should point out, however—and now come the sputtering and contradictions—that many neorealist films, including Open City itself, do not adhere to a spartan documentarylike aesthetic. Not all of Open City was shot on location. The interiors were shot on constructed sets created in an abandoned warehouse. For most of these interior shots, Rossellini used standard three-point lighting, a style associated with main- stream commercial Hollywood filmmaking. Occasionally, Rossellini even employed artificial, expressionistic lighting techniques to heighten the drama in Open City, as, for example, in the powerful scene in which the priest, Don Pietro, witnesses Manfreddi’s torture. (See figure 28.) Paisan (1946), Rossellini’s second influential neorealist film, which also dramatized the final days of Nazi occupation and Italy’s heroic and oftentragic resistance efforts, likewise has many conventionally lit sequences obviously shot in a studio. Umberto D had no scenes at all shot on lo- cation. But despite the inevitable exceptions, Italian neorealist films have, nevertheless, become strongly associated with location shooting, poor- quality black-and-white film stock, post-synchronized sound, and the use of a mobile camera, all of which contribute to producing films that look more like newsreels than fiction films, and hence seem starkly realistic.

Aside from their look, Italian neorealist films also seem more real than Hollywood films or the films made under Mussolini’s regime because of the kinds of stories they tell. Rather than recounting extraordinary ex- ploits of the high and the mighty, neorealist scenarios focus on common, even banal events in the lives of humble working-class people. For some reason, the depiction of lives of workers or the poor strikes us as more real than the depiction of the more insulated lives of the rich. Neoreal- ist stories also tend to end abruptly, without closure, with loose ends dan- gling and problems unresolved, also making them more like life and less like fictions. The actors who play the leading roles in neorealist films, moreover, are often nonprofessional actors or stage actors who are cast because they look like ordinary people. Hence they give the appearance of being authentic, not glamorous stars “playing” at representing real people.

The above description of Italian neorealistic storytelling may well make us pause to consider an important question: Why was Italian neorealism as a film movement such an international success? What exactly is the appeal of films about poor or common people to whom nothing ex- traordinary happens and whose fates are left unresolved at the end? Why would anyone want to watch such films? In order to answer this ques- tion, I would like to focus on Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, a film that epitomizes the peculiarly intense pleasure and pain of the Italian neo- realist aesthetic.


The Bicycle Thief, made in 1948, appeared at a time when the Italian economy was improving and the neorealist movement was on the wane, but, even so, to quote André Bazin, “it reaffirm[ed] anew the entire aes- thetic of neorealism.”5 More than any other film of the period, The Bi- cycle Thief exemplifies traits associated with Italian neorealism. Set right after the end of World War II, it depicts an Italy of poverty and desper- ation. Unemployment is soaring and the paltry amount of the welfare

checks allotted by the government can barely sustain life. The film fo- cuses on the life and misfortunes of Antonio Ricci, a common worker. Photographed in grainy black and white, the entire film—interiors and exteriors alike—was shot on location. Most of the film takes place against the background of overcrowded city streets, or tenement housing for the poor. Not one professional actor played in the film. The man who plays Ricci was an actual worker in a steel factory.6 According to André Bazin, De Sica was offered millions of lire to film the script with Cary Grant playing the lead, but he refused.7 Ricci’s wife is played by a woman who in real life was a journalist and the boy cast as Bruno, Ricci’s son, was discovered by De Sica playing in the street. De Sica chose him because he was charmed by the way the boy’s short trotting gait contrasted with the long strides of the man who plays Bruno’s father.

The story the film tells, given its painful, inconclusive ending, is also characteristically neorealist. The film begins on what seems to be Ricci’s lucky day: after two years of unemployment, he is finally offered a good government job putting up posters around the city. In order to accept the job, however, he must have a bicycle, and he has recently had to pawn his bicycle in order to feed his family of four. When his wife learns of his dilemma, she pawns the family’s linens (which are her dowry, and the last objects of value in the stripped down household) to get Ricci’s bicycle out of hock. Then, tragically, on Ricci’s first day of work, a thief makes off with his bicycle. The rest of the film follows Ricci and his son Bruno as they desperately search for the stolen bicycle. At the end of a long day searching, in terrible frustration at his failed efforts to retrieve his bicy- cle, and desperate to hold on to his job, Ricci makes a botched attempt to steal a bicycle himself. The owner catches him in the act, calls for help, and Ricci is soon apprehended by an angry crowd. Although there is some relief when the owner does not press charges, Ricci is left at the end of the film without a bicycle and hence is once again without a job.

