What makes this film so great is it’s simplicity. Near the end of the film Antonio (father) and Bruno (son) go to eat at a restaurant and for a short while the reality of their situation is suspended. Then reality catches up to them and Antonio totals up the money he would have been making had his bicycle not been stolen on the first day of work. Then he says two lines that sum up the whole film, “See now why we have to find it? Otherwise we don’t eat.”
During WWII a movement known as neorealism began in Italy. There are some misconceptions about that movement, especially as it pertains to this film. It is true that economic conditions after the war pushed Italian filmmakers out of the studio’s and on to the streets, but there were other reasons as well. In the case of Cesare Zavattini, De Sica’s screen writer, he wanted to shoot on the streets with characters that were downtrodden. He felt that the purpose of neorealism was to call attention to the social problems that were otherwise being ignored. De Sica largely agreed, but wasn’t as gung ho about it.
Another misconception about Italian neorealism is that it was a coherent movement with an established agenda and rules. This is not true at all. Each director had their own brand of neorealism. Rossellini was best at giving the film a documentary look and feel for example with his war trilogy. De Sica’s realism was in his characters and their situation. If you watch the movie carefully you will notice that the camera is tightly controlled and his actors carefully choreographed. The kind of thing you would expect from a studio film. But the characters feel very real. This is a result of being real people that De Sica hired and gave the bare minimum of acting training in order for them to perform. As a result, you don’t usually see the studio techniques because the people are so believable.
This scene at the beginning of the film is a perfect example of the careful choreography. We see Antonio and the other poster hangers leaving in unison as we get a couple of very careful pans of the camera.
They had enough money for a rain machine in this famous scene so it’s wrong to think that neorealist filmmakers were guerrilla as you might think.
The film’s other strength is that while it’s the story of Antonio and his family. It’s also the story of everyone else in their situation.
This scene shot is from where they pawn the sheets to by back the bicycle. As you can see, a lot of people have done the same thing. At the beginning of the film, we see a lot of people who are waiting for a job just like Antonio. We see this idea of one among many again when Antonio chases the thief’s accomplice into a church where we can see just how many people are in poverty. Finally, at the end we see Antonio and Bruno become subsumed into the crowd of people. We have just been told Antonio’s specific story, but really we have been told all their stories.
A funny aside is that like in the picture below babies are often left unattended in neorealist films.
If you can find The Icicle Thief from the 1980’s you will see a hilarious parody of this movie which had children unattended throughout the movie crying or doing amazing things that go unnoticed.