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Italian Neorealism And Bicycle Thieves Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 3404 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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It is evident that Italian Neorealism and the life of post-war shaped DeSisa’s film Bicycle Thieves (1948). However, with much debate, one can argue that the sentimental nature of the film overwhelms the films potential to make a powerful political statement. With reference to important scenes from the film, Italian neorealist principles focused on; location, lighting, typage, décor, loose camera shots, eye-level angles, invincible editing and reportage, as well as and the usage of sentiment – One can justifiably claim that the powerful political statement is not overwhelmed by sentiment, and in fact enhances the message the film aims to give off.

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“The uniqueness of the Italian works, vise-a-visa other relevant cineama’s, lies in their stylistic organization of elements of apparent rawness, their emotional intensity, and their focus on current political and social problems.” (P. Adams Sitney, 1995) Thus, one is able to identify Italian Neorealism as the harmonizing of sentiment (emotional intensity) and awareness of political and social problems through Neorealist principles, which inevitably feeds off from an happening that affected the world, and specifically as we see in the history influence in this film; Italy. This change in society brought about characteristics and principles which became noticeable in cinema during this time period. These principles not only molded the film Bicycle Thieves, but were used to bring about a message to the audience. A message which was not overwhelmed by emotional rawness – but a message of a social movement awareness reflected through cinema.

Neorealism was not only what I came to see as a propaganda device, but an “influential and significant movement in film history, which occurred in Italy at the ending of World War II.” (John Stubbs, 2010: pg 1) Italy moved from fascism and dictatorship, whereby much was revolved around a single-party position as one can clearly see in the Holocaust, to an equal and democratic society. Here we see this so effectively reflected through Bicycle Thieves when converging neorealist principles, the idea of sentiment to enhance the political statement and the apparent rawness which adds power to the social conditions – Through the overall statement to justifiably prove that sentiment was not a downfall to DeSica’s focus.

The filmmakers and directors clearly believed they had an ethical task to use cinema and film as a means to promote the social amendment that had just occurred post the war. Ideally, it wasn’t so much about the storyline of the film and its characters, but more about making the public aware of the difficulties that working people had to face. Here we see a Marxist approach on the rebuilding of Italy – whereby unlike the mythology of Classic Hollywood, no single person can change the world and the ultimate society would inevitably be a classless society, as Leo Tolstroy (1882) successfully explains; “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself, for when everyone changes themselves, the world will change.” 

Neorealism’s origin of strength lies in the documentary excellence which is used to portray the realism of the story as “realism can only occupy in art from a dialectal position.” (André Bazin, 1971) One might speculate what Bicycle Thieves would be like in colour, however the black and white aspect highlights the tone of the film being a bleak, depressing emotion – contrary to the usage of colour which would highlight liveliness and energy and go against the tone of the film. Black and white not only attaches an emotion, but is a form of rebellion to genre and movements that found success in colour. Thus, clearly showing that the sentiment brings about the tone of the film which enhances the message of presenting the gloomy conditions of poverty in post-war Italy.

Andre Bazin (1971: 20) describes this through referring to the term “reconstituted reportage.” Reconstituted reportage is seen through how the every day events are shown, and the daily happenings which would have and did happen in Italy at that period of time. This adds, as discussed above, far more ‘truth’ to the film and is not the making of a documentary but rather shown and seen in a documentary-type way through with which Bazin (1971) refers to as “a journalistic style.” Bicycle Thieves has gives off a documentary experience to the audience “which could not be removed from the script without thereby eliminating the whole social setting into which its roots are so deeply sunk” (Bazin, 1971: 20).

Bazin (1971) points out that realism and truth in film is “a product of artifice.” Truth is an important principle of neorealism, as truth brings realism; the more believable the film is to the audience, the more truthful it is – thus, it is seen as realistic. We see this through DeSica’s film technique’s extensively set out to enhance the opportunity for the audience to live in the story. The real location shooting aids far more freedom and looseness for mise-en-scene, to such an extend that the camera-man is unsure what to look for. An example from the film can be seen when Antonio and Bruno walk away from a car in the street, meander in the streets for a bit heading in the same direction and then suddenly they both go the opposite way. As a viewer, the focus of the camera comes across somewhat as uncertain as the viewer experiences when watching a film for the first time. Here we see how such a camera technique can enhance realism and the opportunity for the audience to experience it. Another technique which is so different to Eisenstein’s Battleships Potempkin (1925) is that montage is avoided due to jump cutting, removing a sense of truth and realism, with noting that montage is, if anything, modifies realism.

This can be seen through the truth of the characters – the aesthetics of realism; lighting, location, décor, camera shots, camera angles and editing. This not only brings about authenticity but also creates a much stronger message for the audience. In Bicycle Thieves, there is a correlation between truth and sentiment, and truth and the political statement – Which are justifiably both used in this film without over powering one another (balance) in order to positively enhance the films message. Inevitably, in order for a director to get an actual event (post-war) understood by his audience – truth and realism is the most effective approach.

