The opportunities for study and appreciation of film are truly inexhaustible — witness the fact that until this essential of the Italian Neo-Realist school of filmmaking was scheduled for a special showing, I’d managed to never catch up with it before, despite having watched just about everything of any note or repute that crossed my path for 35 or so years. No one can see everything and such gaps are bound to occur in anyone’s film knowledge. The only films of Vittorio De Sica’s I’d seen were Umberto D and The Garden of Finzi-Continis.
Now I can add this 1948 film — and I can say that, yes, it is an essential of its kind, but one that perhaps works best in the context of its period. I don’t so much mean that it’s necessary to understand the realities of life in post-War Italy — though those play a factor in both the subject matter and the development of the Neo-Realist style. I mean more the way that this style so completely breaks with the tradition of studio films; Neo-Realist works are mostly made on location with rudimentary lighting and often, as in this case, with non-actors. The idea was to break with the artifice of the studio (and as a plus, it was cheaper and suited the economics of the time). What it did was show the world a kind of film that was quite different from the norm.
Similarly, the plots tended to be realistic, gritty and simple. And what could be simpler than a man searching for the stolen bicycle he needs in order to keep his job? Seemingly nothing, but the film boasts six credited writers in addition to De Sica. Usually this kind of committee approach is disastrous, but in a film where a thin plot is used as a guiding principle for a series of events, it can prove — here at least — workable. Much has been written about the film over the years, and there’s little I can add — except perhaps to suggest you not wait 35 years to see it.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke