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The Criterion Collection Bicycle Thieves (1948) – Deep Focus Review – Movie Reviews …


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Fahrraddiebe (1948) - Plot Summary Poster

Fahrraddiebe
(1948)

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  • Summaries (5)
  • Synopsis (1)

Summaries

  • In post-war Italy, a working-class man’s bicycle is stolen. He and his son set out to find it.

  • Ricci, an unemployed man in the depressed post-WWII economy of Italy, gets at last a good job – for which he needs a bike – hanging up posters. But soon his bicycle is stolen. He and his son walk the streets of Rome, looking for the bicycle. Ricci finally manages to locate the thief but with no proof, he has to abandon his cause. But he and his son know perfectly well that without a bike, Ricci won’t be able to keep his job.

    — jolusoma
  • The unemployment rate is high in postwar Italy. Antonio Ricci has been workless for two years, when he at last is offered a job as a poster. There is only one condition: he must have a bike of his own. At the moment his bicycle is at the pawn-shop, but Antonio’s wife Maria says they can pawn their six sheets instead. The first day at work Antonio’s bicycle is stolen. A friend offers to help him search for it the next morning at Piazza Vittorio, where the street vendors sell stolen bikes. The search is unsuccessful, but Antonio and his little son Bruno don’t give up. They continue to the market at Porta Portese, where Antonio happens to see the thief talking to an elderly man. As he cannot catch the thief, he instead pursues the old man, who goes into a church, where he disappears during the mass. The third time Antonio happens to see the thief, he succeeds to pursue him to his dwelling-place. A local policeman believes Antonio’s story about the theft, but as he cannot find the stolen bike in the apartment, the case is dismissed. Driven into utterly despair Antonio and Bruno walk back home – back to unemployment.

    — Maths Jesperson [email protected]
  • During the hard years of poverty in post-World-War-II Rome, Antonio, a poor working-class man of a wife and a little son, is finally offered a modest job as a bill-poster with his own bicycle; a bicycle like the one Antonio was already forced to pawn. As a result, his wife, Maria, pawns the family’s bed linen to redeem their bicycle, unfortunately, however, on Antonio’s first day of work, the prized possession is stolen. Desperate, the ill-fated father and his boy, Bruno, will scour Rome’s bustling streets on a gloomy Sunday to find the vital bicycle, but undoubtedly, this is an impossible task. Will Antonio ever get his job back?

    — Nick Riganas
  • Antonio Ricci is only one of several men who regularly stand outside his local municipal employment office in Rome every morning hoping that there is work available, it doled out on a qualification basis. This morning, he is told there is a job for him starting tomorrow hanging posters around the city. In getting the job, he tells a white lie in that he has a bicycle, a bicycle which is a requirement for the work. In actuality, he pawned his bicycle to put food on the table for himself, his wife Maria, and their two young children. At some sacrifice, he and Maria sell some of their possessions so that Antonio can get his bicycle out of hawk. They believe it is worth it as the return in employment salary and overtime far exceeds the initial capital outlay in getting the bicycle back. On Antonio’s first working day, his bicycle is stolen as he is on his ladder hanging a poster. With little help from the police who tell him all they can do is keep the bicycle’s serial number on file in case it does show up, Antonio, with his friends and his older son, adolescent Bruno, by his side, go on what seems like a futile mission to locate the bicycle, which could now be anywhere in Rome. But as Antonio views the bicycle as his and his family’s means of survival, he will grasp at any straw to locate the bicycle and/or the thief, who he did see, and perhaps take desperate measures in these desperate times.

    — Huggo

Spoilers


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • The film tells the story of Antonio Ricci, an unemployed man in the depressed post-World War II economy of Italy. With no money and a wife and two children to support, he is desperate for work. He is delighted to at last get a good job hanging up posters, but on the sole condition that he has a bicycle which must be used for work. He is told unequivocally: "No bicycle, no job." His wife Maria pawns their bedsheets in order to get money to redeem his bicycle from the pawnbroker.

    Early on in the film, Ricci’s coveted bicycle is stolen by a bold young thief who snatches it when he is hanging up a poster.

