The Bicycle Thief is the best-known work of Italian Neorealism, the movement (begun by Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 Rome, Open City) which attempted to give cinema a new degree of realism. Vittorio De Sica was unable to get financial backing from any major studio for the film, so he raised the money himself from friends. Wanting to portray the poverty and unemployment of post-war Italy, he chose a novel by Luigi Bartolini to loosely base his script on, which he co-wrote with Cesare Zavattini and others. Following the precepts of neorealism, De Sica shot only on location (that is, no studio sets) and cast only untrained nonactors (Lamberto Maggiorani, for example, was a factory worker). That some actors’ roles paralleled their lives off screen added realism to the film. De Sica cast Maggiorani when he had brought his young son to an audition for the film. He later cast the 8-year-old Enzo Staiola when he noticed the young boy watching the film’s production on a street while helping his father sell flowers. The film’s final shot of Antonio and Bruno walking away from the camera into the distance is an homage to many Charlie Chaplin films, who was De Sica’s favorite filmmaker.
Vittorio De Sica started directing in the late 30’s and right from the start, he had an affinity with children. He was in tune with kids, with the way they saw and experience life. It’s at the core of Shoeshine. His first great film that he made in 1946. Like Open City and Shoeshine, Bicycle Thief found it’s first audience outside of Italy. And, for quite sometime throughout the 50’s and 60’s this was the movie that many around the world regarded as among the peak moment of Neorealism. Charlie Chaplin’s film had a huge impact on both Rosellini and De Sica. While it’s a little difficult to detect in Rosellini’s film, it’s unmistakable in De Sica. He had the same precision with motions that Chaplin had. The Bicycle Thief is basically just a gradual unfolding of situations. Father and son walking in the streets of Rome in search of a bicycle. More importantly, it’s about a father who is trying to keep up his image as a father while his whole world is falling apart. And about a son who soon learns that he had to take care of his father. I suppose you could say that The Bicycle Thief is a film of poweful simplicity. And, that’s a rare quality in movies. —Martin Scorsese
Here’s a featurette (two parts) of this classic film, courtesy of frame-paradiso. The first is titled Working with De Sica, a collection of interviews with screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico, actor Enzo Staiola, and film scholar Callisto Cosulich. Staiola in particular has some good stories about how he got involved in the picture. And the second is Life as It Is: The Neorealist Movement in Italy. Author Mark Shiel explains what Neorealism is. By his count, there are seven central films in the movement — three by Rossellini, three by De Sica, and one by Visconti — and around 250 in total. He gives a detailed explanation of the style of the movies, what the filmmakers were reacting against, and what they were inspired by. 2 discs DVD is available at the Criterion Collection's site.
The Bicycle Thief had such an impact on its first release that when the British film magazine Sight & Sound held its first international poll of film makers and critics in 1952, it was voted the greatest film of all time. The poll is held every 10 years; by 1962, it was down to a tie for sixth, and then it dropped off the list. Its 1999 re-release allows a new generation to see how simple, direct and true it is—“what was so special about it.” —Roger Ebert
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