“The Bicycle Thief” – A Narrative Analysis

In my last post, I discussed Roberto Rosselini’s film, Rome, Open City, through a pentadic lens (Agent, Act, Scene, Purpose, Agency or Who, What, When/Where, Why, How). My analysis revealed that the film doesn’t fall in line with Italian neorealist principles, namely a dedication to simple stories with few key characters and a plot derived from everyday activities.

This week I’m going to breakdown Vittorio de Sica’s masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief, by looking at the narrative structure.

Setting – The key element of the Italian Neorealism movement is it’s setting, shocking, I know. Neorealist films popped up all over the globe after World War II, any place where filmmakers were drawing stories out of the common person’s everyday life and struggles. What made each region’s brand of neorealism unique was the setting and the type of people that fight for life there. In this case, the setting was post-word war Rome, the element that colors the film as Italian Neorealist.

Characters – The two main characters are classic archetypes that all audience members can at least feel empathy for, if they don’t personally relate. The main character is an unemployed father with a wife and two kids, living in poverty-stricken Italy and struggling to support his family. His young son of eight years old is confident, brassy, and self-sufficient beyond his years. Together they work at whatever jobs they can get to support the mom and her newborn child.

Narrator – The film presents the story sans narrator, although the story follows the father. This avoids the inevitable bias that narrator characters bring to a story and leaves only the point of view of the director and writer up for consideration, since they shape the work’s creative vision, as per the auteur theory prevalent in post-war films.

Plot – The events of Bicycle Thief express the actions of people found in the state of poverty and are revealed chronologically over a short period of time, thus exemplifying the real time + real space = real world verisimilitude equation of neorealist filmmaking. The driving force of the film is a combination of bad luck (or lack of luck) and, primarily, the actions and choices of other humans within the setting.

–       The opening scene shows a gaggle of men standing outside an employment office waiting, hoping, for a chance at work. Our main character, the father, is called up and he comes out of the crowd to accept the job. This opening shows the universality of the story we’re about to witness; it says that this one man’s story could be, and most likely is, the same as any one of the other men in the crowd. Opening on a crowd and singling in on one of the crowd members is a tactic De Sica uses again in Umberto D., which chronicles the struggles of post-war pensioners.

–        The crux of the story is that the father needs a bicycle as part of his job requirement (gluing up movie posters on buildings). The resulting series of events details his acquisition of a bike; the theft of a bike; the unwillingness of a witness to give up the thief’s information; the father’s damnation by a hostile community when he attempts to confront the thief; his resignation to stealing a bike out of desperation; his failure and arrest; and his release. The father and son walk off dejectedly into the sunset, without a bike, without a job, without money, and without hope.

Audience – The majority of local audience members seeing Bicycle Thief would have been familiar with circumstances detailed within the film; although social commentary on the poor and downtrodden were just barely beginning to be “a thing” in film, the sentiments expressed in de Sica’s work (the ones that spurred on the neorealism movement) were widespread within discontented Italian communities. Global audiences, however, weren’t as familiar with the problems in post-war Italy. Most would have related to the film’s universal portrayal of unemployment struggles and the pressure of a parent’s responsibility to support their family. At the very least, compassion for the spunky, charismatic son would have captured audience interest and invested them in the story.

Theme – Like many neorealist and post-war filmmakers, De Sica was of the type to lay out problems and ugly truths of life for audiences who were used to the glamorous, glossy melodramas of the wartime era. The lack of luck and lack of communal compassion in the film’s Italian community lead to a theme of hopelessness and fatality that rubbed many Italian viewers the wrong way. De Sica offers no solution to the problem, rather he lays out the life of this stranger and challenges audiences to pay attention to the sufferings of people around them. He says, “Hey, this is happening, this is real, are you going to do anything about it?” rather than, “This is a problem and here’s how you fix it.”

De Sica’s approach with The Bicycle Thief points out the flaws of society and suggests at the universality of the main characters’ situation in order to throw light on the reality of post-war life. Since the film’s release in 1948, it has held a strong position at the top of Sight & Sound magazine’s list of greatest films of all time, as well as the British Film Institutes recommended list of films to see before age 14. De Sica knew his audience and knew how to hit right in the feels.

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