The Debate About Bicycle Thieves Being a Realistic Film

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In 1948 Bicycle Thieves introduced a new dimension neorealist filmmaking, a film that transparently invited the audience to reflect on historical reality through the prevailing notions of realism embedded within it, by ‘surmounting the barrier between documentary and fiction’ (Wagstaff, 2007, p.300). Andre Bazin notes that a neorealist film was primarily made up of a film that portrayed everyday or real people in actual settings, examined socially significant problems and promoted an organic development of situations (cited in Cardullo, 2011). Vittorio De Sica masterfully crafted a film fulfilling those criteria through the use of various cinematic techniques and therefore it is important to consider that ‘realism’ is a matter of certain cinematic styles and not just the subjects portrayed.

An episodic narrative structure, a mix of real locations and constructed sets, distinct cinematographic techniques and the use of non-professional actors to convey a sense of authentic performances form the stylistic foundation of Bicycle Thieves.The use of an episodic narrative structure highlights the marginalised nature of the protagonist whilst reducing him to a reactive state. The narrative follows a fairly inconsequential thread strung together by evocative scenes linked seemingly by chance. Even though Antonio has a goal, to find his bicycle, the initial causality of the narrative is quickly superseded by the events and circumstances that transpire around him. Each digression that the audience is introduced to increases the profundity of the experience to a point where the search for the bicycle is secondary to the experiences encountered.

The search for the bicycle is used as a narrative device that loosely drives the primary narrative. It is in the accompanying narrative threads, such as the father-son relationship that develops throughout and Antonio’s relationship with the surrounding social landscape that encourages us to empathise with Antonio’s plight. Through the multitude of vignettes such as the episodes at Porta Portese and Piazza Vittorio or the encounters with La Santona, that viewers are offered an insight into the various facets of Antonio’s life. In addition the film offers no resolution, as a narrative film it does end with Bruno offering his hand to his father in solace, signifying a coming-of-age gesture, but if Bicycle Thieves concluded with Antonio finding the bicycle, the banal adventure would come to a harmonic close and the social message of the film may not have resonated with the viewer as deeply. The mood that lingers with the viewer in the aftermath of the viewing is Antonio’s demise and that resonation offers an entry into the social state of the character.

Antonio is ‘progressively stripped of his autonomy on which the free exercise of his humanity depends on’ (Wagstaff, 2007, p.322). Eventually, Antonio’s diminishment only leaves the audience with a reading of his vulnerability and the experiences that he encounters offer a mirror for the viewer to reflect upon. This allows the film to take on an anecdotal interpretation through the social nature of the events that the characters encounter. This style of storytelling constructs a film that closely mimics life by presenting the character’s journey as a series of events thus heightening the realist nature of the narrative.

The aesthetic choices made by De Sica account for the psychology of the viewer and does not rely on a poetic reading of the mise-en-scene. The character or object presented does not signify a metaphorical meaning behind it, but represents what it is as it is, for example, the bicycle is means to a job for Antonio and nothing more. Therefore De Sica opposed the populist neorealist conventions of using long takes to paint an ambiguous canvas and relied on a shot construction that is directed only towards bringing out the true value of the event as noted by Bazin (cited in Wagstaff, 2007, p.331). The visual grammar in Bicycle Thieves used tighter shots and a succinct editing pattern to pick out what we see and what to look at.

De Sica favoured an aesthetic approach that offered the least refraction in terms of directorial style and prioritised the sincerity of the subjects he was portraying. In the restaurant scene, the editing rhythm and visual grammar are constructed in a manner that offers a direct interpretation of the events that were unfolding as opposed to an interpretation that would have been offered by the use of the intellectual montage in comparison. We see Bruno look at the family behind, we see Antonio notice Bruno looking behind and then Antonio comments on the family behind. This aesthetic awareness that De Sica used diminished the distinguishing factors between theme and style, by focusing on emphasising the event presented as opposed to any metaphorical interpretation of the event, thus highlighting the realist nature of the mise-en-scene.

In any narrative, the planes of conflict either lie in man against man, man against himself and/or man against the environment. In Bicycle Thieves the plane of conflict between man against the environment plays an effective role in directing the viewer’s reading of the film towards an alienated man in an urban social landscape. By shooting on location, De Sica is allowed to explore with the authentic details of a concrete social space that enhances a kind of realism as the textures of the locations inform the character’s choices. In Piazza Vittorio Bruno is shunned by the storeowners as he searches for the bell and is later harassed by a pederast, such interactions are indicative of the intricacies of the landscape.

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De Sica uses narrative digressions to shape a world filled with intricate details that breathes life into its surroundings and the film reads more like a ‘diary than a novel’ (Wagstaff, 2007, p.293). The various digressions in Antonio’s search for his bicycle deepen the viewer’s understanding of the social landscape that the characters are in. The two boys begging with an accordion as Antonio pastes the poster and ‘distracts’ the camera which then begins to follow them down the street, La Santona, the unionists, the musical rehearsal, the pederast at Piazza Vittorio and the restaurant scene amongst several other digressions offer points of refraction from the character’s primary goal whilst giving the landscape an evocative status.

The locations mould Antonio’s character and throughout the course of his search for his bicycle, his morals are questioned. Antonio’s visits to La Santona offer a concrete, specific representation of the way in which his journey has changed his beliefs. In Antonio’s first visit, he mocks Maria’s belief in the clairvoyant, but later in the film, with nowhere left to turn, Antonio seeks her assistance on his quest. Antonio and the viewer know that her advice is pointless, but yet as they leave La Santona they come across the thief. The narrative world constructed does not subscribe to fate or destiny, but is one where life is full of chance, randomness and irony. This indicates a philosophical belief that ‘life is like that’.