Despite the bleakness of its story, people who love movies are passionate about The Bicycle Thief. Many claim it as their all-time favorite film. Whenever the film is revived, it fills theaters. For André Bazin, much of the power of The Bicycle Thief lies in the way De Sica brings alive the political point that social institutions have become so ineffective that the poor are obliged to prey on the poor.8 The boy who steals Ricci’s bicycle, it turns out, not only suffers from epilepsy, but is even more impoverished and disadvantaged than Ricci. When Ricci and a policeman search the apartment in which the thief lives with his mother, the evidence of poverty is appalling. Bazin calls The Bicycle Thief the first communist film, and demonstrates convincingly that every seemingly coincidental episode in the film is in fact carefully chosen to add subtle ammunition to its political point.


While The Bicycle Thief is clearly a film with a powerful political sub- text, one that needs to be understood in the context of the very real difficulty of survival in postwar Italy, it also has a fascinating psycho- logical dimension. Ricci’s troubles are shown to be internal as well as external. From the film’s very first shot, Ricci is isolated from the men around him. While his fellow unemployed crowd the steps leading up to the unemployment bureau hoping their names will be called for a job, Ricci sits across the street, as if he has given up hope of ever being em- ployed. As a result, he is so remote from the action that he does not even hear when his name is called. Someone has to seek him out to inform him of his good fortune.

When he is offered the coveted job, but cannot provide the requisite bicycle, he responds with despair. “Damn the day I was born. I feel like jumping in the river.” Ricci’s passive, fatalistic response to his dilemma is emphasized by the contrasting way his wife responds. She leaps into action, ripping off the sheets from the family’s beds so they can pawn them in exchange for the bike. Ricci’s passivity is again highlighted by the contrast of his behavior with his son’s. Bruno, while scrupulously cleaning the recently retrieved bicycle, notices a new dent and angrily in- sists that Ricci should have informed the pawn shop about the damage. In numerous ways throughout the film Bruno is shown to be more com- petent than his father. He knows the bicycle’s serial number by heart, he has mathematical abilities his father lacks, and several times in the film he saves the day by summoning a policeman, and bailing out his father when Ricci has gotten himself in trouble with a crowd. Finally, despite his young age, Bruno holds down a job at a gas station, making him the only member of the family who is employed.

While Ricci appears to be the victim of bad luck when his bicycle is stolen (a ring of bicycle thieves spots his unattended bicycle as he is con- centrating on putting up a poster), De Sica suggests in an earlier scene that Ricci is not sufficiently protective of this most precious commodity. When he accompanies his wife to see a psychic, he casually leaves the bi- cycle by the door, asking (but not paying) a young boy to watch it for him. Most first-time viewers of the film get very nervous at this point,

assuming that his nonchalance will result in the bicycle’s loss. Moreover, Ricci is presented as incompetent once he is on the job. The man who trains Ricci instructs him to be sure to flatten out the lumps in a poster because if the inspector sees any lumps he will fine him. Soon after, we see Ricci doing a blatantly messy job of smoothing out the lumps in the poster (ironically, one of Rita Hayworth bursting out of a low-cut dress). Worse, he rips the second half of the poster as he imperfectly aligns it with the top half.

On the surface it might seem that De Sica’s characterization of Ricci as a loser vitiates the film’s political message. We could well conclude that it is his fault he is unemployed, and not that of the economic in- equities of his society. But we can also read Ricci’s character flaws as a response to his circumstances. After two years of unemployment it is not surprising that he would have given up hope, become depressed, and lost the drive to succeed and excel. We might also speculate that part of Ricci’s almost childlike passivity results from his having come of age in a fas- cist, paternalistic state that infantilized its citizens. Bruno, who is grow- ing up in a liberated Italy, would naturally have more confidence and drive. Beginning with Open City, which ends with a group of children whistling a song of liberation after a partisan priest is executed by the Nazis, many neorealist films place hope for a better future in the hands of Italy’s youth. In any case, Ricci’s very human vulnerability makes his plight all the more affecting. The weak are always the most seriously af- fected by a disintegrating social order.


