An Analysis of The Bicycle Thief
The Bicycle Thief, directed by Vittoria De Sica, is a film that reflects Italian neorealism. The film follows Antonio Ricci, the main character, during his search for his stolen bicycle. The setting of this movie takes place in post-war Rome, where economic struggles are commonplace. The film clearly contains many elements of the Classical Hollywood Narrative (the ending being an important exception), and it makes excellent use of film form, mise-en-scene, and cinematography to tell the story in a compelling way.
The Bicycle Thief relates to the Classical Hollywood Narrative in many ways. The film focuses on the main character, Antonio Ricci, and his son, Bruno, throughout. Antonio’s main goal is to get a job, but it quickly changes into the main plot of the movie: to locate his stolen bicycle so that he can return to work. The film progresses in a logical, linear fashion, having no major lapses in time. In addition, viewers are taken on an emotional journey, feeling the frustration and desperation of Antonio as his search continues.
Although Antonio never achieves his goal, viewers can see how his character went through a process of change. For example, his character is first portrayed as having a relatively high moral standard, but by the end of the film, he compromises his values by threatening to kill people, going to a seer for advice, becoming more hostile toward his son, and attempting to steal a bike.
While the film meets many of the characteristics of the Classical Hollywood Narrative, there was one important difference: There was no happy ending in this film. Antonio never recovers his bicycle, and his life continues on a downward spiral. After his failed attempt of bike theft, Antonio walks home with his son—crying, depressed, and defeated, with no hope of returning to his job or providing for his family.
This divergence from the Classical Hollywood ending was subtle yet important. Whereas most Hollywood films are designed the leave the viewer feeling good, this film may leave many viewers depressed and without closure. After all, this film perfectly captures the failures and injustices in life, and it likely conjures up similar memories of hardships in the viewer’s mind. Nevertheless, the movie has a very serious tone that makes the viewer feel as if he or she is part of the journey.
Aside from the Classical Hollywood Narrative, the character of Bruno creates a strong pattern in this film’s form. Bruno’s pattern is that of a young boy who is mature beyond his years. He cares for his father’s bike and knows more about it than he does. In one scene, Bruno closes the window in the house before leaving so that his infant sibling will keep warm. He is very self-sufficient and wise: he dresses himself appropriately, seeks a police officer when his father is in trouble, and so forth. Finally, he immediately recognizes the immorality of his father’s attempted theft at the end of the movie.
Next, viewers experience how the form affects expectations and emotions. In this film, both delayed fulfillment and cheated expectations are easily recognized. For example, delayed fulfillment may cause the viewer to ask the following question: “Will Antonio find his bike and retain his job?” Cheated expectations may occur as the viewer asks, “Is Antonio going to resort to stealing a bike for himself?” When he finally finds Alfredo, the boy who stole his bike, viewers may ask, “Is that really the boy who stole his bike, or is Antonio going mad?”
In addition, the different meanings help viewers to understand this film on different levels. The referential meaning in this film is this: In post-war Rome, the average man is struggling to find work. An unemployed man finally finds a job, but he must retrieve his stolen bike to keep it. Most viewers would get this basic meaning from the film. However, the symptomatic meaning takes a deeper look into the social problems of life. The symptomatic meaning in the film is this: A moral man, placed in very difficult economic and social circumstances, becomes beaten down by his environment and compromises his morality in an effort to survive. These various levels of meaning give the viewer an understanding of the meaning or agenda of the film, and they clarify the message that the director and writers were trying to convey.
In addition to the film’s form, this film’s theme is enhanced by clever use of mise-en-scene, especially with respect to the lighting, costumes, and props. Although the film is in black and white, there are different shades of lighting in the film. For example, low-key lighting is used when Antonio is in his home, when he visits the seer, and in the pawnshop. This lighting emphasizes Antonio’s desperation during those scenes. In contrast, high-key lighting is used throughout most of the outdoor scenes, which highlights the enormous size of the city. This emphasizes the large area that Antonio has to search, revealing the daunting task that lie ahead of him.
Aside from the lighting, the costume selection helps viewers understand the characters’ status. The clothing that Antonio’s family wears throughout the movie is very basic, and it reflects their lower-class status. This is even more apparent during the restaurant scene. A family is portrayed as wealthy, and their clothing is very elaborate, with the women wearing expensive hats and men wearing well-made suits. Antonio’s family always wears clothing that is plain and dated.
The props in the film also reinforce Antonio’s poverty and bad luck. Antonio’s home is very bare inside, having few decorations. In contrast, the seer’s home is decorated with many furnishings. The numerous bicycle props throughout the film also create a sense of suspense—viewers are likely wondering if he’ll spot his bicycle. In addition, the vast number of bicycles reinforce the sadness of Antonio’s situation: all this man needs is one simple bicycle so that he can work, and they are everywhere! Yet, he can never find his own bike—and that’s all he needs so that he can provide for his family.
Aside from the mise-en-scene, the film also makes great use of cinematography by using different sizes of shots to capture emotion or perspective. Close-ups of Antonio’s face occur throughout the film, and each shot reveals the enormous frustration and exhaustion he is feeling. This really helps the viewer relate with Antonio, and makes him or her feel exactly what he’s feeling. Long shots are also used during several key parts of the film. For example, at the end of the film, Antonio is so desperate to have a bike that he decides to steal one. For this scene, a long shot reveals a huge rack of bikes at the stadium, and viewers can sense his own contemplation of stealing one.
Finally, a traveling matte technique is visible in the film. The best example of this is when Antonio is riding in the truck with his friend. It is very clear that the vehicle is not really moving. The filmmakers probably inserted a clip of motion into the background to create this effect.
Although this film is older, it still has the ability to capture the attention of viewers. It will likely be remembered as a masterpiece of filmmaking and storytelling from this era for many years to come. All of the elements in this film—the Classical Hollywood Narrative, the film’s form, mise-en-scene, and cinematography—all work together to create a compelling movie filled with emotion and suspense.