Classic Bit Analysis: Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Bicycle Thieves (1948), also known as Ladri di biciclette, is a film directed by Vittoria De Sica and shows the audience how the loss of an item such as a bike can make someone lose their identity in the process and such material possessions can alienate the true possessions such as family. The film “is a brilliant, tactlessly real work of art” according to Peter Bradshaw to which I agree as Bicycle Thieves is a great example of a film that is a moving art form that oozes emotion.

De Sica is known for his political themes in his movies. In Bicycle Thieves, he explores an austere post world war Rome. The film opens with a long shot tracking a bus of workers, the sombre tone of the music sets up the tone for the film. We are shown men arising from every corner as it stops. The camera stops as the bus does, only then to track the man from the bus. Then De Sica cuts to a closer shot of the men swarming the worker desperate for work only to be pushed down to the bottom of the stairs. The theme of stairs and ladders is one of the many recurring ones in Bicycle Thieves emphasising that most of these men, including Antonio, are at the bottom of everything and are oppressed by those at the top to remain in their current situation; emphasising that they are trapped.  The audience sympathise with these characters as De Sica cleverly manipulates the audience with the deadly combination of sound and camera work. This scene immediately shows that Rome is overcrowded and these men are desperate for jobs to feed their families after the likely steady income from the war. De Sica highlights these factors and poignantly does this to manipulate the audience into understanding their emotion and therefore feeling sorry for these people.

One of De Sica’s main characters is Antonio, a devoted, loving and hardworking father and husband, a man who goes on a journey and loses his humanity and identity on the way. He is psychologically complex and becomes corrupted by Rome. His tragic flaw is his inability to tell the truth which leads to him losing his job and his downfall. He is a lost soul as the film progresses but begins as an everyman. After being kicked out by many institutions that should help him such as the church, Antonio is left in a very desperately vulnerable matter and takes it out on his admirable son Bruno. De Sica shows an angled close-up shot of Antonio looking up at him showing him as a dominating figure as he yells down and slaps Bruno, to which the camera cuts to another close up of Bruno looking devastated as his view of his father as a hero has been shattered. De Sica cuts back to Antonio and he is seen to be looking almost regretful and ashamed of himself whilst finally cutting back to Bruno who has broken down and ran away from Antonio. This creates significant meaning as it finally shows the role reversal of both Bruno and Antonio, as Bruno is now the wise father figure whilst Antonio is childish and doesn’t think about his actions anymore. This scene symbolises his alienation and his true decent into becoming an outcast as his son doesn’t even want to be with him. Antonio’s fall in his dignity leads the audience to pity him as he has officially lost everything and now the respect of his son.

Whilst Bruno is shown as an adult figure during the previous scene, he is also still a vulnerable child who is in a dangerous world. At times, he is left defenceless against threatening characters such as the man at the market and the potential danger of him falling in the lake like the boy Antonio assumes to be Bruno. Bruno contrasts the world around him as he is a beacon of hope and a binary opposition to the corrupt world of despair and class warfare. Bruno is an innocent and the only pure substance in the film. Bruno, like most children, can have his affections bought through material substances as Antonio bribes him with food for forgiveness. This scene shows that despite his maturity, Bruno is an innocent who is on the verge of possible corruption which creates huge meaning in leading the audience to actively worry about this throughout the film and afterwards. The scene with Bruno and Antonio in the restaurant highlights how much they don’t fit into this system and emphasises class differences. Bruno is openly competing with a wealthy child, De Sica cuts between side close-ups of Bruno eating his food and dragging out the insides to a child using his cutlery elegantly. The competition continues as the upper class child receives desert and De Sica cuts between the two close ups of the children. Both children contrast and are binary opposites, as one represents the rich, elegant society whilst Bruno represents the struggle of the poor working class. The diegetic music is ironically happy in sequence despite the dark undertones but this dilutes the tension and adds humour to the film.

Bicycle Thieves emphasise that we cannot judge any of the characters based on a flat observation but go deeper through their roots and the realisation that it is society’s fault for not providing either of the films with what they need. There is no clear hero in any of the film showing a true skill for filmmaking and the director is neutrally representing both the positives and negatives of both circumstances. ‘Again the Italians have sent us a brilliant and devastating film’ [in relation to Bicycle Thieves] according to Bosley Crowther of the New York Times to which I agree as the skill of De Sica, through the use of Mise-en scene and all his other tools, elevates Bicycle Thieves to new levels. Bicycle Thieves is a monumental work of art, and will forever represent a post-war Italy. The film is timeless and an absolute film classic, a world without De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is definitely a world I wouldn’t want to be in.



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