Despite its flawed hero and depressing plot, The Bicycle Thief, from start to finish, is a dramatically powerful, highly entertaining, and utterly com- pelling film. This is owing, in large part, to De Sica’s synthesis of neore- alist style and content with the style and content of the classical Holly- wood film. The Bicycle Thief most strikingly resembles Hollywood films in the device used to set the plot in motion: the main character’s lack. As I pointed out in chapter 4, in most classical film plots the central char- acter lacks something vital which he or she must overcome obstacles to obtain. According to Alfred Hitchcock, this object of desire (which he refers to as the MacGuffin)9 could be anything, as long as it provides a goal that sets off an intense quest, a pretext for the action of the plot. The spectator derives pleasure, Hitchcock believes, not from the impor- tance of what is sought, but from watching the quest.

In The Bicycle Thief, De Sica gives us the classical Hollywood plea- sure of identifying with a character in a quest to recover something he has lost, but in this film the lost object in and of itself is supremely important, and not just a device to set the plot in motion. Although the po- liceman in charge of Ricci’s case dismisses his loss as “just a bicycle,” the comment is heavily ironic in the context the film establishes: Ricci needs the bicycle to be able to work and feed his family. De Sica suggests that even more is at stake than unemployment and hunger by giving the lost bicycle the brand name “Fides,” which in Italian means “faith.” Un- employment threatens Ricci not only with physical hunger but with a terrible spiritual despair. This despair is hinted at, as we noted above, in Ricci’s suicidal remarks to his wife when he fears he will not be able to take the job. Once his bicycle is redeemed, so is Ricci. He becomes happy and hopeful, sexually playful with his wife, and at last a proud model for his son. Thus the loss of the bicycle means much more than the loss of material security. It also means the loss of Ricci’s pride and hope for a better life, the loss of his manhood, and ultimately the loss of a reason to live. The film demonstrates how material well-being is a prerequisite for spiritual well-being. The loss of “Fides” thus means both literally and figuratively the loss of Ricci’s “faith”—in himself and in his future. By raising the stakes of finding the bicycle so high, De Sica heightens the viewer’s involvement in and anxiety about the outcome of Ricci’s quest, making the experience of watching The Bicycle Thief far more compelling (and, yes, entertaining) than most conventional Hollywood films.

Our emotional involvement in the action is further intensified by the use of another feature common to classical films: the deadline. Whatever the task the protagonist needs to accomplish, it must be accomplished soon—orelse.Thus,Ricci’sfriendatthepoliticalpartyheadquarterstells him he must find the bicycle immediately because stolen bikes are quickly disassembled and sold in parts. Late in the film, when Ricci’s despera- tion is so great that he stoops to seeking help from a psychic, the psy- chic intones: “You will find it now or not at all.” In other words, he has a deadline.

Although the story of a weak, passive common man who loses some- thing he desperately needs might seem unremittingly grim, this is not the case. The film remains compelling to watch because of the way the script of The Bicycle Thief balances moments of hope that the bike will be eas- ily retrieved with moments of despair that the search is futile. When the bicycle is first taken, there is a moment of hope when a man appears say- ing “I saw him. He went this way.” Ricci jumps into a car whose driver obligingly pursues the man indicated. After an exciting chase, when the car catches up with the man, he turns out not to be the thief. Ricci’s de- spair is increased because he has lost valuable time on a wild-goose chase. (In subsequent viewings of the film, it becomes clear that a ring of thieves is involved in stealing Ricci’s bike. The supposedly helpful man, one of them, has deliberately led Ricci astray.)

