“There’s a cure for everything – except death.”
Vittorio DeSica’s “Bicycle Thieves” (1948) is another film that every serious cinephile needs to have checked out at least once. This film has not aged a bit. The opposite. Given the heightened poverty in our country exacerbated by COVID creating so much havoc on everybody’s livelihoods, this movie’s power and vitality seem stronger. It is a story that could take place right now in any city in the United States.
DeSica collaborated with writer Cesare Zavattini, working in a distinctive style known as Italian Neorealism which flourished between 1943 and 1952 in literature as well as cinema. It emphasized a documentary technique, the use of nonprofessional actors, a rejection of Hollywood conventions – shooting in natural locations as opposed to studio sets and de-emphasizing editing. The subject matter focused on the everyday person facing the economic and social conditions of Italy after World War II. The films illustrated the common individual’s struggles with poverty, oppression and injustices which were causing a sense of desperation in the country. The story lines were simple and found drama in humdrum happenings. It emphasized the need for survival in the poor and lower working class. It highlighted the poetry in the mundane and in the fragility of the human condition. They often included children as part of the story – although usually in the role of the observer. Neorealism was a manifestation of change and a need for social progress in Italy. The shooting in the streets became integral to the style of the films but it was born out of necessity since the Cinecitta studios were destroyed during the War. This movement was very influential and filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti among others created exemplary works in it. It ultimately helped shape the French New Wave – and its impact continues to be felt in today’s movies – think of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” and more recently “Never, Rarely Sometimes Always” and “Nomadland.”
There’s almost a parable quality to “Bicycle Thieves.” It takes place in Rome, and it follows Antonio who desperately needs a job to bring food to his wife, his son Bruno and baby. He gets an offer to work putting up movie posters, but it requires a bicycle. “I have one…but not at the moment,” he says. He’d had it pawned to make ends meet. His wife Maria strips the bed of their linens and has them hocked so he can get his bike back. DeSica poignantly has the camera focus on their sheets being put away in a huge shelving unit with hundreds of other linen bundles.
DeSica also lingers on other moving details like the wife making egg sandwiches on the first morning of work and Antonio excitedly riding through the streets of Rome with other cyclists early in the morning. As he stands on a wall glueing a big poster of Rita Hayworth, his bike is stolen from right under his nose. He pursues the assailant in vain, for he’s distracted by accomplices. The following day with his young son Bruno in tow, he goes to the police who inform him it will be an exercise in futility to look for the thief. And so, Antonio and Bruno start looking for it on their own through the Immortal City.
Along the way they will stop at the Porta Portese market with hundreds of bicycle parts and encounter people peddling their goods. “A man who’s been robbed has a right to look,” Antonio exclaims to somebody who questions his snooping. Father and son will take shelter from the rain on a street corner and will have an exchange with a group of German priests. They will follow a suspect into a Catholic Church adjacent to the Tiber – and we will witness men getting shaved and getting their hair trimmed as they await a charitable meal – but before anything is distributed, the poor must hear mass. Eventually they will enter a whorehouse and visit La Santona – a form of an oracle lady who tells Antonio: “Either you find it right away or you’ll never see it again.”
The glorious scene to me – in a movie with plenty of beauty – is Antonio and son entering a restaurant to eat. Not having much money, they order mozzarella sandwiches. Bruno keeps looking his shoulder to see an affluent family eating a bountiful meal. Antonio tells him, “To eat like them you’d have to earn a million lira a month…”
The plurality of the film’s title is explained in the last reel followed by its treasured last shot of father and son holding hands and walking into the crowds towards their peripatetic future.
Antonio: “Why kill myself worrying when I’ll end up just as dead anyway? Let’s forget everything and get drunk.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, The Criterion Channel and Kanopy and to rent on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime, iTunes and Apple TV.
