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Middle of the Road: Bicycle Thief

Thanks to the help of Italian resistance fighters, Allied forces seized control of the northern part of the state quickly during the last months of the war, without doing significant damage to industrial installations of the region. Thus, by 1949 the production capabilities of Italy had been restored to their pre-war levels. Wages increased to more than five times in the first post-war decade. However despite the success of industry during reconstruction, four million workers remained unemployed, and the economy still had a great weakness in the poverty of the agrarian south. Though industry was a remedy for Italy's international market woes, it was at the same time a cripple to the domestic economy. A mass emigration from the impoverished south to the north only complicated the issues of unemployment.

Though there was a large deal of government intervention in the industrial economy, management remained largely in the hands of private enterprise. The effects of the remaining capitalism lead to the stratification of social class and continuing poverty and unemployment for the unfortunate lower class. As this state of affairs continued on, it spelled destruction for the hope of a renewed society envisioned by Rossellini. This change in social thought was paralleled by a transformation of the goals of neorealist film. Instead of the hope for a synthesis of the Christian and communist ideals embodied in the resistance, neorealist films from the middle of the movement represented a dead end for these hopes. Capitalism had destroyed communism's chances of establishing a foothold, and brought with it the problems of poverty, unemployment, and an extreme differentiation of social classes. Whereas Open City leaves us with hope for the future, films like DeSica's Bicycle Thief openly question the likelihood of such a happy ending.

Bicycle Thief was not subject to the limitations of production that ultimately influenced the early neorealist films, yet it was the use of similar conventions that ultimately made the message of the film so compelling. The simplistic style that was so successful and arose out of technical necessity for Rossellini required painstaking effort to reproduce in subsequent neorealist films. De Sica's minimalist plot and the careful planning of every shot led to a finished product that contained an even greater sense of austerity than Rossellini's, concealing the artistry behind it. The finished product has an almost of a documentary feel in its realist nature. Indeed, Basin said of the film, "No more actors, no more plot, no more mise-en-scene. It is in the end the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality: no more cinema." (Hartog, 7).

Ricci and his son, Bruno, are taken on a voyage through the streets of Rome in Bicycle Thief.

The long take and the deep focus of the lens provide some of the greatest statements in the film. The viewer is exposed to a detailed look of the city as Ricci and his son take their long walk through the variety of institutions--the police, the trade unions, and the church. The extensive shots of the flea market are particularly touching forcing the viewer to see a thousand other bicycles which have most likely been stolen and broken down into scraps for sale. The viewer becomes aware that the story of Ricci is not his story alone, but that of many people in the big city. And in this context, the personal agony which we experience at the hands of Ricci becomes more than a personal tragedy, but a societal one.

But if it is the poverty and unemployment that force people to steal from one another just to survive, what is the cause of these problems? Without the presence of the Nazis, the answer to this is much less clear than it was in Rossellini's Open City. Indeed, De Sica himself seemed more worried with pointing out the problems than with illuminating the source of them. He says: "...Film makers, when they depict human social problems, instinctively seek the causes and effects of the disequilibrium in human relationships. They are led to conclusions, a sort of commentary in images, which are more or less partisan. There is none of this in my work." (Hartog, 9).

The protagonists confront the old man who knows about Ricci's bike.

De Sica's restaurant scene masterfully comments on this disequilibrium and social gap between the low and the middle classes. As Ricci and his son enter the restaurant, our eyes are shocked by the difference in culture between the masses we have previously seen on the streets, in the markets and at the church compared to the well-dressed middle-class gentry dining in the restaurant. Bruno's wide eyes and excited smiles clearly state how foreign such a place is to him and how large gap between classes truly is. The waiter seems more concerned with wiping off the table and avoiding eye contact with Ricci than in being of any help. Unlike the waiters at the nearby middle class table who pamper their customers, feeding them with more bottles of wine and elaborate dishes over their clean white tablecloth, Ricci and Bruno are simply given a stack of plates and utensils which they must arrange themselves over the bare table. Furthermore, Bruno can hardly manage his food with his fork and knife and resigns himself to eating with his hands, the stringy cheese never quite letting him set down his bread, making a mockery of himself. Meanwhile, the young girl at the wealthier table delicately chews the bite of her food that she has politely dissected with her utensils. Snickering as she looks over her shoulder to Bruno, or licking the frosting of the cake that Bruno will never get to enjoy from her lips, she epitomizes the difference that exists in society. Unlike the children of Open City who stand united to tackle the problems of a grim future, the youth of Bicycle Thief have been divided by the same capitalist culture which has already divided the rest of the country. The unity that would solve the problems of the future, represented by Rossellini's children, is in question and the hope that we once possessed has deteriorated greatly.

Trapped in the rain: Bicycle Thief brutally portrays the hardships of life.

This deterioration of hope is of course best seen in the tragic end of De Sica's film. Ricci has been isolated from the masses that were supposed to help him but have now betrayed him for their own personal goals. He is left stranded with the only possibility for survival being to steal some other unfortunate person's bicycle. This utter alienation on the part of society is symbolized by the emptiness of his surroundings--the stark walls and windows and straight harsh lines of these objects surround him. It is the first time we see Ricci in an empty Rome and it is during his greatest moment of need. Indeed, Rossellini's hope for the future is certainly in question.

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