Vittorio De Sica: The Alienated Unemployed in “Bicycle Thieves”

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Bicycle Thieves (Italian: Ladri di biciclette), also known as The Bicycle Thief, is director Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 story of a poor father searching post-World War II Rome for his stolen bicycle, without which he will lose the job which was to be the salvation of his young family.

Italian neorealist cinema

Hailed around the world as one of the greatest movies ever made, the Academy Award–winning Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio De Sica, embodies the greatest strengths of the Italian neorealist movement: emotional clarity, social rectitude, and brutal honesty.

Gritty Realism of Poverty in Post-War Italy

Italian neorealism endeavored to move filmmaking away from the stilted, contrived (and popular) national cinema that had formed under Fascism, but also counteracted the distorted narratives of Hollywood. With its biting social conscience and deliberate shunning of studio filmmaking in favor of gritty realism, it deals with alienation under the harsh economic conditions of post-war Rome.


The Bicycle Thief, trailer.

Italian neorrealist cinema, classic films

The indefinite “Thieves” from the original title shows that the film is not so much just about the everyman Antonio or just about the thief who steals his bike; it is about the popular masses, all going through the same things in postwar Italy.


Restaurant Scene

From André Bazin: Ladri di Biciclette is certainly is neorealist, by all the principles one can deduce from the best Italian films since 1946. The story is from the lower classes, almost populist: an incident in the daily life of a worker. But the films show no extraordinary events such as those which befall the fated workers in [Jean] Gabin films.

There are no crimes of passion, none of those grandiose coincidences common in detective stories which simply transfer to a realm of proletarian exoticism the great tragic debates once reserved for the dwellers on Olympus. Truly an insignificant even a banal incident: a workman spends a whole day looking in vain in the streets of Rome for the bicycle someone has stolen from him. This bicycle has been the tool of his trade, and if he doesn’t find it he will be again unemployed.

One must take care not to confuse it with realist tragedy in the [Jacques] Prévert or James Cain manner, where the initial news item is diabolic trap placed by the gods amid the cobble stones of the street. In itself the event contains no proper dramatic valence. It takes on meaning only because of the social (and not psychological or aesthetic) position of the victim. Without the haunting specter of unemployment, which places the event in the Italian society of 1948, it would be an utterly banal misadventure.

Likewise, the choice of a bicycle as the key object in the drama is characteristic both of Italian urban life and of a period when mechanical means of transportation were still rare and expensive. There is no need to insist on the hundreds of other meaningful details that multiply the vital links between the scenario and actuality, situating the event in political and social history in a given place at a given time.


Ladri di Biciclette – Scene, by Vittorio de Sica

While popular culture has had a tendency to romanticize Italian Neorealism, the same way it has with the French Nouvelle Vague, but history has judged films such as Bicycle Thieves, along with those of Roberto Rossellini and a young Federico Fellini, as influential and inspiring to directors such as Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Wang Xiaoshuai, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

DirectorVittorio De Sica
ScreenplayVittorio De Sica, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Gerardo Guerrieri and Cesare Zavattini
CinematographyCarlo Montuori
ProducerGiuseppe Amato and Vittorio De Sica
StoryCesare Zavattini
Based on a novel byLuigi Bartolini
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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion -- Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt