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Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D (1952) Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2926 words Published: 4th Sep 2017

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Two films from the neorealism movement are Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D (1952) both directed by Vittorio De Sica. Both films in their own way show the real-life hardships that were faced during this time of poverty and more particularly show it from the point of view of normal everyday people. The most pronounced thing about neorealism that sets it apart from other cinematic movements is its birth from necessity. During a time when everything was scarce films were produced using whatever was at hand, filming out on the streets and using non-professional actors, a reason why these films are so genuine in their authenticity. They don’t show the past or the future they show the struggles of the present.[1]

http://i.onionstatic.com/avclub/5105/80/16x9/960.jpgVittorio De Sica said his goal “was to look for the dramatic in ordinary situations, the wonderful in the smallest, the tiniest news item, in the material everybody considers insignificant.” It was with this goal in mind that he created Bicycle Thieves. This film is a key example of the neorealism movement and can be argued to be the most notable. It shows the journey of a man and son as they search for his stolen bicycle. A bicycle which is key in the father getting the job he needs to support his family during a time in which jobs were scarce. This bicycle represents their livelihood and stealing the bicycle also steals this family’s hope of surviving.[2] Bicycle Thieves can be described as “shockingly authentic” in two main ways; the way in which the film has been shot and the message that the narrative expresses.

Figure 1 – Bicycle Thieves (1948)

At the start of the film we see the husband and wife pawn their bedding to be able to get their bicycle back, here De Sica gives us a glimpse of not just our on-screen family, but others when he shows the shot of the high shelves completely full of bed sheets as shown in Figure 1, each representing a family which has done the same. It shows the amount of people that were in poverty after the war and that there is a harsh reality outside this world that De Sica shows us. A reason why his films were so impacting is that he released films based on the post-war era during the post-war era. A time when the audience themselves may have had to pawn something to support their family. Filming at this time meant everything was scarce, films in the post-war era were created using the bare necessities. We can see this through Bicycle Thieves as its it almost completely filmed out on location and any inside shots are cramped, De Sica was also known for his use of non-professional actors, another way of making use of what was available and at the same time making his characters more believable.[3]

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When looking at the Mise-en-Scène of the film De Sica uses very little expressive camera techniques, tending just to show straight on, wide and mid shots; apart from this scene with the bed sheets which is taken from a low angle and pans up as if to express the largeness of the scale of the shelves. He just shows the scene for what is happening and communicates mostly through the narrative alone. There are few interesting camera movements to catch the audience’s attention and no more than simple cuts between scenes. The scenes in Bicycle Thieves tend to be long takes as if De Sica is trying to keep cuts to a minimum, this could explain his fondness for wide shots as it allows more actions to happen in the frame, these long shots also allow for a lot of background movement to be in the frame in these real-life locations expressing De Sica’s wish to show the outside world. He also relies on natural lighting while filming out on location. These techniques, or lack of, work together to show the films authenticity. 

De Sica takes us on a journey of ups and downs in the search for the bicycle and the relationship between father and son, the addition of the son is very important in expressing this “shock authenticity”. A child adds sentiment with their innocence and makes an audience more emotionally invested in the film. We see throughout the film however, a strange relationship between them. Antonio ignores Bruno throughout the film, being so set on his search for his bicycle and young Bruno is there to witness his father at his lowest point. De Sica avoids the idea that Antonio should realise that his son is what’s important, not the bicycle. This ignorance could be De Sica showing that this is not a luxury that the poor can afford.[4] Knowing his fate is directly proportional with his fathers and that of the bike shows a harsh reality of the time, that not even children were not safe from the hardships of the post-war era. De Sica gives us reprieve from the bleakness of the narrative by introducing short moments of happiness, such as our main character Taking his son out for lunch. It almost seems they can forget their troubles for a moment, however the table next to them with the multiple servings of food break them from the illusion. This parallels the unjust support the bike thief receives from his neighbours, whereas the innocent man from which it has been stolen is the one who truly needs it for survival, it shows the unfair world of the post-war era.[5] The end scene is the most defining for our main character. He looks around him at a sea of bicycles and he lowers himself to do what has been done to him throughout the entirety of the film. it gives us an idea that no one at this time is below the acts of others, this era has driven this man to do what he initially found immoral. During our ending scene, we see the owner of the bike let him go when he sees the young boy, showing his understanding of the hardships of others and that the end of the day everyone is in some way in the same boat. Father and son inevitably walk home defeated, De Sica’s brutal honesty lasts through to the end, he doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality, he makes this film shockingly authentic by showing that happy endings aren’t inevitable in real life.

De Sica continued to work in the neorealism movement and moved onto the film Umberto D. This film has recognisable similarities to Bicycle Thieves in the way both were filmed and the fact that they both show the struggles of the time. We see the main character Mr Umberto being thrown out of his home by his indifferent land lady. A man who comes into solitude apart from his dog. There is an idea through Umberto D of the wish of the main character to live his life by his own terms, with dignity, and being unable to. He is left with no home, no family and no health. Although the narrative of Umberto D is different it still portrays the same era as Bicycle Thieves and can also be described for its authenticity. When It comes to using the bare necessities, this is where we see the greatest similarities. Umberto D also uses real locations for filming as well as non-professional actors, they make use of everything around them with a budget that was most likely close to nothing, again portraying an authenticity for the time.[6]

Looking at Umberto D’s Mise-en-Scène we see a little more expression through camera work but not a lot. An example would be the scene where Mr Umberto looks out of his window and we see the sudden zoom in on the street below with this hard hit of non-diegetic music to accompany it. This was De Sica’s way of showing the thoughts of our main character, that he has this sudden idea of jumping to his death rather than live in this world he feels he has no control over. Again, De Sica tends towards wide shots and mid shots, showing the streets that he’s filming in, showing the people and including the outside world. De Sica again uses simple cuts in between his scenes and opts for long takes which these wide shots manage to capture with the odd pan to include the surroundings more. In accordance with the neorealism movement Umberto D takes advantage of natural lighting whilst out on location, one of the bare necessities and making the most of what was available.

