This week’s class was centred on Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Vittoria De Sica 1948). We have already encountered postwar ruins and a version of the Trümmerfilm (‘rubble film’) in The Third Man (Reed 1949), and will watch Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949) next week – a bit more festive than most Trümmerfilm and one that segues into the period of postwar (re)construction that will begin next semester.
It is difficult to talk about Bicycle Thieves without also talking about Italian neo-realism, and so the lecture this week also overlaps with some issues being discussed on Film Style and Meaning. James Chapman’s Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present (2003) usefully describes Italian neorealism as possessing
a distinctive formal and aesthetic character of its own (location shooting, naturalistic lighting, long takes, true-to-life stories, unscripted dialogue and the use of non-professional performers). (232)
It would however be problematic to reduce the movement merely to a matter of aesthetics (Chapman doesn’t – I’ll come back to him in a bit), especially when the terms one finds in such lists are this broad and could be applied to so many realist film movements. So before getting into more detail about neorealism, we focused on the specificities of Italy in the closing years of World War II and the immediate postwar period.
Very broadly, then:
Benito Mussolini, leader of the National Fascist Party, became the Prime Minister of Italy in 1922. In 1925, he abandoned democracy and set up a legal dictatorship. He was ousted in 1943 and replaced by Pietro Badoglio, who set about dissolving the Fascist party and surrendering to the advancing allied forces. In response, Germany invaded Italy and German special forces broke Mussolini out of prison. Italy declared war on Germany; Mussolini became head of the northern Italian Social Republic – a Nazi puppet government. He was captured and executed by partisans in April 1945.
In 1944, the returning exiled leader of the Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, promised to pursue parliamentary rather than revolutionary politics, and joined a broadly anti-fascist ‘national unity’ government, which wrote a new constitution, gave women the vote, abolished the monarchy and began to (half-heartedly) purge fascists from office. The Communist Party, had been the mainstay of the anti-fascist partisans and anti-Nazi resistance, and thus it had a certain moral high ground (as well as a million members in 1945). Under the new constitution, the first parliamentary elections since 1922 were held on 18 April 1948 (while Bicycle Thieves was in pre-production).
There were massive housing shortages and unemployment was somewhere between 9% and 20% – and if the Communist Party won, US Marshall Plan aid would have been delayed. The Christian Democrats, backed by the Vatican and covertly by the CIA, won. The Communist Party was established as the second largest party. On 14 July 1948 there was an attempt to assassinate Togliatti. He was shot three times and put in a coma, but recovered. In response, there were massive protests, a general strike, and violent police repression (including by the Nucleo Celere, who we glimpse out of the police station window in Bicycle Thieves, heading out in jeeps to break up a demonstration).
It was against this complex, tense, conflicted and invigorating background that Italian neorealism emerged, and which to an extent accounts for its distinctiveness among varieties of realist cinema – not least because many of the key personnel were communists, or at least antifascists well to the left of the Christian Democrats.
Chapman also outlines some important other factors in the development of the neorealist style. The massive state studio Cinecittà, opened by Mussolini in 1937, had been bombed during the Allied invasion and was closed down, not reopening until 1948 (it was used as a displaced persons camp from 1945-47). At the same time, distribution networks – which had been starved of overseas films – were badly disrupted. Film production and circulation had become extremely localised, and in the absence of studio facilities, location shooting was at the very least a practical decision as much as it might have been an aesthetic one (presumably, professional actors had also been widely dispersed during the war, so there might also have been expedient casting of non-professional actors).
To the aesthetic characteristics listed by Chapman, we might also add a general preference for medium and long shots, which has the effect of embedding characters in social settings and relationships – the American mistranslators of the title, who called the film The Bicycle Thief, rather missed this point, as well as implying the title referred to Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani). Additionally, neorealism also tended towards a digressive narrative form (especially in comparison to the Hollywood three-act structure) which arguably had the effect of bringing films closer to the unstructured shape of actual people’s actual lives – a point, as we will see, that André Bazin emphasised in his enthusiastic championing of De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952).
There is of course no consensus on how extensive the canon of Italian neorealist films is – the shortest lists I have seen list usually about eight films, others go up to about sixty.
Either the first neorealist film or the major precursor of neorealism, depending on who you ask, is Ossessione/Obsession (Luchino Visconti 1943), the first adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) – which the PCA had forbidden Hollywood to film.
So the other first neorealist film is Roma, Città aperta/Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini 1945), the story of a partisan and a priest killed during the liberation of Rome. It is generally interpreted as a call for communists and christians to unite in fighting fascism and building a new Italy. It was shot on the streets of Rome, using scavenged equipment and the ends of film reels, which gave it an urgent, grainy look . According to Dilys Powell, the influential Sunday Times film critic from 1939-79,
its impact was partly accidental, the result, not of the director’s art and imagination alone, but also of the accident of poor physical material which gave the story the air of fact.
For Rossellini, however, aesthetics and politics are inseparable, and neorealism was part of a movement to express a
need that is proper to modern man, to tell things as they are, to understand reality, I would say, in a pitiless concrete way, conforming to that typical contemporary interest, for statistical and scientific results.