Screenplay by Oreste Biancoli, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi, Gerardo Guerrieri and Cesare Zavattini
Novel by Luigi Bartolini
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Starring Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola
The Making of “Bicycle Thieves”
It took careful planning and rehearsing to give “The Bicycle Thief” its realistic look. Crowd scenes were meticulously staged and drilled, including one for which director Vittorio De Sica hired 40 street vendors. The Roman fire department provided a “surprise” rainstorm for another scene. In addition, De Sica shot with as many as six cameras at once to get the untrained actors’ spontaneous performances from several angles. Although the film looked like a documentary in places, the director’s painstaking methods drove him over budget. All of the Rome locations in the film were real. On one of the shooting days, British director David Lean showed up to watch De Sica film an outdoor sequence and was greatly impressed with how he handled the crowds in the street. De Sica’s son Manuel recalled in an interview the filming of scenes in the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele: “…Papa told me about coming across, early in the morning, the director of photography of the film Carlo Montuori, completely frozen, clinging to his camera, devotedly waiting for the fleeting moment. He had stayed there in order to protect with his whole body the chassis (the magazine of film mounted on the back of the camera) from the rigours of the night. Dawn has a brief duration, and for this reason several days were needed to sew together long sequences which had cost many early forced awakenings for the entire troupe just to get a few minutes of footage…During the filming in Piazza Vittorio, he required the production secretary, Roberto Moretti, to stop the trams passing. Poor Moretti, who did not even have a permit to set up the tripod of the camera on the square, with great presence of mind disguised himself as a tram conductor, and began to redirect all the trams bursting with workers that happened to pass in proximity to the square. Before anyone guessed the reason for the existence of this man in the middle of the crossroads, the shooting was finished and Roberto arrested.”
Future Italian director Ettore Scola, who was only fifteen years old at the time, recalled passing the Piazza Vittorio while on his way to school one day and wondering why it was so deserted that time of day. He said, “…only a worker, a street sweeper and a child were crossing the street, going in the direction of the market. A low and strangely close voice, like that of a prompter amplified by a megaphone, reached the actors and the crowd gathered behind the barriers: ‘More slowly, Lamberto. Let Gino go ahead. Enzo, keep behind Papa.’ The whisper was coming from a small tower on top of which, in a little wooden armchair, was seated a gentleman wearing a hat, a scarf, and a camel hair coat.” Director Sergio Leone, the father of the spaghetti western, was present during the filming of The Bicycle Thief. He recounted, “I was helping out for nothing on Ladri di biciclette, and I also had a tiny and much-noted part in the film…We were at Porta Portese, shooting the sequence in which the father of the boy wanders around looking for the bicycle. I was sixteen at the time, and was in the second year of grammar school. I was watching De Sica…when all of a sudden he said; ‘Ah, here I’d like to see a group of ten or fifteen red priests, those of the Propaganda of the Faith, it has started to rain, and I’d like to use this stupendous light’…and the next day we shot the marvelous scene….of these red priests who, caught by the storm, shelter under a cornice, and two of them talk to each other, so that the child, fascinated by this strange language, is distracted and stops to listen to them…I was one of the two red priests engaged in conversation, a conversation that in fact consisted of reciting numbers, because we couldn’t speak German, while the rest of the group was made up of school-friends of mine whom I had gone to recruit when De Sica had said that he didn’t know at the time where to lay his hands on fifteen youths.”