Image result for umberto d

Figure 2 – Umberto D (1952)

When It comes to the characters that De Sica portrays they aren’t loved for their perfection or their beauty. Mr Umberto is left with only his dog and a maid who has her own troubles. He is almost completely alone. This movement means a camera that shows things for exactly how they are, the character if Mr Umberto isn’t romanticised yet he is loved by the camera and it sticks with him through an ordinary experience.[7] The actor himself is one which was chosen from a sea of thousands, like this opening scene in Figure 2, showing the men marching demanding fair pension, any one of them could have been De Sica’s muse, all of them in a way are Mr Umberto. This would be the first and last film that this non-professional actor would play and yet this man manages to create such an emotion because he is authentic, and this is what the camera captures.[8]

Like in Bicycle Thieves we see a character going on a journey, however, in bicycle thieves it is a journey looking for life whereas Umberto D focusses on a man searching for his death. This is however complicated by his dog Flike which he loves above anything else. He can’t bear to abandon him. He finds himself at times having to beg on the street something which he can’t stand to do himself, hence using Flike, but even when Flike is recognised by an acquaintance he claims he is only messing around in the hopes of saving his own dignity. Mr Umberto represents the middle class, one which is concerned with the protection of outward appearances. He is more afraid looking poor than actually being so.[9] Everything is taken from him so only Flike and his dignity remain, he represents a character which doesn’t want to be defined a nuisance by a post-war society. A society which already sees a group of men marching down the street in protest as a pest.

In the ending scene, we see Mr Umberto walking straight onto the rail tracks with Flike with the intention of ending both their lives, this is accompanied by dark music and an accompanying atmosphere. However, last minute Flike jumps out of his arms and Mr Umberto chases him, missing the train that would have ended his life. In chasing after Flike Mr Umberto chooses life. The music in changes from one of despair to one of buoyancy, for the first time in the film we see a happy and carefree Mr Umberto as he jogs off into the distance with Flike, escaping the manipulation of society and showing an understanding that his fate Is truly in his own hands. Even though the ending is ambiguous it leaves an audience with hope, a different yet preferable ending to that of Bicycle Thieves. One which shows that even though an individual may feel hopeless for a time they may find themselves again in the end, a true reflection of the damage yet survival of the war (Lu, 2010).[10]

In conclusion both these films capture a true authenticity for the time that they were released. Since the neorealism movement meant filming using a scarcity of resources and a reliance on real world locations, and the fact that both narratives tell stories that were incredibly impacting and realistic for this time. So much so that they could be described as documentary like in their depiction of real places and real people.


Bradshaw, P. (2008). Film review: Bicycle Thieves. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/dec/19/film-review-bicycle-theives [Accessed 3 Mar. 2017].

Eggert, B. (2009). Umberto D.. [online] Deep Focus Review. Available at: http://deepfocusreview.com/definitives/umberto-d/ [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].

Haaland, T. (2009). Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) (review). Project Muse, [online] 16, pp.463-465. Available at: http://muse.jhu.edu/article/263879 [Accessed 3 Mar. 2017].

Hamzaki, Z. (2010). The Bicycle Thief. [online] Twocentsworthafilm.blogspot.co.uk. Available at: http://twocentsworthafilm.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/bicycle-thief.html [Accessed 3 Mar. 2017].

Kartal, E. (2013). Defining Italian Neorealism: A Compulsory Movement. Cinej Cinema Journal, [online] 2.2(2158-8724). Available at: http://cinej.pitt.edu [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].

Lannone, P. (2016). Deep focus: The roots of neorealism | Sight & Sound. [online] British Film Institute. Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/deep-focus/roots-neorealism [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].

Lu, J. (2010). » Film Analysis on Umberto D. Media Studies. [online] Jennylu.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu. Available at: http://jennylu.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/2010/10/21/film-analysis-of-umberto-d/ [Accessed 4 Mar. 2017].

Snyder, S. and Curle, H. (2000). Vittorio De Sica. 1st ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

[1] Esma Kartal, “defining Italian Neorealism: A Compulsory Movement”, Cinej Cinema Journal, 2.2.2158-8724 (2013) .

[2] Pasquale Lannone, “Deep Focus: The Roots Of Neorealism | Sight & Sound”, British Film Institute, 2016 [accessed 4 March 2017].

[3] Zulfiya Hamzaki, “The Bicycle Thief”, Twocentsworthafilm.Blogspot.Co.Uk, 2010 [accessed 3 March 2017].

[4] Peter Bradshaw, “Film Review: Bicycle Thieves”, The Guardian, 2008 [accessed 3 March 2017].

[5] Torunn Haaland, “Bicycle Thieves (Ladri Di Biciclette) (Review)”, Project Muse, 16 (2009), 463-465 [accessed 3 March 2017].

[6] Brian Eggert, “Umberto D.”, Deep Focus Review, 2009 [accessed 4 March 2017].

[7] Stephen Snyder and Howard Curle, Vittorio De Sica, 1st edn (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000).

[8] Brian Eggert, “Umberto D.”, Deep Focus Review, 2009 [accessed 4 March 2017].

[9] Esma Kartal, “defining Italian Neorealism: A Compulsory Movement”, Cinej Cinema Journal, 2.2.2158-8724 (2013) .

[10] Jenny Lu, “» Film Analysis On Umberto D. Media Studies”, Jennylu.Qwriting.Qc.Cuny.Edu, 2010 [accessed 4 March 2017].


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