Italian Neo-Realism

Week 6

Before Watching:   Read the pages in the text corresponding to Italian Neo-Realism.  More definable than Film Noir, Italian Neo-Realism exists in one country with only a handful of filmmakers, making films of similar aesthetics and subject matter.  To summarize here are some recognizable aspects of this influential film movement:

  1. Bullet  “Real” people, not celebrities or actors portraying the characters

  2. Bullet  Location shooting, as opposed to big budget sound stages

  3. Bullet  Stories of the working class

  4. Bullet  Dubbed sound - to save money, much of the dialogue is recreated in post production, rather than captured on set 

  5. Bullet  Reaction to big budget filmmaking (Hollywood and Italian) that revolve around stories of the upper class

  6. Bullet  Natural lighting

  7. Bullet  Post World War II Italy - until the late 1950s.

Analysis (read after viewing the film)


This film is extremely simplistic in its technical structure, because of the budgetary constraints of the time period (reflected in the film), which becomes a hallmark of the movement.  You may notice that much of the dialogue is dubbed, and rerecorded in the studio after shooting, cutting down on equipment and budget on location. 

There is a scene involving rear projection - during the rainstorm as the men get in the car to pursue the bicycle.  Also, note the very unrealistic “rain” coming from off-set onto the car. 

There are many uses of wipes in the film.  Wipes are considered somewhat dated editing transitions, in which one scene “wipes” over the previous scene from one edge of the screen to the other.  These were also seen in Modern Times. 


Even with an extremely low budget, this film remains a beautiful example of black and white cinematography and accurately portrays post-WWII Rome.  While most of the street location scenes use only natural lighting, there is a moment of “film lighting” at the end of the film.  As Bruno is devastated by his father’s actions, he tearfully walks away, with the sunlight behind him (note the shadows).  However, there is a distinct reflection of light provided offscreen to highlight the actor’s face (see right). 

The “realism” in Italian NeoRealism is provided not only by the acting and the narrative, but also the settings.  Once again, the film relies on real locations, including interiors, and detail is given to portray a very naturalistic set. 

The actor portraying Bruno (Enzo Staiola) is quite a remarkable child actor.  It is worth noting within the mise-en-scene that the movement and staging of his performance is crucial to the conflict within the film.  Notice how often Bruno replicates his father’s actions and movements throughout the film.  He mirrors Ricci’s mannerisms as he prepares for the work day, and is constantly looking up to his father as he tries to keep up with him on the streets.  This connection pays off in the end of the film as Ricci is shamed in front of his son, who obviously idolizes him as a father figure, however flawed he may be. 

For the most part, the camera is very static, but there are a few noteworthy camera moves.   First, as Maria sells her linens, the camera tilts up to reveal the multitudes of bedsheets other individuals were forced to pawn as well, providing economic information about the larger population in the city.  Next, there is a tracking shot following a lengthy lineup of bicycles in the street market.  This camera move suggests the seemingly impossible task for the characters--finding the one bicycle hidden among hundreds.


This is a perfect film to analyze through the levels of meaning we discussed in Modern Times because this film contains narratives possibly hidden beneath the referential meaning.  Let’s look at them:

  1. Bullet  Referential Meaning - Simply, a man loses his bike and must find it to provide for his family. 

  2. Bullet  Explicit Meaning -  This film is more about the dynamic relationship between an Italian father and son in times of hardship.  Their relationship is tested while looking to find a bicycle over the course of a couple of days.  In the end, this relationship becomes more important than any material possession

  3. Bullet  Implicit Meaning - Once again, these meanings are hidden, and sometimes not even intended by the writer and director.  There is an overwhelming religious motif in this film.  Maria consults a fortune teller, which Ricci forbids in the beginning of the film, but when he is pushed to his own limits, he looks to the “false prophet” for answers as well.  Church services are given to a seemingly trapped congregation that is primarily looking for a meal.  Bruno proves to be the more faithful, as he genuflects to the altar as Ricci ignores the sacrament.  The name of the bicycle is “Fides,” translating to “faith.”  Some have said that the film is implicitly about a man searching for his faith. 