In 1946, Rossellini’s Paisà/Paisan, charted – in six episodes – the relationship between Italians and US troops, from the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 to end of 1944. Again, it is a film that could not have been made by Hollywood – the US troops are often drunk, the third episodes features a woman who works as a prostitute, and the second episode of is centred on an African American soldier.
In the same year, De Sica’s Sciuscià/Shoeshine began to shift the focus of neorealist film’s away from the war and onto the problems of postwar reconstruction. This is also the focus of Bicycle Thieves, as well as Visconti’s La Terra Trema/The Earth Trembles (1948) and Giuseppe De Santis’s Riso Amaro/Bitter Rice (1949), which are both concerned with rural settings, with fishermen and rice farmers.
Bazin praised Bicycle Thieves in these terms:
The story is from the lower classes, almost populist: an incident in the daily life of a worker. But the film shows no extraordinary events such as those that befall the fated workers in Gabin films. There are no crimes of passion, none of those grandiose coincidences common in detective stories … Truly an insignificant, even a banal incident … Plainly there is not enough material here for even a news item: the whole story would not deserve two lines in a stray-dog column. … the event contains no proper dramatic valence. It takes on meaning only because of the social (and not psychological or aesthetic) position of the victim. ( “Bicycle Thief” 49-50)
He also described it as a communist film, but one that avoided being mere propaganda
Its social message is not detached, it remains immanent in the event, but it is so clear that nobody can overlook it, still less take exception to it, since it is never made explicitly a message. The thesis implied is wondrously and outrageously simple: in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive. … events and people are never introduced in support of a social thesis – but the thesis emerges fully armed and irrefutable because it is presented to us as something thrown in into the bargain. (“Bicycle Thief” 51, 53-3)
Arguments about the canon often start with Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950) and De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano/Miracle in Milan (1951) – they are clearly building on neorealism and breaking new ground, but is that new ground somewhere outside of neorealism’s ambit?
No such uncertainty exists about De Sica’s Umberto D., though. It is a deeply digressive story, or non-story, about an old man living a meagre existence. He has a dog, Flike. He contemplates suicide, but first tries to find a new home for Flike. It is a film which Bazin praised for its refusal of ellipsis – for the way it leaves in all the bits classical Hollywood filmmaking would cut out (as in this four-and-a-half-minute scene of the maid making coffee). Nothing at all of significance happens. Apart from the details of her routine, glimpses of her character and a reminder of her dilemma – and so of course it is full of actions and significance.
Bazin saw this as the pinnacle of Italian neorealism – as close as any film got to eliminating the actor (through the casting of non-professionals), miss-en-scène (through abandoning the artifice of the soundstage for the ‘reality’ of location shooting – to be honest, he is not always very good at spotting when things are shot in the studio) and story (eschewing the tightly-plotted classical narrative in favour of the disclosure of the everyday). While conceding that it would never be as widely appreciated or as well liked as Bicycle Thieves, he argued that
It took Umberto D to make us understand what it was in the realism of Ladri di Biciclette that was still a concession to classical dramaturgy. Consequently what is so unsettling about Umberto D is primarily the way it rejects any relationship to traditional film spectacle. (Bazin “Umberto D” 80)
Italian neorealism is normally said to end with Umberto D or perhaps Rome 11.00 (Giuseppe De Santis 1952) – a film I have never managed to see, but which sounds (and from film stills looks) awesome, although its influence is still at work in films as late as Federico Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria/Nights of Cabiria (1957) – a film which I ended up misdescribing as being about ‘a prostitute who looks for love in a van’. Of course, I meant ‘in vain’. And ‘a woman who works as a prostitute’.
Neorealist films were not great hits with Italian audiences, whose cinemas were being flooded with Hollywood product. They were attacked by the Catholic Church as unsavoury (rather than because they were anticlerical, or at least did not hold a high opinion of the church), and they were attacked by politicians because of the negative image of Italy they promoted internationally (not because they were, on the whole, left-wing films critical of the failures of Italian politics). But some of them were also major international successes, winning many festival awards as well as Oscars, and played a key role in the development of arthouse cinemas and circuits, especially in the US.
Before screening the film, I asked the students about Bazin’s claim that the message of the film is that ‘in the world where this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive’. Is this what the film says? If so, how? If not, what does it say instead? Can a film be reduced like this to a mere ‘meaning’?
I also asked students to return to the ideas we have been considering (since Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’) around the individual and the crowd – are these the only options? What about families? The neighbourhood? The church? The community party? What role do they play in mediating between – and in creating – the individual and the crowd?
Thinking back to Man with a Movie Camera, how does Bicycle Thieves depict leisure and labour?
And think about the film’s depiction of Rome. This is not the tourist Rome of, say, Roman Holiday (William Wyler), full of images of classical ruins and Renaissance art and architecture (though it is often shot with yards of such locations). Why does it eschew such sights? And why do other films focus so strongly upon them?