    Antonio thinks that the police will take the theft very seriously, but they are not really interested in the petty theft of a bike. The only option is for Antonio and his friends to walk the streets of Rome themselves, looking for the bicycle. After trying for hours with no luck, they finally give up and leave.

    Desperate for leads and with his better judgement clouded, Antonio even visits the dubious backstreet fortune teller that he had earlier mocked, in the hope that she may be able to shed light upon the bike’s whereabouts. However, she merely doles out to him one of the truisms that form her stock in trade: "you’ll find the bike quickly, or not at all." Feeling cheated, a crestfallen Antonio hands over to her some of the last money that they have. After a rare treat of a meal in a restaurant, Antonio admits to his son that if he isn’t able to work, they will simply starve.

    Antonio finally manages to locate the thief (who, it seems, had already sold the bicycle) and Bruno slips off to summon the police to the apartment. Antonio meanwhile, angrily accuses the thief of stealing his bike but the boy denies all knowledge of the crime. When the policeman arrives, he sees the accused boy lying on the floor feigning a seizure and surrounded by irate neighbours who blame Antonio’s accusations for causing the "innocent" boy’s fit.

    The policeman tells Antonio that although he may have seen the boy stealing the bike, he did not catch the thief red-handed, nor has he any witnesses and that Antonio making an accusation is not good enough. With no proof and with the thief’s neighbours willing to give him a false alibi, he abandons his cause. Antonio walks away from the house in despair, as the thief’s neighbours follow, jeering at him about his lost bicycle.

    At the end of the film in one of the most resonant scenes, Antonio is sitting on the curb outside the packed football stadium. He looks at the hundreds and hundreds of bicycles that are parked outside the stadium and as he cradles his head in despair, a fleet of bicycles mockingly speeds past him.

    After vacillating for some time about whether to steal one for himself, he decides he has no other option but to snatch one that he spots outside an apartment. Unluckily, he is seen taking the bike and caught by a crowd of angry men who slap and humiliate him in front of his son. Ironically, this time with an army of witnesses who catch him, he is frogmarched off to the police station but after seeing how upset Bruno is, the owner of the bicycle declines to press charges.

    The film ends with the man and his son, sad and let down from what has just happened, they walk along in a crowd, leaving us with a dim outlook for the two. Holding hands, they are both reduced to tears.

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Steves Media and Film Studies Blog

Bicycle Thieves – Opening Sequence Analysis

By stevemediafilm

A2 Film Studies requires you to build on your skills of analysis. In particular you’ll need to demonstrate an awareness of social and historical context, theory and other critical reviews of your focus texts in your writing.

That doesn’t mean you’ll have to abandon the analytical skills you acquired in the first year of your course. On the contrary, in order to produce well-rounded essays with good close textual analysis your work will still have to use the micro and macro elements as a stepping stone into the broader approaches listed above.

World Cinema, Neo-Realism – The passage of analysis below is designed to give you a few ideas about how you can balance micro and macro analysis with a wider contextual discussion. The analysis is not exhaustive and works through the exposition scenes sequentially. I’ve tried to outline how the micro elements are used to construct the central themes of the film and position the audience to see the story from a certain POV.

(If you prefer I’ve included [at the end] a second copy of the analysis that itemises which specific aspects of the micro elements I’m discussing and how the writing meets the assessment objectives)


Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1945)

Opening Shots

Bicycle Thieves opens with a slow pan that follows a bus into a shabby suburban housing estate. A long continuous take then dissolves into a tracking shot as a group of men gather hurriedly at the foot of some steps. Right from the start the film uses its realist aesthetic to foreground two key ideas. First, it is evident from the free movement and initial distance of the camera that the style of the film will echo the formal style of documentary-reportage or verite news reporting. In other words we are being asked as an audience to consider the story as a fictionalisation of a real-word situation. Second, we are being shown a story located amongst the poor. The mise-en-scene highlights the issue of post-war deprivation whilst the strings of the non-diegetic score signify a sadness and sympathy with these people and their predicament.