At the marketplace Ricci visits the next day to seek his lost bicycle, the camera tracks past row after row of bicycles and bicycle parts, giv- ing Ricci’s search a needle-in-a-haystack feeling of futility, vividly con- veying his despair that he will never find it. But suddenly he comes upon a man painting the frame of a “Fides.” The hope that the bicycle is Ricci’s is drawn out when the man refuses to reveal the bicycle’s serial num- ber, as if he has something to hide. When a policeman finally forces him to reveal the serial number, despair returns because the number does not match the one on Ricci’s bike. Despair continues when a downpour prevents Ricci from looking for his bike at another market, but hope returns when, in an extraordinary stroke of good luck, Ricci recognizes the thief (whom he had seen stealing his bike) talking to an old man. The thief rides away on the stolen bicycle (despair), but Ricci and Bruno follow the old man into a church, intending to persuade him to lead them to the thief (hope). The man manages to elude them (despair), but Ricci, through another coincidence, later encounters the thief again and fol- lows him to his neighborhood (hope). A policeman is summoned to search the boy’s home (hope), but the policeman finds nothing (despair). Ricci is threatened by the boy’s mother for accusing her son and he is also mocked and physically threatened by the thief’s neighbors (despair). The carefully modulated alternation between hope and despair keeps the film forever fresh and fascinating to watch. Even though I have seen the film countless times, with each viewing I keep hoping—in the irrational way we do at the movies—that this time Ricci will apprehend the thief right away, that this time the painted Fides will have the right serial num- ber, or that this time the policeman will find the bicycle in the thief’s room. Something will go right for a change and Ricci will get his bicy- cle back.

The Bicycle Thief departs from conventional mainstream cinema in its use of grainy black-and-white film stock, location shooting, and use of nonprofessional actors—all the conventions that give the film the patina of documentary realism. However, these very reality effects ac- tually work to increase another major pleasure we get from classical films, the illusion that we are not at the movies but looking into a real world,

as if through an open window. So seemingly real is The Bicycle Thief that after seeing it, most studio-made films seem phony or fake in compari- son. De Sica playfully comments on the window-on-the-world illusion he creates in his film in a sequence in which Ricci and Bruno prepare to set off to work on the first day of Ricci’s new job. Right before they leave the house, Bruno walks toward the camera to close the shutters on the window. As he moves forward, the camera pulls back and out the win- dow to reveal that we have indeed been viewing this intimate morning scene literally through an open window. (See figure 29.)

The Bicycle Thief also adheres to the Hollywood conventions of film- making in its use of invisible editing. The shots in The Bicycle Thief are for the most part edited together smoothly by match cuts and conven- tional editing devices such as point-of-view shots, shot/reverse shots, and crosscutting. As a result, the narrative flows so smoothly that the events in the film do not seem to be narrated. They seem just to hap- pen. A close examination of the final sequence of The Bicycle Thief, how- ever, illustrates the complex moral and psychological effects De Sica achieves through the artful synthesis of realist images with a classica editing style.


The sequence begins immediately after Ricci has lost his last best hope of finding his stolen bicycle. He has found and confronted the thief, but it is too late. The thief has already disposed of the bicycle and Ricci cannot prove that he has taken it. Not only can we infer that Ricci has lost all hope of being able to keep his job and hence his faith and hope for a bet- ter future, we can also intuit his pain at being mocked and humiliated in front of his young son, who, he must fear, has lost faith in his father’s ability to get justice from the world. It is truly a bitter moment in the film, which De Sica forces us to contemplate at length as he cuts to several long takes of Ricci and Bruno walking through the city streets in defeat.

In shot 1 of the sequence, Ricci and Bruno arrive at a part of town near a soccer stadium with a game in progress. People are lined up on a curve listening for the results of the game. Bruno, who has been trailing behind Ricci in the long trek across town, immediately sits down on a curb to rest. Crowd noise from the stadium swells up on the sound track, motivating shot 2, a medium-close shot of Ricci reacting to the crowd noise. Shot 3, from Ricci’s point of view, is the huge soccer stadium where the game is being played. This shot signifies more than the source of the crowd noise. The stadium is designed in the monumental style of fascist architecture. Rimming its walls are gigantic statues of heroic, idealized athletes, a cruel reminder to Ricci of all he does not represent to his son. (See figure 30.) Shot 4 returns to a medium-close shot of Ricci. His gaze turns in the direction of Bruno. Shot 5 is a full shot of Bruno sitting on the curb, seen from Ricci’s point of view. Bruno is holding his head in his hands, as if he is suffering the deepest anguish. Shot 6 is a reaction shot of Ricci taking in the immensity of his son’s distress. He turns away, but then his gaze settles on something equally distressing. Shot 7 reveals the object of his gaze, multitudes of parked bicycles. (See figure 31.) Al- though there is no dialogue, the sight of these bicycles from Ricci’s point of view allows us to “hear” a nonverbal interior monologue. “Look at all these bicycles. If I could just have one of them. . . .” But any larce- nous thoughts Ricci may have at this moment are dispelled by his sight of a policeman patrolling nearby. Shot 8 is a reaction shot of Ricci. He turns his back on temptation. Shot 9, a position and movement match, reveals Ricci walking toward the camera, but suddenly something else

