Neorealism was partly an aesthetic of necessity. Right after the war, money and equipment were in short supply, and the vast Cinecittà studio complex on the southern edge of Rome was a refugee camp. Cinecittà had been built by Mussolini as one monumental expression of his belief in the natural affinity between fascism and film. (The Venice Film Festival was another.) The leading lights of neorealism — including De Sica, a prominent actor before he took up directing — had started out working in Mussolini’s movie industry, which specialized in slick melodramas and high-society romances as well as propaganda.
While it is free of those genre trappings, “Bicycle Thieves” has a sometimes playful, sometimes poetic self-consciousness. The first work we see Antonio doing is hanging up a poster of Rita Hayworth, a sign that Hollywood is part of the Italian landscape. Within a few years, the import and export of movie stars would become a fixture of Italy’s cultural and economic boom. Fellini’s “La Strada” and “Nights of Cabiria” won back-to-back foreign-language film Oscars in 1957 and ’58. Anna Magnani had won for best actress in 1956. Six years later it was Sophia Loren’s turn, for “Two Women,” directed by De Sica, who had perhaps done more than anyone other than Loren herself to cultivate her star power and unlock her artistic potential.
“Bicycle Thieves” may seem like an improbable gateway to the glamorous golden age of Italian cinema, the starry, sexy cosmos of Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and “La Dolce Vita,” but sensuality and spectacle are hardly alien to the neorealist universe. The struggle for survival doesn’t exclude the pursuit of pleasure. Even as Antonio and Bruno encounter disappointment, indifference and cruelty, they also find glimmers of beauty and delight. Seeking help from a sanitation-worker friend in their search for the Fides, Antonio finds the man at the neighborhood cultural center, rehearsing a musical sketch for a revue. Later, Antonio and Bruno will cross paths with itinerant musicians, a fortuneteller, and a young man blowing bubbles in an open-air bicycle market. They will duck into a restaurant for a snack of fried mozzarella, enduring the condescending stares of the rich patrons at the next table.
Their pursuit of the purloined bicycle is full of pain and anxiety, but it is also an adventure, with episodes of tenderness and comedy on the way to final heartbreak. Those moments, modulated by Alessandro Cicognini’s musical score, provide an undercurrent of hope, much as the bustling rhythm of Rome itself — a city that has resisted dreariness for 2,000 years — supplies a reminder that life goes on.
That’s always a good lesson, though “Bicycle Thieves” is a film entirely without didacticism. It shows everything and doesn’t need to explain anything, and so does away with the false choice between escapism and engagement. To care about a movie can be a way of caring about the world.
“Bicycle Thieves” is available to stream on the Criterion Channel, HBO Max or Kanopy.