A masterpiece of Italian neorealism, Vittorio De Sica’s searingly honest post-war tale of grim existence in Rome Ladri di biciclette (The bicycle Thieves), is not only considered one of the best Italian films but one of the greatest films ever made.
The setting is Rome after World War II where poverty abounds and families do anything they can to eek out an existence. Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is desperate for work to support his wife Maria (Lianella Carell), his sone Bruno and his baby, and is offered a position put up advertising posters around the city. However he cannot take the job as he has pawned his bicycle and can’t get around the city, so Maria strips the bed of her dowry sheets, a prized possession for a poor Roman family and pawn them, to retrieve her husband’s bicycle.
Cycling back home with his wife on the handlebars it seems like things are looking up for the Ricci family. However on his first day of work, while up a ladder, a thief steals Antonio’s bicycle. Antonio and his son Bruno embark on a journey through the modern city of Rome searching for the bicycle, encountering a cross-section of post-war society, streets filled with characters and ultimately confronting their own moral quandary.
Probably the most famous example of Italian Neorealist Cinema, a movement started by Roberto Rossalini in 1945, the film’s director De Sica stayed loyal to the requirements of the genre. He financed the film himself, through friends and shot only on location, on the streets of Rome casting only non-actors, often roping in people who stopped to watch the filming. The subject matter cuts straight to the heart of Italian society and begs questions about the individual’s role in society that are still, perhaps even more relevant today.
Way ahead of it’s time, this film is quintessentially Italian. By drawing on real elements of Italian life it guarantees its integrity while offering an unflinching portrait of the beauty and the ugliness of Italian and modern society in general. Italian critics were initially unreceptive on the film’s initial release as they thought it portrayed Italian’s in an unfavourable light. But the film was a huge success internationally, garnering critical acclaim and a Academy Honorary Award in 1950, it’s direct influence can be seen in Hollywood a few years later with ‘On The Water Front’ that sparked a new wave of cinema in the United States.
If you haven’t seen this film, you should watch it, it is as relevant and instructive today as it was over 60 years ago. The power of the genre is that it captures with total clarity the universal in the very local. A powerful cinematic work of art that is both a window into Italy’s past and a snapshot of our shared future.