The most influential movement in film history consisted of about 20 movies produced between 1944 and 1952. Italian neorealism was the original new wave. The inspiration for Jean-Luc Godard and John Cassavetes, Satyajit Ray and Ousmane Sembene, André Bazin and cinéma verité, neorealism was understood as a double renaissance — both the medium’s post–World War II rebirth and a means for representing human experience outside the conventions of the Hollywood entertainment film. Roberto Rossellini’s Open City came first and created the neorealist paradigm — location shoots using available light, long takes and few close-ups; post-synchronized vernacular dialogue; working-class protagonists played by nonactors (especially children); and open-ended narratives. But it was The Bicycle Thief (1948), directed by the fascist-era matinee idol Vittorio De Sica from a script by veteran screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, that parlayed that paradigm into what was surely the most universally praised movie produced anywhere on planet Earth during the first decade after World War II.
The Bicycle Thief, which opens Friday at the Music Hall in a new 35mm print, was the latest manifestation of a recurring impulse — the desire to wrest a narrative movie from the flux of daily life. Zavattini had expressed the desire to make a film that would do no more than follow a man through the city for 90 minutes, and, in some ways, The Bicycle Thief is that film. Bazin, who would be neorealism’s key celebrant, praised the film’s premise as “truly insignificant. … A workman spends a whole day looking in vain in the streets of Rome for the bicycle someone has stolen from him.”
Scarcely a story found in the street, The Bicycle Thief is an allegory at once timeless and topical. Italian unemployment was at 22 percent, but Ricci, the unemployed protagonist given a job putting up posters, is also a version of the urban Everyman. As a type, he had inhabited the movies since the dawn of the 20th century. Ricci is a member of the crowd, a walker in the city. He’s one step up the social ladder from Chaplin’s Little Tramp in that he has a wife and a child. Throughout, De Sica’s mise-en-scène emphasizes the urban mass (waiting for jobs and street cars) and its mass-produced objects — the piles of pawned linens, the rows of bicycles. Translated correctly from the Italian, the title should really be the more provocatively totalizing Bicycle Thieves. The city is alternately empty and teeming. Although shot in an authentic environment, The Bicycle Thief is no less stylized in its way than the other European masterpiece of 1948, Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus. There are few establishing shots. Unlike Rossellini’s, De Sica’s Rome is a baffling, decentered labyrinth. The stolen bicycle is swallowed up by the city itself. People disappear to reappear within the urban flux.
Although not a comedy, The Bicycle Thief was inevitably compared to Chaplin in its content, its structure, its pathos and its universality. (The mournful music and circular narrative predict the post–neorealist mannerism of Federico Fellini.) The Bicycle Thief looks back at the nickelodeon and forward to the European art film. De Sica’s masterpiece was not so much part of a new wave as the crest of an old one — the epitome of movies as a popular modernism. (Music Hall)