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Bicycle Thieves and Italian Neo-Realism

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David Hast and Scott Vander Werf discuss the Italian Neo-Realism movement that occurred after the end of World War II. It was a school of filmmaking that influenced movie makers around the world

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Bicycle Thieves?

Scott Vander Werf: I've seen Bicycle Thieves several times. It's one of my favorite movies and the entire slate of Italian neorealism films I love.

DH: Yeah, Bicycle Thieves, I've only seen it a couple times, but I love it. It's a wonderful drama that came out of this very brief, but incredibly influential movement in Italy at the end of World War II and into the early 50s that's called Italian neorealism. These movies were, they basically have the subject matter as looking at life in Italy during the end of World War II and immediately after the war, and it shows very realistic portrayals of a society destroyed by war, where people are now suffering from poverty, unemployment, and just the challenge to keep their lives and families together, which we see in The Bicycle Thieves.

And… What made it so influential as a movement, it was really the first time ever that movies were just doing everything almost with a documentary style of realism. They were very visually authentic and very humanly authentic. So they featured lots of non-professional actors. They were shot on real locations around Rome and other Italian cities with a minimum of obvious technique or style, and we just see these real characters that people in Italy at the time and even others could really relate to these very simple, relatable stories. Martin Scorsese, the Italian American director, called the whole Italian neorealist movement the spiritual rehabilitation of an entire culture and people through cinema.

SVW: The city of Rome is a character unto itself as well, showing all the scars of warfare that makes it even more dramatic.

DH: Yeah, I mean, because they're shooting on the real streets during and at the end of the war. So we should probably start with what's widely regarded as the first great Italian neorealist film. There were one or two before it, but this is usually the one called Rome Open City by Roberto Rossellini. The story is very simple as they usually are in the Italian neorealist films. It just shows, this is Rome while it's being occupied by the Nazis.

SVW: So let's turn to Bicycle Thieves 1948 Vittorio de Sica.

DH: And it's the story of partisans, essentially the people that are fighting against the Nazis covertly, a priest and other ordinary people who are fighting the occupiers. And they actually started shooting this movie on a complete shoestring budget. I mean, they had to sell their clothes and stuff to come up with money. They began covertly shooting it in Rome while the Nazis were still there. And then most of it was shot in January 1945. So World War II was still going on. But by this point, the Germans had withdrawn from Rome. And six months earlier, the American troops had come in. So they could safely shoot this story. But they, you know, the main studio, the main movie studio in Rome had been almost destroyed by the war, Sinicetta.

So they couldn't shoot indoors even if they wanted to, but it worked in their favor because it made them shoot everything on locations, in the streets, in real apartments. They had no money, they used the short ends of film stock. They couldn't process it for a long time. So they couldn't get dailies by any means. They had to wait days and days to see what they'd shot, and then one of the incredible features of this movie and the others is that they don't do a lot of the like, romantic kind of closeups that we're so used to in Hollywood films. They shot a lot of things wide and in medium and long shots. So you see the streets and the bombed out buildings and the crowds of people.

SVW: And what you're mentioning is this was not a handful of Italian filmmakers that said we're going to start a movement we're going to be neo-realists It was just out of necessity that this is the way that they could make their films.

DH: Yeah, and they were in some ways very political. I mean as the later films came on Which we'll talk about Bicycle thieves and and and others now they're also looking at well look at our society. We're all so poor Nobody's got work. What's the government going to do about this? So they're also very kind of social message pictures. Maybe it's the quintessential Italian neorealist film. If you're going to say what's one, if somebody's seen one Italian neorealist film, they've probably seen that one.

SVW: Well, it's a simple story of a working-class man and his son trying to find his stolen bicycle. He's been looking for work. The initial opening sequence is a large group of men who are seeking work. He gets a job, but he needs a bicycle. And the first day he's working the job, somebody steals the bicycle, and he sees the theft happen, he sees who did it, and him and his young son, a wonderful plucky character, they go looking for the bicycle. And that's essentially what the story is. They get some help from some other people, but it's them walking around the city trying to find the bicycle.

DH: Right, desperately walking, because he literally needs this bicycle in order to be able to feed his family. And this one, the main two actors, the father and son, neither of them were actors. This guy was a mechanic. He was a working class man, playing a working class man. And the kid was just some kid they found.

SVW: And this is one of the brilliant things about the near realistic films because you would think that they were actors. They're so good in the movie.

Dh: They're really good.

SVW: Yeah. Particularly the kid. The kid is amazing.

DH: Yeah, and people have mentioned, and I agree, that it's almost kind of chaplinesque. It reminds you of Charlie Chaplin films like The Kid, where you have the father and son, or The Gold Rush. But they're not as sentimental. This one's right, it pulls at your heartstrings, but not out of a kind of contrived sentimentality.

SVW: How the film proceeds is realistic as well.

DH: Yeah, and Bicycle Thieves was based on a novel. It could have been crafted into a slicker kind of Hollywood-like drama. By this point, these Italian neorealist films had gotten the attention of people in the rest of the world. Vittorio De Sica, the director, says, he said that he was offered millions by a Hollywood producer to cast Cary Grant in the lead role, and he refused.

SVW: He went on to make in 1952 Umberto D., which is probably my favorite of the neo-realistic films. Civil servant, he's a teacher, Umberto, he's struggling to pay rent, his landlady is threatening to throw him out, and he has a young dog as a companion, and he's also friends with the maid who's 15 years old. It's his story of just trying to survive. A lot of people consider this the last true near realistic film. Why is that?

DH: By 1952, society was a little better. It wasn't in ruins anymore. They were coming back and people didn't want depressing stories, you know, these stories are pretty tough. And so they shifted to making films that looked more at the psychology of people and their inner lives and their everyday conflicts, middle class people and intellectuals, kind of what we think of now as European art cinema. That was kind of where it was shifting. Now Italian Neorealism, though, we should talk about, went on to heavily influence not only the Italian filmmakers like Fellini and Antonioni who followed, even if they weren't making neorealist films anymore, they were very influenced by the way it was done, but it also influenced, it was an influence on the beginning of the French New Wave and American cinema.

SvW: American cinema became realistic in terms of portraying urban environments and cityscapes, and showing people as they lived their lives.That's definitely as a result of the neo-Italian realism.

DH: Yeah, I mean, we think of Martin Scorsese today and his films like Goodfellas, right?

SVW: Or Mean Streets.

DH: Right, all of them. If you ask Martin Scorsese, who's your biggest influence on these films? I don't think there's any question he would say the Italian neorealist film.

SVW: All right, thanks for joining us.

DH: Thanks.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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