Neorealism focuses on the characters and themes without much focus on the plot itself as “the plot is seen to warp the truth about people if focus is too much on the execution statement and not the input which is the reasoning for the statement and the very focal point the viewers need exposure to” (John Stubbs, 2010: pg 4) Thus, the film would’ve not only been monotonous if there was no sentiment (due to there not being enough material if there was no storyline about characters and a central theme), but to know and understand a situation, one must be put in a stance where one has the opportunity of learning a huge amount about the faith and frustrations of a human being. Equally, a monotonous film due to no sentiment from characters and a central theme, is inevitably a failed film. Through this, neorealist’s are able to portray truth to a greater extend through bringing about simplicity yet a means of understanding the ‘real’ life through everyday characters and a central theme (getting the bicycle back); a main appeal in films even today.

Likewise, without sentiment, we wouldn’t be exposed to a equilibrium between objective shots of each of the characters and subjective shots showing the audience the characters point-of-view in the social and political conditions they are experiencing. One can also agree that the sentiment aids the whole use of Neorealism principles. Without characters, loose shots wouldn’t be blatant to the audience (also in comparison to the few novelty used close-up shots) as loose shots show freedom, which thus emphasizes truth and realism.

The storyline being as simple as the search for a bicycle, doesn’t take the political statement too far away from the message. Likewise, the actual characters in the film are everyday normal people. We can see this through ‘the workman being found in the factory, the child being found wondering around the streets and the wife being found through her writing.’ (Andre Bazin, 1971) This is known as ‘Typage’ whereby there is no star system which immediately creates a far more realistic/truth approach and feel. Similarly, the locations and décor are real and not built-up or made-up, the lighting is natural which attempts to present reality as it is, the editing is invincible which enhances truth and the camera is free which is unrestricted and brings about a far more convincing viewing.

Neorealist’s not only conformed to such techniques for that these techniques best suited execution of maximum realism in cinema, but is a cinema movement which brought about much rebellion too. “Italian Neorealism had already provided a cinematic model for rebellion, both against the conventions imposed by the political and social state’s ideology” (Mark Mesaros, 2010) and past cinema movements such as the success seen in montage in German Expressionism.”

With the storyline of the characters and the truth which is by principle brought about, I fully agree that it brings sentiment to the screens. However, it puts you (the audience) in a far more heart-felt and understanding position which I believe brings about the political statement in a far more expressive way, rather than a theoretical and cold approach. And as some agree, “it’s not even sentimental – it’s just painful.” (The Internet Movie Database, 2010: retrieved 28 April)

Instead of a cold theoretical approach which would entail no sentiment, we are introduced to a family who are ordinary and by no means are glamorous hero’s – which is commonly seen in Classical Hollywood. Quite frankly, if we weren’t introduced to characters and the sentiment they bring, which play a role in this film, I personally don’t think much of a political statement would be made – as one needs interest to grasp a statement. As we see in Classic Hollywood, the emotional character identification influences the message of the film and is a central characteristic, contrary to Italian Neorealism where characters are everyday individuals who are put in a “equal light” which intention, also enhances the message this movement wishes to portray. The character of Ricci is the focus of the film, however we are not interested in him but rather what will happen next in the film’s sequence of events. And even though characters bring about sentiment and the viewer starts becoming attached to the role the characters plays, in Bicycle Thieves, Bruno the son unsentimentally still criticizes and looks down on his father. Noticeably very different to what we see in Classic Hollywood.

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In response to the representation of the political statement made in this film, we are clearly able to see this in noticeable scenes in the film. In the first scene, the camera follows Ricci from the unemployment gathering to his wife where the housing project is in the background, which is fully exhibited to the viewer showing the bleak conditions. We see the men and woman arguing about employment and shortage of water. This emphasis on long and medium shots which appeals to the ‘truth’ in the film enhances the political message due to the events getting exhibited on a whole – Whereas close up would bring more sentiment. Long and medium shots show the actor loosely framed in his environment and allow the viewer opportunity to look around in that environment with the added enhancement of the shots taken at eye level. As well as minimized jumps and shifts through editing to bring more ‘real life’ to the cinema audience.

Thus we see here that sentiment is not overwhelming the political statement, but rather the political statement is actually taking dominance in the shots. Of course DeSica did move in for close-up shots every now and then which becomes a novelty and is in effect very strong and holds the base to string along the story of the characters and the central object, which is needed to (as mentioned earlier) keep the audience interested and not bored. – The central object being the bicycle. They are everywhere and yet treasured, and the shortcoming of the Ricci family’s position is enforced when Antonio’s bicycle is stolen. Here, the object brings sentiment to enforce the political statement, and what I find even more interesting is how the title changed from ‘Bicycle Thief” to “Bicycle Thieves” as ultimately it becomes a vicious cycle of survival as one has to steal their own bicycle back from the thief, therefore becoming a thief – resulting in ‘thieves.’