captures his attention. In shot 10, from Ricci’s point of view, we see a lone, seemingly unattended bicycle parked by a door on a deserted street. (See figure 32.)

With this shot, De Sica tells us in a flash exactly what is running through Ricci’s mind. “No one is watching this one. I could easily take it and solve all my problems.” In shot 11, a reaction shot, Ricci abruptly turns away, his back to the camera, as if rejecting the idea. (See figure 33.)

But in shot 12, Ricci is suddenly facing the camera again and staring intently offscreen, as he was in shot 6. (See figure 34.) The temporal and spatial dislocation caused by the jump cut subtly reflects Ricci’s moral dislocation, the internal “about-face” he has to make in order to seriously con- template the idea of becoming a thief. Shot 13 is another shot, from Ricci’s point of view, of the bicycles we have seen in shot 7. Their mocking multitude seems to confirm Ricci in his decision to become a bicycle thief. In shot 14 he begins walking back in the direction of the unattended bi- cycle. In shot 15, a movement and direction match on Ricci, the camera follows Ricci as he continues to walk in the direction of the spot where he first saw the lone bicycle. In this shot we can see it tiny in the depth of the frame, parked by a doorway, still unattended. Ricci again turns away, as if changing his mind, but he cannot resist just one more look back. The camera then tracks with him as he turns back and joins Bruno.

The relatively long take in shot 15 brilliantly illustrates the point Andre Bazin makes in his influential essay “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage.” Here Bazin argues (and I have already touched on this in chapter 3) that certain filmic situations are aesthetically more powerful if captured in one long take as opposed to being fragmented into a num- ber of short shots through editing. Editing creates abstract or approxi- mate spatial relationships between objects. When, for example, a per- son is shown looking intently at something in one shot and then we are shown the object of his or her gaze in the next, we get the impression that the space in the second shot is nearby, but we never know for sure how much space actually separates the two images. In the sequence under analysis, for example, there are several point-of-view shots of the sta- dium seemingly taken from where Ricci is standing. But because we never see the stadium and Ricci in the same frame, or within the confines of one shot, we have no idea of the true spatial relations between them or, in- deed, if a stadium really exists in the vicinity. Its existence could be purely an illusion created by offscreen sound effects and editing. While Bazin does not argue that one should never create fake spatial relationships through the use of editing, he does believe that certain dramatic situa- tions demand the long take in order to preserve for the viewer the real time and space in which the action occurs.

Up until shot 15, De Sica has fragmented the space of the action, break- ing it up into little pieces—point-of-view shots, reaction shots, shots held together through movement matches, and so forth, with each shot last- ing from three to four seconds. But in shot 15, which is held for eigh- teen seconds, De Sica preserves the temporal and spatial unity of Ricci’s actions by following him with the camera. We witness his movement first toward the bicycle (his temptation), then toward Bruno (his conscience) in real time and space, as we would if we were seeing the action in the real world, or in the theater. By capturing Ricci, the bicycle, and Bruno within the confines of the same shot, De Sica gives us a more vivid ex- perience of Ricci’s internal conflict.

Bazin, as discussed in chapter 5, preferred long takes with deep-focus images because they allow the viewer’s eyes to wander around the im- age and construct meaning for themselves. Nothing is forced on the viewer’s attention. Earlier in the sequence, when we first saw the unat- tended bicycle from Ricci’s point of view, our eyes were directed to it

through the use of a close shot. In shot 15, however, the bicycle is tiny in the background of the frame. As in the example from Citizen Kane, when young Charles Kane appears tiny in the image while his mother signs papers that will change his life, the most important image is the tiniest object in the frame. In both cases the use of the long take and deep- focus shot creates an effect that is roughly equivalent to understatement in literature.

