Morality in post-war Italy

truly encapsulate their time and place, and indeed even movement are the rarest of gems. Bicycle Thieves tells the tale of a man who has had his bicycle stolen, and must get it back to save his job. Add in the background of post-war Italy and an exploration of conscience in desperate times and you have one powerful morality play. They just don’t make them like this anymore.

As part of the neo-realist movement in Italian cinema, Bicycle Thieves exemplifies the spirit of the stark simplicity evident in films of the period. A man gets a job which requires a bicycle, man gets bicycle stolen, man tries to get bicycle back. That’s it, that’s the whole narrative framework right there and yet within the confines of this skeletal guide we get the most raw emotions and heart-wrenching situations.

Let’s take the beginning of this film as a guide. Our protagonist finds himself with a family to feed but no money to do so. He hangs around on the corner during the day with other hopefuls hoping that employers looking for cheap labour would cruise by. He finagles his way into a job pasting film posters onto walls in Rome.

Thing is, he doesn’t have a bicycle required for a job. The only way he can get one is by trading his family’s sheets in exchange for a bicycle (oh, the sheets were a wedding present). Already, the stakes have been raised. This job is the last chance saloon. Fast forward and he gets his bike stolen. He has literally had his livelihood snatched from him by a thief, a profession that dishonest men turn to in times of financial hardship.

He goes hunting for his bike along with his son, and encounters thieves working together to throw him off the scent. How is it this honest man is being cheated out of his livelihood by dishonest men?

In the final act, after trying to get his bicycle back by honest means he sends his son (his moral compass) home, or so he thinks, and sets to work succumbing to the evil borne by men in dark times.

This exploration of the human condition is possible not because of a fantasy but because we all recognise the absence of moral virtue men will sink to during hard times.

Neo-realists theorised that the most compelling scenarios were to found all around us and therefore presenting reality was always going to give a better insight into the human condition that flights of fancy ever could.

This theory was given weight by this film, filmed not with actors schooled in dramatic techniques but instead people picked up off the street. Director Vittorio De Sica knew that to tell his true-life story that he would need actors that didn’t know how to work a camera but instead let the emotions of the situation be signposts for their performance.

More than likely, the actors themselves had grown up watching the evils of their society first hand, and therefore instinctively knew how to act within it. Everything about the father’s performance rings true in the viewer’s eyes. This is a real situation, these are real people, the dynamism inherent in the narrative are inherent within our own society.

If you ever wanted proof that real life is sometimes more compelling than fiction , this is it. I not only reccomend it to any student of film but to people who want to experience one of the more raw and emotionally honest films they'll ever experience.

- James McGrath


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