As the sequence progresses we meet Antonio. We first see him framed deliberately distanced from the crowd of men. The camera here helps to characterise Antonio’s sense of isolation created possibly by his joblessness. As the scene progresses further it becomes apparent that this group of men, like Antonio, are unemployed and desperate for work. Many of them are skilled. The scene reflects yet another reality of post-war Italy i.e. that high levels of unemployment are throwing families into desperate poverty.

pdvd_001

bt103

It is important to note that the right-wing administration of the time would have been eager to avoid this reality being publicised on movie screens both domestically and abroad. In this sense the film is subversive, it is challenging the middle class representations of Italy projected in the era’s so-called White Telephone films and the historically grand representations of Italy typical of ‘sword and sandal’ epics. 

Antonio Gets a Job

The equilibrium is disrupted. Antonio has been given a job. The camera, still moving freely, follows him back to near his family’s small apartment where we meet his wife Maria. There is a subtle but crucial moment of performance here. Antonio breaks the good news to his wife but things are complicated by his need for a bicycle; without one he won’t be able to work. Preoccupied by this he momentarily allows Maria to struggle with two heavy buckets of water before turning quickly to help her. For the audience to engage with the story and crucially to empathise with its main characters we must see Antonio as a good man. In this moment the narrative shows us not only that Antonio is a good man but that he’s a good man being compromised by a bad situation. Indeed, this idea reverberates in the film’s resolution as the gravity of Antonio’s situation forces him into the theft of a bicycle.

marai

bt025

Once inside their apartment the camera, continually at eye level, reveals the very austere and sparse furnishings of their cramped home. If the outdoor space was dominated by men (patriarchal) then the domestic space is very much dominated by women (matriarchal). In this sense the film divides interior and exterior locations in a way that represents the cultural gender values of the country at the time (and possibly still). Lianella Carell’s performance signifies that her character Maria has taken the upper hand. She offers to pawn the family’s bed sheets in order to recover Antonio’s bike. Consequently the essential goodness of Maria’s character is revealed and the noble traditions of self-sacrifice are outlined. Moreover we see once again the humanist values of the film being delineated; that is to say we see good people forced into difficult and compromising situations as a consequence of systems beyond their control.

Pawnbroker’s Shop

The next scene takes place at the pawnbroker’s shop. The clever use of mise-en-scene and framing in this sequence develop the film’s themes further and symbolise the prevailing culture of ‘them and us’. The camera positions the audience to see Maria and Antonio jostling in a crowd to peer through the pawnbrokers hatch at us. The mise-en-scene creates a frame within a frame. Maria and then Antonio appear trapped and belittled; imprisoned almost. The reverse shot is a tilt. The camera moves up slowly and deliberately to reveal hundreds of stacked bed sheets. The implication is that Maria and Antonio are not the only family in this situation, on the contrary; their characters, it would seem, are merely being used to articulate a much wider social problem afflicting Italy’s working class population. It is arguably at this point that the film’s ideological values are most clearly elucidated. We see ‘the few’ on one side of a divide exploiting ‘the many’ on the other. A sound-bed of non-diegetic music plays throughout the scene underlining the melancholy tone of the film so far.

the-bicycle-thief-antonio

960

Preparing for Work

Back at the family home and having retrieved his bike Antonio prepares for his first day at work. It’s at this point that we meet Antonio and Maria’s son Bruno (hooray). The optimism and pride have clearly returned to the family and Antonio’s performance is now more confident; he interacts playfully with his wife and takes pride in his work clothes. Mise-en-scene is crucial in underlining the key message of this scene. As Antonio works through the morning ritual of preparing for his day his actions are imitated by his son. We see Bruno copying and looking up to his father seemingly as his role-model. Even Bruno’s clothes match those of his dad. We can imagine that for an Italian audience in 1945 this scene would resonate with their shared values of family and work and, in the form of Bruno, provide a message of optimism about the future of their country and their collective chances of prosperity. For a current audience the realisation that a boy as young as Bruno is also preparing himself for work is shocking yet resonates with the desperation of the time and introduces wider issues concerning the exploitation of labour and, in this case, child labour.

bicycle_thief

bicycle_thief_163

In the final passage of the film’s exposition we cut to Antonio cycling to work. The scene employs a variety of stylistic devices to build on the narrative’s increasing sense of optimism. The morning half-light feels symbolic; a dawn is breaking both literally and metaphorically on a new day. The camerawork captures Antonio’s renewed sense of freedom and liberation. At one point the audience is positioned right in among the commuting cyclists. The camera – itself apparently mounted on a bike – appears to free-wheel and provides a sense of movement and mobility. A wide shot further underlines the feeling of freedom and space and follows Antonio along the banks of the Tiber. There is a palpable sense of collective identity and working class spirit that reflects the film’s socialist principles. Unlike in previous scenes the non-diegetic score is now also more upbeat in tone. The sequence concludes with Antonio waving Bruno off as the young boy starts his day at a petrol garage.

