The Bicycle Thief (I Ladri di biciclette) is an Italian drama film directed by Vittorio de Sica and released in 1948. The film is 93 minutes long and shot in black and white.
This film is widely considered to be a classic of world cinema and an exemplar of Italian Neorealism. The Bicycle Thief was met with critical acclaim from audiences, home and abroad, at its release. Among its many awards are a Special Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and a slew of awards--Best Film, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Story and Best Score--from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists in 1949.1
The plot of The Bicycle Thief was adapted by screenwriter Cesare Zavattini from a novel by Luigi Bartolini.2 Stripped to its barest essentials, the film is nothing more than a man and his young son trying to find their stolen bicycle. However, the direction of de Sica, the cinematography of Carlo Montuori, and the acting of Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola transform this sliver of a story into a starkly lyrical exploration of working-class social conditions in post-war Italy.
Although Antonio Ricci, the protagonist (played by Maggiorani), is employed to put up posters, he has more in common with film noir detectives. For most of the film, Ricci and his son Bruno (played by Staiola) walk throughout post-war Rome, desperately searching for his stolen bicycle and leading the viewer through the urban landscape in the process.
At first glance, the honest and hardworking family man Ricci seems to bear no relation to the world-weary and hard-boiled detectives of crime novelists like Raymond Chandler. Although he has been unemployed in the years following World War II, he has patiently waited for a job from the Italian government, the only organization with jobs to give. When a position as a billposter becomes available, Ricci jumps at the chance. However, the job requires a bicycle, a commodity difficult to obtain in post-war Italy and one that he does not have. Since Ricci's family is desperate for the steady income, his wife sells their bedsheets so that they can buy a second-hand bicycle. When the bicycle--and their future--is stolen on the first day of the job, Ricci has no choice but to find it at all costs.
Even the Italian Neorealist "unstyle" of The Bicycle Thief seems totally different than the highly stylized film noirs. Italian Neorealists like de Sica were not interested in the cinematic or dramatic techniques of studio films. Film noir epitomizes the studio film, with its glamorous treatment of larger-than-life characters and stories. Neorealists favored amateur actors (like Maggiorani and Staiola, who nevertheless gave phenomenal performances), shooting on location and banal plots. Neorealists believed that all of these elements could reveal more truth about real life than studio films could.
Despite these differences between The Bicycle Thief and film noirs, the role that Ricci plays in the narrative of The Bicycle Thief is the same role that detectives play in mystery stories. Critic Frederic Jameson discusses the narrative function of detectives in Chandler's novels, noting that
Since there is no longer an privileged experience in which the whole of the social structure can be grasped, a figure must be invented who can be superimposed on the society as a whole, whose routine and life pattern serve somehow to tie its separate and isolated parts together. Its equivalent is the picaresque novel, where a single character moves from one background to another, links picturesque but not intrinsically related episodes together. In doing this the detective in a sense once again fulfills the demands of the function of knowledge rather than that of lived experience: through him we are able to see, to know, the society as a whole, but he does not stand for any genuine close-up experience of it.3
The detective is thus a liminal figure, capable of bridging different worlds; he is able to enter these different societies because he does not belong to a single one. The detective is a transient, forced into constant motion by his lack of a home. In The Bicycle Thief, Ricci is forced into this nomadic existence after the theft of his bicycle. Before the theft, Ricci belongs in society: the bicycle is necessary for his employment and his employment is necessary for his family's welfare. The early sequence where Ricci rides with Bruno to his first day of work emphasizes his integration with society. The carefree expressions of the characters, the long takes and cheerful, nondiegetic music give an overall impression of contentment. After the bicycle is stolen, that stability is lost.
Without the bicycle, Ricci risks losing his long-awaited job and the comfort of his family. He is impelled to search for the bicycle, no matter the difficulty. The search itself is the work of the detective: a crime must be solved by physically finding and exploring clues. Detectivework is intensely physical, distinguished from mere mental puzzle-solving. Proof is dependent on physical evidence or eyewitness accounts, as a sympathetic policeman reminds Ricci.
Ricci's search causes him to visit places in the city that would not normally be associated. People in the city typically stay within a routine set of places and actions. The detective lacks this routine; for Ricci, the loss of his bicycle prevents him from his normal workday. Without a pattern, he is free to explore the entire space of the city.
The path that Ricci walks in the city can be cleanly split into self-contained narrative episodes that are weakly connected, which Jameson would equate to the "picaresque novel." In the course of his search, Ricci goes to two marketplaces, encounters the thief at one of them, questions an old man who may know the thief, follows the old man to a church, goes to a restaurant, consults an oracle, finds the thief's neighborhood and finally attempts to steal a bicycle himself. The narrative flows smoothly and logically between the episodes, but they have little influence on each other. The events at the first market have no direct impact on the encounter with the old man at the church, for example. Many of the transitions between episodes are visually distinct, marked with a fade or wipe, emphasizing the segmentation of the narrative.
Ricci and Bruno's hunt for the thief and the bicycle is a surprisingly passive process. Although they do actively walk through the streets of Rome, they do not choose their own path. Instead, their path is determined by the clues that they find, by the events that they witness and sometimes by sheer luck. For example, they do not choose to go to the church themselves, but are led to it by the old man, whom they initially met by chance.