At the end of shot 15, Ricci sits down on the curb next to Bruno and looks up. Shot 16 is his view of the soccer stadium. The game is still in progress. This shot imbues the action with a certain amount of time pressure—another deadline. Probably Ricci would have more success in stealing the bicycle before the game lets out and too many people are around. Shot 17 is a reaction shot, taking us back to the same set-up as at the end of shot 15, of Ricci sitting on the curb next to Bruno. Ricci puts his hands to his face very much as Bruno had done earlier, but this shot speaks Ricci’s temptation and conflict. Should he act? Should he try to steal that bicycle? Bruno is watching him intently and warily, almost as if he can read his mind.

Shot 18 is an abrupt cut to a blurry close shot of bicyclists whizzing by from screen right to screen left. The camera pans left with their move- ment until it reveals Bruno and Ricci still sitting on the curb. At this point, the camera slowly moves closer to Ricci and Bruno, zeroing in on their reaction. The contrast between the static, forlorn pair and the dynamic motion of the bicyclists increases our sense of all Ricci and Bruno have lost. They follow the movement of the bikers with their eyes until Ricci can stand it no longer. He rises from the curb. His action is completed in shot 19 (through a smooth movement match). He looks off in the di- rection of the stadium. Shot 20 is a high-angle shot of the stadium. People are pouring out of it now. In shot 21, the camera follows Ricci as he goes back to the place where he first observed the unattended bicycle. It is still parked by the door. He turns back in the direction of Bruno.

In the previous series of shots (shots 1–21) as well as the ones that follow (shots 22–28), De Sica builds suspense through the technique of retardation—delaying the outcome of an action so that when it comes it will be all the more explosive. Here the delaying tactics are dramati- cally motivated because they also serve to heighten audience identification with Ricci by allowing us to observe every nuance of his mixed feelings. The silent discourse of images tell us that he would like to steal the bi- cycle, but he cannot do so in front of his son. At the same time, the mul- titudes of people retrieving their parked bicycles and riding away make

Ricci’s desire to have one himself almost unbearable. His action of tak- ing off his hat and pulling his hair speaks volumes about the pain of his conflict. Shot 27, in which Ricci looks offscreen in the direction of the unattended bicycle and puts his hat back on, signals that he has made a decision. In shot 28, Bruno looks at his father almost accusingly, again as if he intuits what Ricci is thinking.

In shot 29, another long take lasting twenty-two seconds, Ricci pulls Bruno up from the curb, hands him money and speaks the first line of dialogue in over thirty shots: “Here. Take the streetcar—wait at Monte Sacro.” Thinking he has rid himself of his inhibiting son, Ricci turns around and heads toward the object that tempts him. But Bruno, like a sticky conscience, disobeys his father, following closely in his footsteps. Ricci,exasperated,yells,“Youheardme.Goon.”ThistimeBruno,look- ing troubled and bewildered, exits from the frame as his father glares af- ter him. The camera follows Ricci’s movements as he turns the corner and heads in the direction of the unattended bicycle.

At this point comes what is for me the most powerful moment in the film. Shot 30 is a cross-cut to Bruno running for the streetcar, but he just misses it. Now the audience knows something that Ricci does not. He has not gotten rid of Bruno after all. This shot is so powerful because it adds a new layer of suspense to an already almost unbearably suspenseful situation. The first layer of suspense involves the questions: Will Ricci give in to the temptation to steal a bicycle and, if he does, will he get caught? Bruno’s missing the streetcar complicates that suspense by adding another dimension to the suspense, a moral and psychological dimension. Now we are made to wonder what will happen if Bruno wit- nesses his father’s thievery. How will he react?

I cannot speak for every spectator of this film, but in trying to figure out why this moment in the film has such power for me, I arrive at this formulation: I have come to share Ricci’s alienation and desperation and hence I want him to succeed in stealing the bicycle. I want his life to get better no matter what the moral cost. This is not so unusual. Many movies encourage transgressive identifications, and thus seduce us into rooting for someone to get away with a crime. But Bruno’s presence at the scene of Ricci’s temptation is a complicating factor. Knowing that Bruno may witness his father’s thievery puts me in conflict. Because I am so identified with Ricci at this point, Bruno functions as my conscience as well as his. But—and here is the real sticking point—as much as I cringe at the possibility that Bruno may see his father succeed at becoming a thief, at the same time, more than ever, I do not want him to get caught and hence fail once again in front of his son.