In the end, a lot of our discussion focused on the significance of Antonio’s bike – a muscle-powered forms of transport, halfway between the rural world of hand- and animal-drawn vehicles, and the coming modernising decade of Vespas and Lambrettas and Fiats. One of the sharpest contrasts is between Antonio, who needs a bike so he can work and provide for his family, and the racing cyclists who are wealthy enough to own bikes for leisure purposes. (This is part of the film’s argument about the flawed nature of capitalist social organisation.)
There is also the moment early on when Antonio is told he must have a bike and:
a) he lies, saying it is broken rather than that it has been pawned, even though when we see the pawn shop it is obvious everyone else is living on meagre credit, too;
b) none of the other unemployed men, who are not eligible for this particular job, who clearly state that they have bikes, offer to lend theirs to him.
This lack of communal solidarity stands in stark contrast to the way in which the family and neighbours of the guy who stole Antonio’s bike leap to his defence. This incident ties to the film’s argument through architecture. The Val Melaina, where Antonio and his family live is a borgate built for working class people who were forcibly displaced from the centre of Rome when Mussolini destroyed working class neighbourhoods in order to construct the avenues around the Coliseum, St Peter’s, etc. (This also had the advantage of removing antifascist and potentially antifascist workers to a distant periphery – a move echoing the Haussmanisation of Paris.) These apartment blocks – which we see have no inside water supply – were ‘completed’ in 1933. They were five miles from the centre of Rome, separated from the city by non-urban space, and surrounded by open land. They had few services and poor connections with the city. Under such circumstances, the communal ties of the densely packed urban neighbourhood, with its multigenerational extended and intertwined kinship networks, and compounded by the dislocations and losses of war, came under increasing strain. Community gives way to the individual and the nuclear family; and that is not necessarily a good thing – as we will see in the first half of next semester as we encounter narratives of suburban conformism (from Douglas Sirk, Don Siegel, Ray Bradbury) and urban alienation (from Jean-Luc Godard, JG Ballard, William Klein, Martin Scorsese).
Core critical reading: Gordon, Robert S.C. Bicycle Thieves. London: BFI, 2008. 82–98.
Recommended critical reading
Bazin, André. “Bicycle Thief”, What is Cinema? Volume II, ed. and trans Hugh Gray, Hugh. Berkeley: University of California Press 1972. 47-60.
–. “Umberto D: A Great Work”, What is Cinema? Volume II. Ed. and trans Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of CaliforniaPress 1972. 79-82.
Cardullo, Bert. “Actor-Become-Auteur: The Neorealist Films of Vittoria De Sica.” The Massachusetts Review 41.2 (2000): 173–92.
Celli, Carlo. “Ladri di biciclette/The Bicycle Thieves.” The Cinema of Italy. Ed. Giorgio Bertellina. London: Wallflower, 2004. 43–52.
Cook, Christopher. Ed. The Dilys Powell Film Reader. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.
Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neo-Realism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Gold, John R. and Stephen V. Ward. “Of Plans and Planners: Documentary Film and the Challenge of the Urban Future, 1935–52.” The Cinematic City. Ed. David B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 1997. 59–82.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapters 5 and 8, “The City in Ruins and the Divided City: Berlin, Belfast, and Beirut” and “The City as Queer Playground.”
Shiel, Mark. Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. London: Wallflower, 2006.
Tomasulo, Frank P. “Bicycle Thieves: A Re-Reading.” Cinema Journal 21.2 (1982): 1–13.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) offers an estranged vision of post-war London combining slums, bombsites and towering new architecture.
Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction (1963) depicts the young working class women living in the post-war slums of Battersea and Clapham Junction; Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (1960) is also of interest.
Two useful accounts of social housing and postwar reconstruction are Lynsley Hansley’s Estates: An Intimate History (2012) and John Grindrod’s Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain (2014).
Short documentaries about slum living, new housing and other urban developments include Housing Problems (Anstey and Elton 1935), The City (Elton 1939), The City (Steiner and Van Dyke 1939) and Land of Promise (Rotha 1946).
Utopia London (Cordell 2010) outlines the vision of a group of modernist architects to rebuild London as a more pleasant and equal city, while Riff-Raff (Loach 1991) and Estate, A Reverie (Zimmerman 2015) chart the destruction of such developments.
Post-war London bombsites play a key role in films such as Hue and Cry (Crichton 1947), Obsession aka The Hidden Room (Dmytryk 1949) and The Yellow Balloon (Thompson 1953). These are Trümmerfilm (‘rubble films’), that is, movies made and set in the ruins of postwar cities. Others include The Murderers Are Among Us (Staudte 1946), the Italian neo-realist Germany Year Zero (Rosselini 1948), Odd Man Out (Reed 1947), The Third Man (Reed 1949) and Ten Seconds to Hell (Aldrich 1959).
Up the Junction was filmed for television by Ken Loach in 1965 (and rather less interestingly for cinema by Peter Collinson in 1968). Also of interest are Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), adapted from Dunn’s 1967 novel of the same name, and his influential television drama Cathy Come Home (1969). Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (BBC 1996) begins – in part – as a drama about the post-war replacement of slum housing with tower blocks and concludes with the problematic privatisation of public housing.