Another fine example of neorealism is The Bicycle Thief (1948), written by Cesare Zavattini and directed by Vittorio De Sica. The narrative of this film unfolds in post-W.W.II times. The film is a portrait of the post-war Italian disadvantaged class (the majority) in their search for self-respect. It is a time of struggle for the Italian people, amplified by a shortage of employment and lack of social services.In the first scenes of the film, these conditions are evident as Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorami) meets his spouse Maria (Lianalla Carell) on his way back home. We see the “men” arguing at the employment “office” as the “women” argue about the shortage of water. Although the director’s pessimism drives the plot, it is ultimately the clash with human optimism which gives this film affective power.
Antonio’s new job can bring his family new hopes and happiness, which are drastically destroyed when his bicycle is stolen. The banal circumstances are brought to life when it is realized that a modest bicycle is such an important element in determining the future survival of the Ricci family. Human optimism is there, beginning with Antonio’s excitement when he gets his bike from the pawn shop, and the next morning when the family joyfully interacts before setting out for work. These scenes contain the promises that a modest job can bring and the dignity and pride of being able to once more function within Italian society. The embodiment of this self-respect is shown when Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staicca) both smile at Maria as they leave home.
Self-respect and all the related values such as pride, dignity, modesty and honor are very important in Italian society. Witness Bruno, whom at a young age, works full time at a gas station. Bruno’s contributions to the Ricci family make him a “man” and strip him of his innocence. Being able to work is an optimistic endeavor which Bruno wholeheartedly engages in.
The tragedy is not Antonio’s previous two years of unemployment- it is that he has no future in his new job, due to the theft of his bike. Antonio must face this tragedy with no public support other than his friend Baiocco. Baiocco’s willingness to help with his friends and his optimistic response to Maria constitute another case of human optimism. This form of optimism pervades the film with Antonio’s perseverance and determination to find the stolen bike. These events stimulate the viewer’s mind to think of solutions related to Antonio’s situation, perhaps to try to solve problems of post-war Italy such as crime, famine, health issues, living condition, etc.; ills that have affected society then and now around the globe.
Antonio’s frustration of missing the thief for a second time fuels the hopelessness in continuing his search. He attempts to forget his predicament by treating himself and his son to a meal and a liter of wine.
The restaurant scene reflects the Italian Sunday tradition, as the more affluent families went out to treat themselves to a restaurant and enjoyed the Sabbath. Here we see the contrast, between Antonio and Bruno and the rest of the restaurant clientele. This signifies the last meal before a bleak Monday, where once again Antonio will find himself without a bike and without a job. Still, optimism is present as they discuss the potential income his work can bring.
Antonio’s hopes are exhausted. Pushed by desperation and a bit of wine, he attempts to steal a bike. This foolish act places Antonio in an even more humiliating situation, as he is caught in the act and placed under citizen arrest. This scene is another display of human optimism, when the owner of the bike, seeing little Bruno’s sad expression, forgives Antonio and allows him to go free.
The ultimate message of human optimism is Bruno. He is striking, but not in his dialogue as much in his facial expressions. Bruno’s love for his family and his acceptance of his father after witnessing the attempted robbery are exemplary. The character of Bruno played a critical role in this film, signifying the purity of love and understanding in times of trial. The final scene shows Antonio and Bruno in immense emotional pain, walking amongst an indifferent stadium crowd. But the scene, although certainly an unhappy one, also portrays optimism- in the form of Bruno’s acceptance and support for his father: Bruno walks beside his father holding his hand, as his father cries tears of grief.
In the end, Love is human optimism.