Lamberto Maggiorani, who played Antonio, was very shy and embarrassed throughout the shooting as he had no actor training or would often become anxious when he couldn’t do what De Sica wanted him to do. The director, however, did not coddle him because he knew Maggiorani’s real anxiety and nervousness before the camera would work well for his on-screen character. De Sica would later praise Maggiorani, saying “The way he moved, the way he sat down, his gestures with his hands hardened from work, the hands of a working man, not of an actor…I made him promise that after the film he would forget the cinema and would go back to his job.” But during the filming of “The Bicycle Thief,” De Sica would still send a black limousine to pick Maggiorani up and bring him to the day’s location. Even though Maggiorani remained uncomfortable with the mechanics of filmmaking and acting during the filming of “The Bicycle Thief,” he nevertheless began to feel a merging of his own identity with that of his character Antonio. De Sica later stated that Maggiorani “confessed to me that he had experienced this sensation, acutely and poignantly, in the last scene in the film: Antonio, in a moment of revolt against his cruel fate, attempts robbery and is arrested and maltreated in front of his son. When, through his tears, Lamberto Maggiorani felt his hand seized by little Staiola, it seemed to him that it really was his son who took his hand, and his tears became real tears of burning shame. In a few months of patient effort, I had brought this man to the point of being able to forget himself in his role and to enter fully into the sad story.” De Sica still hadn’t found the ideal actor to play Bruno when filming began on “The Bicycle Thief.” It was while he was shooting the scene in which Antonio searches for his friend who can help him locate the bike that fate intervened. “I was telling Maggiorani something,” he recalled, “when I turned around in annoyance at the onlookers who were crowding around me, and saw an odd-looking child with a round face, a big funny nose and wonderful lively eyes. Saint Gennaro has sent him to me, I thought. It was proof of the fact that everything was turning out right.” And so little Enzo Staiola was hired on the spot to play Bruno. At one point during the making of “The Bicycle Thief,” Enzo Staiola was almost run over twice while crossing the street. Both were accidents De Sica kept in the film. (tcm.com)
About Co-Writer Cesare Zavattini
Born into a humble family, Zavattini completed a law degree at the University of Parma and began a career in journalism and publishing. He wrote two successful comic novels— “Parliamo tanto di me” (1931; “We Talk a Lot About Me”) and “I poveri sono matti” (1937; “The Poor Are Crazy”)—before he began supplying stories for the Italian cinema. His first film treatment became Mario Camerini’s classic social satire, “Darò un milione” (1935; “I’ll Give a Million”), starring Vittorio De Sica. Zavattini completed 126 screenplays during his long career, 26 of which were for films directed by De Sica. He also worked with such noted Italian directors as Alessandro Blasetti, Giuseppe De Santis, Luchino Visconti, and Alberto Lattuada, but it was his scripts for De Sica that associated Zavattini with Neorealism. Among the classic films produced by the De Sica-Zavattini team were Teresa Venerdì (1941; “Doctor Beware”), “I bambini ci guardano” (1944; “The Children Are Watching Us”), “Sciuscià” (1946; “Shoeshine”), “Ladri di biciclette” (1948; “The Bicycle Thief”), “Miracolo a Milano” (1951; “Miracle in Milan”), and “Umberto D.” (1952). Zavattini’s views on Neorealism emphasized a documentary style of film realism, the use of nonprofessional actors, a rejection of Hollywood conventions, real locations as opposed to studio sets, an avoidance of dramatic or intrusive editing, and contemporary, everyday subject matter about the common man. He advocated strict adherence to these principles until the early 1950s, when De Sica felt that the genre was becoming cliché. Though the two never totally abandoned Neorealist theories, they devoted themselves to more mainstream fare during the remaining years of their collaboration. After the end of the Neorealist era, Zavattini completed a number of De Sica scripts that had great commercial success: “La ciociara” (1961; “Two Women”), “Ieri, oggi, domani” (1963; “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”), and “Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini” (1970; “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis”). In addition to his career in the cinema, Zavattini was an accomplished painter and published several volumes of poetry. (britannica.com)
About Author Luigi Bartolini
Born in Cupramontana near Ancona, Luigi Bartolini was the twentieth century Italian etcher, who came closest to the stature of his great rival, Morandi. As a teenager, he saw the collection of etchings, including work by Callot, owned by the Corradi family in Iesi. From 1907 to 1910 Bartolini studied at the Istituto di Belle Arti in Siena, and started to etch c. 1909. He moved to Rome in 1910, where until 1912 he frequented the Accademia di Belle Arti, while also attending lectures on literature and the history of art, and courses on anatomy at the University in Rome. Bartolini studied the etchings of Goya and took lessons on drawing at the Accademia di Spagna. From there, he went to Florence in 1913, where he attended the Scuola del nudo. Bartolini continued his anatomical research, as well as studying architecture, making himself the most assiduous student of all Italian twentieth century printmakers. He also visited the Uffizi and Florentine print dealers to look at the etchings of Rembrandt and Fattori. Bartolini painted his first oils just before the outbreak of the First World War. Although he painted pictures throughout the rest of his career, and was awarded the Premio Marzotto for them in 1956, they have been far eclipsed in fame by his etchings and writings. During the First World War, Bartolini published his first collection of poetry. A very prolific and accomplished writer, in this field he is best known today as the author of the novel, “Ladri di biciclette” (“Bicycle Thieves”), of 1946, which was quickly turned into a celebrated film by Vittorio de Sica and Cesar Zavattini. After the First World War, Bartolini held a series of minor teaching posts in Macerata, Sassari, Avezzano, Pola, and Caltagirone, while he continued to etch, and started a long career as a polemical journalist and critic of art and architecture. From 1923 to 1929, he wrote for the Naples periodical,”Cimento,” but he also contributed to “Il Selvaggio,” “Quadrivio,” “Italia letteraria,” and “L’Ambrosiana.” Bartolini’s 1924 exhibition of etchings at the Casa d’Arte Bragaglia in Rome was a great success, and later that year he showed 70 etched landscapes of the Marches at the Casa Palazzo di Roma. The following year he visited Paris, where he paid particular attention to the paintings of Van Gogh. Bartolini’s political convictions led him to being assaulted by Fascists and hospitalised in 1928. Two years later, he won a prize at the Venice Biennale, where he had exhibited a portfolio of etchings. In 1930, the Turin publisher, Buratti, began to issue a series of portfolios of etchings by contemporary Italian artists under the editorship of Cipriano Oppi, selecting Bartolini for the first album.
The following year, Buratti published “Le carte parlanti,” a portfolio of 10 of Bartolini’s etchings, which was published in an edition of 20. In 1932, Bartolini shared the first prize at the Prima mostra dell’incisione moderna at the Uffizi with Morandi and Boccioni. His close friend, the leading anti-Fascist art historian, Lionello Venturi, acted as his agent selling his etchings in Paris. Bartolini’s correspondence with his compatriots in exile led to his imprisonment, from which he was released on Mussolini’s personal intervention. He was then placed under political surveillance. From 1933 to 1938, Bartolini taught in Merano, where he painted and etched in the open air, finding subjects on the banks of the fast flowing Adige. Despite being under political suspicion, he was given a one – man show of 50 etchings at the second Rome Quadriennale in 1935, when he was awarded the first prize for printmaking. Bartolini still encountered political difficulties, and his “Modi,” published by Edizioni del Cavallino in 1938, was censured by Alfieri, a government minister. Nevertheless, it was another minister, Bottai, who opened his one – man show at the Galleria di San Marco in Rome in 1943. The 1930s and 1940s were Bartolini’s most prolific period as an etcher. He made as many as 99 in 1936, and 81 in 1943. Bartolini frequently illustrated his own writings. In 1943, “Sante e cavalla,” a set of 12 etchings, were printed under his direction at the Calcografia Nazionale, and published by Edizioni Documenta in Rome, while Tumminelli, another Roman publisher, issued his “Vita di Anna Stickler,” which was illustrated by 20 etchings. These were followed in 1946 by Bartolini’s illustrations to Rimbaud’s “Les illuminations,” and “Une saison en enfer,” which were published by De Luigi, also in Rome. In 1953, his “Addio e sogni: 6 poesie et 6 