Because of the above context, shot 31, a cross-cut back to Ricci now lurking in closer proximity to the bicycle, creates mixed feelings of excitement, suspense, and dread that remind me of the best moments in Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Ricci casually walks past the door adjacent to where the bicycle is parked, and looks in to see if anyone is watching. Then he turns around, mounts the bicycle and begins to ride away. A split second later a man comes out of the door crying at the top of his lungs, “Thief. Help. He’s got my bicycle. Thief. Stop him.” In shot 32 a group of men nearby hear the man’s cry and come running. Shot 33 is a long shot of Ricci trying to escape on the bicycle, a group of men in close pursuit. Ricci emerges from screen right in shot 34, having gained no distance from his pursuers. We know he is doomed.

Shot 35 is a cross-cut to a medium close-up of Bruno. His anxious stare suggests he is witnessing his father’s futile attempt to escape. Shots 37 and 38 are particularly emotionally intense because they are from Bruno’s point of view: The spectator is placed, as it were, in the shoes of the son as he sees a group of angry men close in on his father and bring him down. Shot 39 is a medium close-up of Bruno’s stunned reaction. The camera holds on his stricken face until he runs out of the frame in the direction of his father.

In the subsequent shots, once again Bruno witnesses his father being mocked and reviled, his face slapped. In an extraordinarily touching shot, as a group of men lead Ricci away, Bruno finds his father’s hat and du- tifully brushes it off, as if preserving the little dignity that his father has left. Not only does Bruno try to save his father’s dignity, he effectively saves Ricci from criminal prosecution. The man whose bicycle was stolen is so moved by the sight of Bruno’s anguish that he refuses to press charges against Ricci. “The man has enough trouble,” he explains. In the final sequence of the film, as Ricci and Bruno head for home after their devastating day, Bruno saves his father once more—through the gesture of tak- ing his hand. (See figure 35.)

Bruno’s gesture has been interpreted in numerous ways. Viewers will dismiss it as sentimental or feel it as profoundly moving depending on what experiences they bring to the film. I tend to agree with André Bazin’s reading of Bruno’s gesture as a sign that “the son returns to a father who has fallen from grace. He will love him henceforth as a human being, shame and all. The hand that slips into his is neither a symbol of forgiveness nor of a childish act of consolation. It is rather the most solemn gesture that could ever mark the relations between a father and his son: one that makes them equals.”

This moving solidarity between father and son is not, as some critics claim, a concession to the feelings of the audience, but an integral part of an important theme that plays throughout the film and is part of the film’s political message. Ricci realizes earlier in the film, when he fears that Bruno may have drowned, that the loss of the bicycle is insignificant in relation to the possible loss of his son. Yet the film makes clear that the loss of the bicycle has threatened Ricci with the loss of Bruno through- out the film. So preoccupied is Ricci with finding his Fides that he dan- gerously ignores his son’s needs and even his safety. When Ricci himself becomes a bicycle thief, he is threatened not with the physical loss of his son but with the loss of his son’s admiration and respect.

While De Sica persuades us that people matter more than things, and that Bruno’s love for Ricci, despite everything that has happened, is a kind of saving grace, he simultaneously makes it clear that neither people nor love are safe in a world of economic scarcity.

At the core of De Sica’s

and his scriptwriter Caesare Zavattini’s brand of neorealism was a strongly humanist and reformist impulse. They hoped that by honest por- trayals of ordinary life in which human bonds are threatened by a dis- ordered and unjust society, they could create a bond between the audi- ence and the characters in the film so that those who saw their films would be sharply aware of how society needed to change if human life is to pros- per.11 The final shot of the film, a static shot of Ricci and Bruno disap- pearing into the crowd, becomes a bitter cry of protest. It leaves us with the feeling that theirs is only one sad story among countless tales of suf- fering in the dysfunctional social order of postwar Italy.

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