In the restaurant, Antonio forgoes his thrifty nature affording Bruno a decent meal as he proclaims, “if we are going down we might as well go down with style.” Here the divide between the classes is embodied in a concrete scenario. Noticing Bruno’s intermittent yet frequent quick glances at the middle-class family behind him and the pompous child who is his equivalent, Antonio tells him that to “eat like them we would need a million a month”. This resigns Bruno to a state of guilt for feeling hungry as he puts his meal down. This tender moment, conveyed through detail, gesture and simple acting, is a poignant episode of reflection on the social state of the landscape that the characters are in.

The social landscape turns against him as he ‘his greatest defeat comes at the hands not of the well to do middle classes, nor the institutions of the capitalist state, but at the hands of the social landscape that ejects him (Wagstaff, 2007, p.385). When he approaches the police for help they casually dismiss him, when he finds the thief the surrounding social fabric forces him to withdraw his claims. Eventually, when Antonio resorts to theft in a bid of self-affirmation the surrounding onlookers unite to refuse him his personal quest. The manner that the events unfold are meant to seem incidental as opposed to the politically charged metaphorical rhythms that Eisenstein uses to emphasis his points, thus signifying at a ‘matter of fact’ realist approach. The social landscape that De Sica has constructed always treats Antonio as the ‘other’, and society finds solidarity in negating his individualism. This isolation heightens the realism of the film by magnifying the seemingly trivial plight of an individual outcast to the lower rungs of society. The viewer is presented with a realistic landscape that allows them to reflect on the society that they are a part of.

De Sica’s visual language consists of various characteristics that contribute to the realism evoked in Bicycle Thieves. The construction of the realism in Bicycle Thieves is a matter of artifice that is aided by key visual traits that contribute to this constructed realism as noted by Bazin (cited in Cardullo, 2011). The ‘follow shot’ and the ‘accompanying shot’, are key to the manner in which De Sica weaves together a realistic canvas that consists of a multitude of narrative threads (Wagstaff, 2007). The ‘follow shot’ is a result of De Sica giving priority of his shot construction to the character’s experience over an aesthetic motivation. The camera’s movement is motivated by what the character sees, therefore we are experiencing the event together with the character, but not in some flamboyant ‘point of view’ way, and this effect adds to the realism of the film. From the very first shot of the film, the procedure of following an event is established when the camera pans along with the movement of the bus. In the chase sequence where Antonio and Bruno spot the thief at Porta Portese, the ‘follow’ procedure informs the shot construction as Antonio runs out of frame and Bruno follows behind. The proceeding series of shots evoke a sense of the viewer following Antonio on the chase. This technique does not allow room for dramatic irony, therefore the viewer is never ahead of character, but always together with him. Instead of reflecting on the emotional journey of the character before the character does, the viewer can only reflect on the outcome of the experience together with the character as a result of this technique.

The ‘accompanying shot’ is used as punctuation in De Sica’s visual grammar to signify defeat in Bicycle Thieves. We are introduced to the ‘accompanying shot’ when the camera tracks along with Antonio and Bruno after Antonio meets Bruno at the petrol station in the aftermath of the first ‘defeat’ that Antonio encounters. Further in the narrative, the same shot is used when they leave the church looking for the old man, again when they leave the thief's neighbourhood without the bicycle and finally when Antonio’s captors release him. Grammatically the shot contains a greater significance as it directly contrasts the thought process behind the follow shot, due to its considered occurrence, the shot yields a deeper realistic impact. In the ‘accompanying shot’, the characters confront the viewer directly as the camera tracks along with them. We do not experience the event with the characters, but we reflect on their desolate state with them.

The use of non-professional actors in Bicycle Thieves is a possible reason for the authentic results of great realism and emotions of genuine sincerity. An argument regarding the authenticity of the performances is that being actors who have not been exposed to formal training, the nuances of their performances are purely moulded by the spontaneity of their personalities. This leads to fresh performances that are not the results of constant practice, but ones that are born from a sincere place of human emotion. Antonio and Bruno’s performances are innate and the emotional beats were possibly formed through the organic use of emotional sense memory. In the restaurant scene, in the exchange between father and son, the subtle expressions in Bruno’s eyes and cheeks resonate deeply with the viewer. We can see the thought process forming in the young boy’s mind as he contemplates the true value of money with regards to his hunger and state of poverty. De Sica fully exercises the notion of ‘less is more’ in formulating the authentic performances that immensely deepen the realism of the film. The freshness of their nuances is magnified by the camera and the audience is able to connect and sympathise with our protagonists through their sincere performances, both unpretentious and absent of all the technically refined rhythmic beats that skilled actors tend to get into when attempting to convey complex ‘realistic’ characters.

In Bicycle Thieves the almost continual music track manipulates the viewers emotions at several points in the film, especially the shrilling high notes as Antonio contemplates stealing a bicycle. Therefore there are several elements in the film that detract from the realist interpretation of the film such as the post-sync sound, manipulative soundtrack and harsh shadows. However, it is important to note that the relation between realism and style in Bicycle Thieves is a matter of the cinematic techniques used to present the film as a complete artefact of truth. De Sica’s stylistic choices in constructing this world contribute to the realistic nature of the film.

Bicycle Thieves is a key film in cinematic history that many contemporary filmmakers look back on as a founding template for a certain kind of realist filmmaking. The realist elements in the film were constructed through a process that did not separate style and theme, each informed the other and vice versa. The organic nature of the film evokes a sense of realism that deeply stirs and intrigues the minds of budding filmmakers who strive for sincerity with their films. This neorealist approach towards filmmaking introduced a new style of realist filmmaking that sincerely resonated with the viewers through its ability to capture and explore with the hardly inaudible notes in the life of an everyday man.

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