As we wrap up our 40s Time Capsule, it should be noted that one substantial influence over cinema didn’t come from America.
The neorealist movement of film came from European influence, as the American cinema was primarily used for escapism. Not to devalue Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, but there wasn’t an extra layer of substance to most films coming out around that time that audiences could take home with them and sulk in. Neorealism hadn’t quite been the hit that it now is considered until Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) in 1948. It was directed by Vittorio De Sica, using non-actors for the entirety of the film. Many of the shots included random street wanderers, photographed using hidden cameras and no permits. All the lighting is natural, as the budget wasn’t wide enough to allow for synthetic sets with focused lighting.
One of the great beauties of neorealism is the sense of isolation among the world’s population. Fortunately for De Sica and crew, the grand fascist architecture and tall city buildings were left after the destruction of Benito Mussolini’s regime. In comparison to the actors, these buildings force the perspective of how insignificant these characters are to their surrounding environment. Several shots have deep focus, showcasing the size of the city in comparison to the people. De Sica transitions the focus on other characters at different moments, notably when his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), is at work or trails off in the background and when children, begging for money and food, approach the two on the streets. This approach to filmmaking ensures that the audience can have a grasp on the atmosphere of the time period.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) and his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), must sell their bed sheets to collect money for a bike, so that Ricci can make a living putting up posters around town. While you may think as you’re watching that this must be uncommon, even as people are waiting in line to sell their belongings, the neorealist approach to the story, with a slow crane upwards as the worker stores the sheets, De Sica reveals that this is far too common. The characters, both main and supporting, have clear motives for what they do. It typically doesn’t involve anyone else unless a person can help his or her cause. Another staple with this type of filmmaking can be found in the fact that the main protagonist has prominent flaws in character. Ricci doesn’t treat his wife well; he doesn’t pay attention to his son, either, as many scenes show Bruno trying to catch up to his father as he frantically searches for his bike, even to the point of almost getting hit by two different cars towards the end.
There is a clear mob mentality, and this is evident in two distinct places: when Ricci accuses the man who stole his bike as being a thief and when Ricci tries to steal another bike himself. Both scenes, but particularly the one towards the end, go down a dark path, nearly replicating the way in which the former dictator, Mussolini, was killed by a violent and bloody beating, followed by an execution. It shows the length that people would go for their most prized possessions during hardships. In this case, the bike hangs from the wall of the Ricci home like a trophy. It’s honest, it’s raw, maybe even a bit depressing, but it differs from the string of Hollywood films that were forming a sense of escapism for life itself. Instead of simply giving audiences entertaining experiences, the movement asked its audience to critically think and to question society and its morals.