Conclusion

In the four distinct opening scenes of the film’s exposition the micro and macro elements work together not only to elicit the audience’s empathy with the central characters but also to underline its values and draw attention to the poverty and inequality of post-war Italy. Director Vittoria De Sica uses the film’s difficult production conditions to his advantage. By making a film literally ‘on the streets’ he is able to champion the underdog and tell a story about real people. As encapsulated in its opening scenes Bicycle Thieves is a different kind of Italian national cinema; one that sets the agenda of Neo-realism by moving away from the power and propaganda of Mussolini sponsored cinema to a style of storytelling that is more in touch with the struggles of everyday Italian people.

 



 

Opening Shots

Bicycle Thieves opens with a slow pan (CINEMATOGRAPHY- CAMERA MOVEMENT) that follows a bus into a shabby suburban housing estate (MISE-EN-SCENE -LOCATION). A long continuous take (EDITING – SHOT DURATION) then dissolves into a tracking shot (CINEMATOGRAPHY- CAMERA MOVEMENT)as a group of men gather hurriedly at the foot of some steps. Right the film foregrounds two key ideas. First, it is evident from the free movement and initial distance of the camera (CINEMATOGRAPHY – SHOT TYPE) that the style of the film echoes the formal style of documentary-reportage or verite news reporting (GENRE). In other words we are being asked as an audience to consider the story as a fictionalisation of a real-word situation. Second, we are being shown a story located amongst the poor (NARRATIVE). The mise-en-scene highlights the issue of post-war deprivation whilst the strings of the non-diegetic score (SOUND) signify a sadness and sympathy with these people and their predicament.

As the sequence progresses we meet Antonio. We first see him framed (CINEMATOGRAPHY – FRAMING) deliberately distanced from the crowd of men. The camera here helps to characterise Antonio’s sense of isolation created possibly by his joblessness (REPRESENTATION). As the scene progresses further it becomes apparent that this group of men, like Antonio, are unemployed and desperate for work. Many of them are skilled. The scene reflects yet another reality of post-war Italy i.e. that high levels of unemployment are throwing families into desperate poverty (CONTEXT).
It is important to note that the right-wing administration of the time would have been eager to avoid this reality being publicised on movie screens both domestically and abroad. In this sense the film is subversive, it is challenging the middle class representations of Italy projected in the era’s so-called White Telephone films and the historically grand representations of Italy typical of ‘sword and sandal’ epics (CONTEXT, GENRE).

Antonio Gets a Job

The equilibrium is disrupted (NARRATIVE). Antonio has been given a job. The camera, still moving freely (CINEMATOGRAPHY), follows him back to near his family’s small apartment where we meet his wife Maria . Thera is a subtle but crucial moment of performance here (MISE-EN-SCENE -PERFORMANCE). Antonio breaks the good news to his wife but things are complicated by his need for a bicycle; without one he’s won’t be able to work. Preoccupied by this he momentarily allows Maria to struggle with two heavy buckets of water before turning quickly to help her (REPRESENTATION). For the audience to engage with the story and crucially to empathise with its main characters we must see Antonio as a good man. In this moment the narrative shows us not only that Antonio is a good man but that he’s a good man being compromised by a bad situation. Indeed, this idea reverberates in the film’s resolution as the gravity of Antonio’s situation forces him into the theft of a bicycle (MESSAGES, VALUES AND IDEOLOGY).

