Saturday, March 10, 2012



Director: Vittorio De Sica
Screenplay: Cesare Zavanttini, Suso D’Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci and Gerardo Guerrieri from the novel by Luigi Bartolini

The most memorable and intriguing films of Italian Neorealism have a few things in common, but the two I think about most are their simplicity, and their empathy. Empathy’s something that’s often looked down upon by most film scholars nowadays. It’s not unwarranted; when it’s done poorly, it plays as unrealistic and manipulative. When it’s done well however, it can be the most powerful tool in any artist’s handbook. 

Italian Neorealism was the premiere influence on independent film movements from French New Wave to Cinema Novo, to Dogme 95, to even the recent U.S. Mumblecore movement. It’s simple and cheap. Take a few handheld cameras and hit the streets, no need for a lot of lighting, no need for a set, in many cases, no need for actors. Lamberto Maggiorani wasn’t a trained actor, he worked at a factory, and had trouble getting work after the film was released, with people thinking he was a movie star now. The Italian Neorealist films were made right after WWII, and with Italy in ruins, structurally and economically, these films from directors like De Sica, Visconti, Minelli and others would show the perils of poverty and living on the lowest of the economical ladder, with everybody ignoring them. Vittorio De Sica’s famous trilogy of films, all written by Cesare Zavanttini, are the most famous, starting with “Shoe-Shine,” about a young boy who shine shoes, and ending with “Umberto D” about an old man whose pension gets taken away from him, making him unable to pay rent. 

“The Bicycle Thief,” (Actual Italian translation is “Bicycle Thieves”) is the second film. Together they profile the struggles of three generations of men in Italy. The story, as many of the neorealist films are, is exceptionally simple. The movie involves a man (Maggiorani) looking for work, along with dozens of other unemployed workers, but he manages to get a job hanging movie posters throughout Rome, the only catch being that he needs a bicycle. He has a bicycle, but it’s been pawned. He pawns his bed sheets to get it back, and off to work, but as the title suggests, his bicycle is soon stolen. 

The movie is almost too predictable to describe, it's just him and his son (Enzo Staiola) walking around Rome, trying desperately to find the bike, and the thief. The movie is really about is the empathy for the characters and the awareness of the direness of the poor and poverty-stricken. It’s the clearly the best of the neorealist films. It was awarded an honorary Oscar (Their wasn’t a foreign film category at that time), and was named the Best Film of all-time in Sight and Sound’s 1st poll, in 1956. It however, fell to 6th ten years later, (After “Citizen Kane” was finally re-released in ’62 after W.R. Hearst’s death)  and has been off the list ever since. It’s kind of difficult these days to place the film back into its context, but it still holds as probably the saddest movie ever made. The images of Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) running around Rome all day looking for the man who stole the bike, going to desperate measures to find it, knowing that it probably won’t be found, but they have to search anyway. You have to be pretty dense to not realize the sentimentality and empathy being forced upon you, and really cold to not have it effect you. (I once broke up with a girl because she found the movie funny) 

I usually tell most casual filmviewers to watch these films as you run into them, because as with most neorealist films, great as they may be, they’re not the easiest films to watch, and it can be depressing watching sad film after sad films, knowing that you went out of your way to put yourself through such an emotional upheaval. “The Bicycle Thief,” is the exception however. You need to watch it to get a sense of the movement, and let you know what to expect with other films in the movement, and if for no other reason, to show just how film can effect people’s emotions. It was Aristotle who warned that the poet was the greatest threat to democracy, for they make one feel emotion for that which they haven’t experienced themselves. 

In the 1950s, the Italian Government would start cutting and refusing to fund neorealist films, because of the portrait of the Italy they showed cut into the country’s tourism. After watching “The Bicycle Thief,” and other neorealist films, as pro-freedom of speech as I am, I must say, I understand the Italian Government’s concern.

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