The foremost attribute of the detective is that he detects, as the word itself suggests. The detective is fundamentally an observer, as Ricci and Bruno are in the film. As quoted above, Jameson argues that the detective is a hollow character who exists only to allow the viewer to observe the events of the narrative. The city of Rome, like all cities, is full of the stories of its inhabitants, especially the everyday stories that Italian Neorealist filmmakers sought to record. As Ricci and Bruno navigate the streets of Rome for the viewer, their walk "actualizes some of these possibilities"4 of narrative, in the language of cultural theorist Michel de Certeau. For de Certeau, the route that Ricci and Bruno take through the city is the primary definition of their unique story. However, they have little influence over their story's direction. The detective can only react to the events around him, not set them in motion.
The cinematic style of The Bicycle Thief emphasizes the observant narrative role of Ricci and Bruno. More important than the visual aspects of the film is the duration of each moment. This is the manifestation of the "time-image," as described by film theorist Gilles Deleuze:
Time ceases to be derived from the movement, it appears in itself and itself gives rise to false movements. Hence the importance of false continuity in modern cinema: the images are no longer linked by rational cuts and continuity, but are relinked by means of false continuity and irrational cuts. Even the body is no longer exactly what moves; subject of movement or the instrument of action, it becomes rather the developer [révélateur] of time, it shows time through its tirednesses and waitings.5
The key aspect of the time-image is the passivity of the body; observation is the only action allowed to characters in the time-image, a situation that favors the detective. However, the visual elements of the film also contribute to the time-image, especially in the use of editing.
The irrational cut and false continuity integral to the time-image can be found in the sequence where Ricci loses sight of the old man in the church. Italian Neorealist films are characterized by their long takes and documentary style, which makes this sequence quite startling. From the beginning of the sequence, when the old man slips away while Ricci is distracted by church officials, to the end of the sequence, when Ricci and Bruno walk toward the bridge, most of the camera movement is expressed through rapid cuts. The rapidity of the cuts and brevity of each shot highlights Ricci's mounting hysteria as he searches for the old man. He has just tracked down and managed to convince the old man to be somewhat helpful, only to lose the old man in a moment of inattention. The crowded church and church officials block Ricci at every turn, as does the very architecture of the space.
Ricci desperately tries to be everywhere at once in the church, rushing down hallways and barging through doors. The camera placement during the sequence makes no attempt to assist the viewer in understanding the space. There are no tracking shots to follow Ricci through the confines of the church, and because of the static camera and many right angle turns, it is quite easy to get lost.
For example, when Ricci walks down a hallway and turns right into a courtyard, the camera cuts to another shot as soon as Ricci leaves the courtyard; instead of returning the previous camera position, the shot immediately shows Ricci and Bruno in front of a door. Only careful inspection reveals that the door is at the end of the same hallway. This sort of creative geography is implied throughout the sequence. Like the entire episodic narrative structure, the concern of the film in this sequence is not with the relationship between shots but the composition of each shot itself. De Certeau would liken the geography of cuts to the linguistic construct asyndeton, which, "by elision, creates a 'less,' opens gaps in the spatial continuum,
and retains only selected parts of it that amount almost to relics... it undoes continuity and undercuts its plausibility."6
Another spatial elision is beautifully crafted during the brief exchange between Ricci and Bruno at the end of the church sequence. Ricci has just slapped Bruno out of frustration and Bruno has sulked away from his father. Bruno starts to walk towards his father, and we are led to believe for most of their conversation that the two are side by side, through the use of crosscutting and eyeline matches. However, a quick cut to a camera that is perpendicular to their movement reveals that the two are quite far apart.
The futility of the search, especially in the church sequence, allows the temporal aspect of the time-image to play out. There is a palpable sense of wasted time as Ricci double-backs and reverses direction, walking multiple times on the same path without results: Ricci never does find the old man after his escape. There is no physical action or movement beyond walking in the sequence. Observation is the only act allowed to Ricci and the viewer.
At the end of the film, Ricci gives up his role as the observer and detective in order to act with his own initiative. It is at this point when he becomes an active agent that he loses his moral clarity and tries to steal a bicycle. Until this point in the film, Ricci's path was wholly determined by others, from the job he was assigned, to the theft and search for the bicycle. The film shows Ricci tormented by choice finally at the end. In his desperation, he chooses to steal, shedding the role of the detective for the thief and the film briefly switches from the time-image to the movement-image. This moment is brief, however, cut short by attentive bystanders who apprehend him. In the final scene, where father and son walk dejectedly away from the camera, Ricci cannot even return to his role as an observer of the city. He has only introspection left.
1. IMDB. "Awards for Liadri di biciclette (1948)". http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0040522/awards
2. IMDB. "Liadri di biciclette (1948)". http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0040522/
3. Frederic R. Jameson, "On Raymond Chandler" in The Poetics of Murder, ed. Glenn W. Most and William W. Stowe, 127 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1983).
4. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press 1984), 98.
5. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2, xi.
6. De Certeau, 101.