The bicycle thieves & Neorealism

Continuing my experiments with Italian movies, I watched De Sica’s masterpiece Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) sometime back. The film was highly ordinary and non-special, and it was in this non-specialty that its charm lies. It is a story of desperation and poor luck, the kind that can (and does) fall on most people in their everyday lives. And that is the reason why the movie in particular and De Sica in general are tagged as the champions of Neorealism – a wave which dominated the post World War II Italian cinema and dealt exclusively with real people and their un-special lives.

Bicycle Thieves (I use the plural used by UK film distributors, because I think that is more correct in the light of the story, which actually was about two thieves rather than one) is a movie about a common man Ricci, who lives in the post world war Italy, and waits in queues to get a job. He finally finds one, on the condition that he has a bicycle. He pawns linen to get an old cycle that he had pawned earlier, and for a few minutes in the movie, we see happiness and hope on the face of this small family as they clean and polish the cycle which was to them, their route to happiness and comfort. However, as a viewer we know the name of the movie and are therefore not convinced by this show of happiness.

Sure enough, on the very first day of the much regarded job, a thief comes along and steals away Ricca’s cycle. Ricca along with his son Bruno and a few friends, struggles to find the cycle in bicycle markets, looking for each part as they expect the cycle to have been taken apart by the thief. This scene is particularly vivid and marks the desperation and finally the frustration of the father and the son. Defeated after this search and another hopeless pursuit, they both go to a pizzeria and spend the little money that they have on a sumptuous meal, the mental frame aptly described by Ricca’s words: What the hell! In this scene we also see the strengthening bond between the father and the son, and again for a moment there appears a shade of happiness.

Later, Ricca accidentally spots the thief and follows him – however the pursuit again proves futile as the thief is backed by a supportive neighborhood who are willing to give him a false alibi. Now truly broken and desperate, Ricca attempts to steal a bicycle himself to keep his job, but is caught and disgraced in front of his son. The end thus succinctly puts him at par with the thief, who also would have been driven to theft by his social conditions.

In the neorealistic style, De Sica has used non-professional actors in the movie, and has shot the entire movie on the streets of Rome, without the extensive use of sets and editing. Having grown up on Bollywood movies, I think that the reality offers a pleasant freshness despite the evident despair. There is nothing theatrical about the family’s tragedy – no overbearing landlords nor warlords. You can easily think : That could have been me – and through most of the movie, I did end up remembering my own despair at having my passport stolen on a crowded metro station of Paris, and my hopeless search for it.

Having said that, I am sure I would still continue to enjoy the more theatrical movies as much, because it is as important to sometimes escape reality as it is to sometimes face it.

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