Once inside their apartment the camera, continually at eye level (CINEMATOGRAPHY), reveals the very austere and sparse furnishings of their cramped home (MISE-EN-SCENE -SETTING, PROPS). If the outdoor space was dominated by men (patriarchal) then the domestic space is very much dominated by women (matriarchal). In this sense the film divides in a way that represents the cultural gender values of the country at the time (and possibly still) (MESSAGES, VALUES, IDEOLOGY) . Lianella Carell’s performance signifies that her character Maria has taken the upper hand (MISE-EN-SCENE -PERFORMANCE). She offers to pawn the family’s bed sheets in order to recover Antonio’s bike. Consequently the essential goodness of Maria’s character is revealed and the noble traditions of self-sacrifice are outlined (MVI). Moreover we see once again the humanist values of the film being delineated; that is to say we see good people forced into difficult and compromising situations as a consequence of systems beyond their control (MVI).

Pawnbroker’s Shop

The next scene takes place at the pawnbroker’s shop. The clever use of mise-en-scene and framing in this sequence develop the film’s themes further and symbolise the prevailing culture of ‘them and us’. The camera positions the audience (CINEMATOGRAPHY) to see Maria and Antonio jostling in a crowd to peer through the pawnbrokers hatch at us. The mise-en-scene creates a frame within a frame. Maria and then Antonio appear trapped and belittled; imprisoned almost (REPRESENTATION). The reverse shot is a tilt. The camera moves up slowly and deliberately to reveal hundreds of stacked bed sheets. The implication is that Maria and Antonio are not the only family in this situation, on the contrary; their characters, it would seem, are merely being used to articulate a much wider social problem afflicting Italy’s working class population (CONTEXT). It is arguably at this point that the film’s ideological values are most clearly elucidated. We see ‘the few’ on one side of a divide exploiting ‘the many’ on the other. A sound-bed of non-diegetic music plays throughout the scene underlining the melancholy tone of the film so far (SOUND).

Preparing for Work

Back at the family home and having retrieved his bike Antonio prepares for his first day at work. It’s at this point that we meet Antonio and Maria’s son Bruno (hooray). The optimism and pride have clearly returned to the family and Antonio’s performance is now more confident; he interacts playfully with his wife and takes pride in his work clothes. Mise-en-scene is crucial in underlining the key message of this scene. As Antonio works through the morning ritual of preparing for his day his actions are imitated by his son. We see Bruno copying and looking up to his father seemingly as his role-model (MISE-EN-SCENE -PERFORMANCE). Even Bruno’s clothes match those of his dad. We can imagine that for an Italian audience in 1945 this scene would resonate with their shared values of family and work and, in the form of Bruno, provide a message of optimism about the future of their country and their collective chances of prosperity (MVI). For a current audience the realisation that a boy as young as Bruno is also preparing himself for work is shocking yet resonates with the desperation of the time and introduces wider issues concerning the exploitation of labour and, in this case, child labour (MVI +CONTEXT).
In the final passage of the film’s exposition (NARRATIVE) we cut to (EDITING) Antonio cycling to work. The scene employs a variety of stylistic devices to build on the narrative’s increasing sense of optimism. The morning half-light feels symbolic; a dawn is breaking both literally and metaphorically on a new day (LIGHTING – MVI). The camerawork captures Antonio’s renewed sense of freedom and liberation. At one point the audience is position right in among the commuting cyclists. The camera – itself apparently mounted on a bike – appears to free-wheel and provides a sense of movement and mobility. A wide shot further underlines the feeling of freedom and space and follows Antonia along the banks of the Tiber (MVI). There is a palpable sense of collective identity and working class spirit that reflects the film’s socialist principles. Unlike in previous scenes the non-diegetic score is now also more upbeat in tone. The sequence concludes with Antonio waving Bruno off as the young boy starts his day at a petrol garage.

Conclusion

In the four distinct opening scenes of the film’s exposition the micro and macro elements work together not only to elicit the audience’s empathy with the central characters but also to underline its values and draw attention to the poverty and inequality of post-war Italy. Director Vittoria De Sica uses the film’s difficult production conditions to his advantage. By making a film literally ‘on the streets’ he is able to champion the underdog and tell a story about real people PRODUCTION CONTEXT). As encapsulated in its opening scenes Bicycle Thieves is a different kind of Italian national cinema; one that sets the agenda of Neo-realism by moving away from the power and propaganda of Mussolini sponsored cinema to a style of storytelling that is more in touch with the struggles of everyday Italian people (CONTEXT – NATIONAL CINEMA).

 

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Media and Film Studies Teacher at Shooters Hill Post-16 Campus.

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