This therefore constitutes to the message of the film, for the continuous battle of the haves and have-nots. Through the character of Antonio, it is the faith that drives him and allows him follow within his quest to find his stolen bicycle. Although DeSica’s bleak realism of the post-war gives purpose to the central theme of the film, it is ultimately the “conflict” of human-optimism which gives the film and its political statement its power – and without human sentiment, one can argue that the film would not produce affective power. If we look at three scenes, we are able to see how sentiment brings power to the political statement.

In one scene we see Antonio and Maria trade in their bed linen. The camera moves away from them (long shot) and we see the heaps of bed-linen behind the counter-table. This immediately becomes a somewhat gloomy reminder of the extensive nature of unemployment while recognizing its effect on the heart of families’ household lives. Again we see how realistic the lighting is and how the framing is loose to incorporate the environmental conditions to promote the political message.

In another scene we see Ricci reporting his bicycle stolen and is directed by the policeman to the piles of alike reported cases. His account and circumstances are not singular, and we see here how it is not only this family that is going through this – but also a lot of people. (Note the title: Thieves and not Thief) Thus portraying the political message that goes beyond this family’s personal sentiment. Here we are also shown how “humanitarianism prohibited Ricci from pressing official charges anti the thief, and the same moral fiber that became apparent after he stole the bicycle.” (Paul Baxa, 2011) He did what the thief did to him.

One can argue that such a film was essential in Italy as through this family we have the opportunity of being a bystander to the horrendously forceful civil war amoungst fascists and it’s ongoing of killing and reprisals through seeing how this effects one, and how not only effecting this family – but many others. “Italy in post-war was in desperate need of healing and compassion even at the cost of a perceived injustice.” (Paul Baxa, 2011) Like art, theatrical drama, writing and poetry – cinema had the same power to reach to the masses, into their hearts and minds, and make them aware of the political and social conditions. Healing does not come from the government and leaders of the country, but comes from within the everyday man on the streets – you and me. Thus, from the Ricci’s, those being affected by the war and living within such conditions – as well as the audience viewing this film who can in many ways relate.

In another scene, arguably the most sentimental scene – yet what I believe portrays the political message more powerfully than any other- we see the father and sons relationship come to a mend. It is understood with looking into the Italian family lifestyle, that the father and son’s relationship is by far the strongest and most special. Little Bruno’s appearance when taking his fathers hand in the last scene is merely a realistic point of life and is a means of facing life with your father – an important part in Italian culture. With Bruno being the witness of the tragedy and finally coming to realize his father is not a hero after all (contrary to Classic Hollywood), much like the audience being a witness too, this scene gives off a sense of aggravation, mortification, paradox and most of all – acceptance to survival. These sentimental feelings therefore expresses the political statement as this ending of when the father and son take hands, expresses manhood and the hardship of survival one needs to go through with still looking for a sense of acceptance.

Bazin (1971) explains this father/son scene as reaching puberty. “Up to that moment the man has been like a god to his son and their relations came under the heading of admiration.” By the fathers actions of becoming a thief, the father has in doing so compromised all heroism that his son had seen in him. However, this scene is seen as acceptance not only in survival, but also acceptance of one’s father and supposed role model. “He will love him henceforth as a human being, shame and all.” (Bazin, 1971: pg 54) This scene inevitabely becomes a deceptive one, as the truth and reality of this acceptance and now found happiness through the fathers wrong doings, depends all on the central object – the bicycle.

Bicycle Thieves therefore inevitably portrayed the political statement through expressing the social conditions without expressing solutions. One might argue that this is a downfall, however at this moment in time – solutions were not theoretical and if healing was going to occur it was going to have to come from the people. Thus, this film is inevitably awareness that needs to be found in each individual, which will create its own solution. Much like the theme and characters inevitably creating a plot on its own in Neorealism. “The neorealist approach doesn’t have an inbuilt political statement solution, as the most widespread attribute of neorealism is; on location shooting and the feeling of truth.” (John Stubbs, 2010) – Exactly what Bicycle Thieves so effectively does. One must also remember when viewing this film in the 21st century that twenty-five percent of the Italian workforce was unemployed at the time (William Heuvel, 2008) and if you were employed, getting to work was with the use of a bicycle. The object of the bicycle thus symbolized survival.

In conclusion, one can therefore justifiably argue that the sentimental nature of Bicycle Thieves does not overwhelm the political statement but essentially enhances it. If the political statement made in the film was to feed off a means of a solution, and the solution could only be found in the common individual like the Ricci’s family – then one needs to understand the individual’s situation as well as have an opportunity to walk in their shoes. Through sentiment that is not overly used in this film, one can see the hardship for survival through the story of these characters in order to become aware, as well as stay intrigued. Without focalizing power of the central character but rather the political statement through the characters, this film uses “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” (Joseph Stalin, 1953) to its advantage by effectively showing the tragedy of individuals with indication to the masses statistic through “apparent rawness and emotional intensity focused on such political and social problems.” (P. Adams Sitney, 1995)


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