acqueforti” was published in Milan by Giovanni Scheiwiller’s “All’insegna del pesce d’oro,” while the following year, in Florence, Vallecchi published his “La caccia al fagiano,” which was illustrated by seven of his etchings. Bartolini’s final “Livres d’artiste,” illustrations to Leopardi’s “Canti,” and to his own “L’eremo dei Frati bianchi,” and “Testamento per Luciana,” were published in 1962 and 1963 by Renzo Bucciarelli in Ancona. Bartolini also made a small number of lithographs. In 1948, he was one of the artists who illustrated the memorial volume, “Elegia in morte di Ines Fila.” The Florentine workshop, “Il Bisonte,” published two portfolios in 1962, one consisting of six of his lithographs, the other of 6 of his etchings. (britishmuseum.org)
About Director Vittorio De Sica
Born in 1902 in Sora, near Rome, Vittorio De Sica spent his early years in Naples. His father, Umberto De Sica, was a bank clerk and former journalist who knew many show business people and used these contacts to launch his son’s career. In his teens De Sica made his screen debut and was popular as a singer of Neapolitan songs in amateur entertainments. De Sica studied accounting in Rome and completed his military service before taking a job in a theater company. He progressed from playing clowns and old men to leading roles in romantic comedies, and by 1930 he was a matinee idol. Throughout the thirties, he teamed frequently with director Mario Camerini, the most prestigious Italian director of the era, in a series of lighthearted films such as “I’d Give a Million” (1935). In the years 1940-42, De Sica directed several minor films in the “white telephone” film genre, developing his directorial and technical skills. In 1943 he directed “The Children are Matching Us,” which he wrote with Cesare Zavattini. It launched a life-long collaboration between the two that was instrumental in the development of neorealism. After the war, De Sica and Zavattini made several masterpieces in the neorealist style. De Sica showed his expertise in directing nonprofessional actors and making use of outdoor location shooting, as well as his compassion for the poor. “Shoeshine” (1946) received a Special Award at the 1947 Academy Awards presentation and marked De Sica’s international reputation as a major film director. In 1948 De Sica and Zavattini collaborated on the landmark film “The Bicycle Thief,” which received an Academy Award for best foreign film.
These films garnered more acclaim abroad than in Italy, where they were scorned by right-wing politicians as defeatist works which gave a distorted picture of Italian life to audiences abroad. De Sica and Zavattini’s next collaboration, the neorealist fantasy “Miracle in Milan” (1951), shared the 1951 Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. “Umberto D” (1952) followed and was De Sica’s favorite of all his films, which he dedicated to his father. Again, the films were praised abroad and denounced in Italy. During this period, De Sica continued his acting career and starred in Max Ophul’s “The Earrings of Madame De…” (1953), and Luigi Comencini’s “Bread,” “Love and Dreams” (1953), opposite Gina Lollobrigida. The two leads were so popular that they made a sequel a year later. In 1959 De Sica starred in Roberto Rossellini’s “General Delia Rovere,” one of his greatest acting roles. In 1960 De Sica directed Sophia Loren in “Two Women,” for which she received an Academy Award for best actress–the first time the award was given for a foreign-language performance. De Sica and Loren made several more films together in the 1960s, most notably “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” (1963) and “Marriage, Italian Style” (1964). Both were commercial hits, and the former received an Academy Award for best foreign film. After something of an artistic slump in the 1960s, De Sica’s directorial talents enjoyed a final flowering in his later years, especially with “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (1971). The film won much critical praise and his fourth Academy Award for best foreign film. The last two films De Sica directed were “A Brief Vacation” (1973), a film in the neorealist vein written by Zavattini, and “The Voyage” (1974), starring Sophia Loren and Richard Burton. De Sica was married twice, first to stage actress Giuditta Rissone, by whom he had a daughter, Emi, then to his frequent co-star, the Spanish-born actress Maria Mercader. They had two children, Manuel, a jazz musician and film composer who wrote the score for Finzi-Continis, and Christian, a popular comic actor and director. De Sica died in 1974 in Paris. (assets.moma.org)