  4. Bullet  Symptomatic Meaning - Perhaps the most simple meaning beyond the referential meaning is this one, because the film is so rich in portraying a society in a specific time period.  In this time of economic hardship in post-war Italy, a man is pushed to his extremes to provide for his family.  His duty to his son is tested as he makes difficult moral decisions in his journey to find stability. 


This film is the antithesis of the Hollywood Narrative, specifically because of the lack of closure at the end of the film.  Many film viewers are frustrated with the ending as many questions are left unanswered.   I defend the ending, because to make this film truly realistic, questions (and life itself) doesn’t always have answers.  Bruno and Ricci walking away from the camera signifies these struggles will continue.  Joe Kanoff, a film critic, wrote in 1948 that the ending was “sublimely Chaplin-esque, but insufficiently socially critical.”  (Note the similarities in the final shots of this film and Modern Times.)  What are your thoughts about the ending?  Post these in this week’s forum, if you need a topic!

The title for most of the recent editions of this film is appropriately The Bicycle Thieves, an accurate translation of Ladri di Biciclette.  Americans primarily know the film as The Bicycle Thief, yet “thieves” holds quite a bit of information in its correct translation.  Not only was there an accomplice in the stealing of the bike, but the fact that Ricci also becomes a thief himself is crucial to the meaning of the film. 


From, written by Michael Brooks:

Vittorio De Sica grew up in Naples, and started out as an office clerk in order to raise money to support his poor family. He was increasingly drawn towards acting, and made his screen debut while still in his teens, joining a stage company in 1923. By the late 1920s he was a successful matinee idol of the Italian theatre, and repeated that achievement in Italian movies, mostly light comedies. He turned to directing in 1940, making comedies in a similar vein, but with his fifth film The Children are Watching Us (1944), he revealed hitherto unsuspected depths and an extraordinarily sensitive touch with actors, especially children. It was also the first film he made with the writer Cesare Zavattini with whom he would subsequently make Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948), heartbreaking studies of poverty in postwar Italy which won special Oscars before the foreign film category was officially established. After the box-office disaster of Umberto D. (1952), a relentlessly bleak study of the problems of old age, he returned to directing lighter work, appearing in front of the camera more frequently. Although Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) won him another Oscar, it was generally accepted that his career as one of the great directors was over. However, just before he died he made The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970), which won him yet another Oscar, and his final film A Brief Vacation (1973). He died following the removal of a cyst from his lungs.

History & Society

This film, along with Rashomon (Kurosawa 1950) is credited for the creation of the Foreign Language Film Oscar.  It was one of the first European (or foreign for that matter) films to find an audience in the United States.  After, it became a highly influential film for the French New Wave movement in the 1960s (realism, location shooting, non-endings) and the American Revisionist Cinema movement discussed with The Graduate

There is a scene that is obviously taking aim at Hollywood Cinema.  Note that the poster Ricci hangs is for the film Gilda starring Rita Hayworth.  The fact that his livelihood is based on promoting American big-budget filmmaking is a hidden commentary within the film. 

You may recognize popular culture references to The Bicycle Thief in more recent American films.  It is the basis for the plot of Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) as a Hollywood producer attempts to make  film with “no stars, no happy ending” like Thief.   More famously, this film is the inspiration for Tim Burton’s first film, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.  In that film, Pee Wee spends the entire narrative looking for a bicycle, even resorting to a consulting a fortune teller. 

This film is considered to be a very accurate and (to overuse a word) realistic portrayal of Italian society in 1948.  Throughout the film, the viewer is confronted with notions of grassroots political movements, and revolutionary political change, beyond the economic concerns. The scene in the cafe provides a great depiction of the separation of the classes, as Bruno compares himself to the rich kid seated behind him in a slightly comical way.  The wealthy kid can only come across as condescending and unlikable as the family orders dessert and alcoholic beverages.  Also, unlike American children, it isn’t unheard of for children to consume wine, like Ricci offers at dinner.  

Genre & Movement

The discussion for the criterion is at the beginning of this post.  Try to recognize all the aspects of Italian NeoRealism in this film. 


View The Bicycle Thief (De Sica 1948)