Vittorio De Sica

Start Free Trial

Eric Rhode

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The sentimentality which many critics have felt in Bicycle Thieves arises, I feel, from the unresolved contradictions set up by its two themes. Ostensibly a protest against degrading social and economic conditions, this theme is never more than a cover or excuse for the theme of solidarity against loneliness, in which De Sica and Zavattini are really involved emotionally. Their embarrassment at this confusion can best be seen at the climax of the film. This, oddly enough, is not the moment of degradation when the father is caught stealing the bicycle, but the moment when the father strikes his son, and then suspects the child has been drowned (symbolically suggesting that he has killed the son himself); and it is a crisis filmed in a nervous, tentative way—almost as if the editor had had to work with insufficient material.

The confusion here arises, I believe, because De Sica and Zavattini are unable to give their central theme a socially realistic significance and have had to tack it on to the bicycle story; which is in itself an excellent idea, but one too slight to bear the weight of much social comment…. In Bicycle Thieves [determinism] is used—unsuccessfully, I feel—to merge together the two themes.

The trick, though, which has I think most fuddled critics into thinking this is a film of protest is the repeated shift to the child at moments of crisis: we look at the world through his eyes. When the father is almost arrested, and the social significance of the film should be made clear, the camera cuts to the boy's face and one of the accusers says: "That was a fine thing to teach your son." By doing this, De Sica and Zavattini blur us into thinking that they are dealing with a social problem on an adult level: when all they are giving us, in fact, is a child's reaction to the situation…. So in this film the outlook of the father is, by implication, shown as identical with that of his son. One might see this as a point of some satirical force about a society which doesn't educate its members sufficiently for them to cope with complex moral problems; but I think not. The same trick is played in I Bambini ci Guardano (1943). Here the child's rejection of its mother in the last moments of the film is made to imply a serious moral criticism of the mother's behaviour which, if one tries to think about it as a possible adult judgment, is plainly silly.

Yet by giving us its glimpse of a child's vision, Bicycle Thieves remains permanently interesting…. [The] despair of a child confronted by an aggressive world and a problem too difficult for it to grasp is enacted with an almost Dickensian power.

What I find really strange about this film is that it has been taken as a work of protest. The contrary, I think, would be more true. As Bicycle Thieves develops, the feeling behind it becomes more and more conservative…. After the encounter with the thief, the suggestion that all men are evil becomes clearly explicit and darkens the final section of the film. The theme of solidarity, for instance, turns against itself; the crowd which protects the thief and almost lynches the father is similar to the crowd which denounces the father when he attempts to steal the bicycle; and, as he fails in this, the football crowd, which up to then had seemed desirable, howls bestially from a nearby stand. Even more horrible is the suggestion—I may be going too far in seeing this—that...

(This entire section contains 1108 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

it's thanks to the father's scruples that he is slow in stealing the bicycle, and so is caught. The weeping of father and son, therefore, in the last moments of the film, is not at social injustice but at their realisation of fallen man, at the never ending corruption about them, at the corruption within themselves. Their only hope as they clasp hands is in the solidarity of family life; which seems to me a piteously inadequate hope in the face of such complete despair …

Umberto D is a later, and I think better, film. Though even here there is little sign of social protest, this is much more plausible since Umberto himself is a genteel old man. Yet it is interesting to note how, after the first reel, the problem of old age pensioners is quickly shelved, while the two metaphysical themes—of the nature of authenticity and man's loneliness in the face of death—become the film's main concern.

The handling of these two themes is finely done, with techniques similar to those in Bicycle Thieves. The identification of Umberto with his dog, for instance, is a far more effective device than the identification of father and son in the previous film…. Just as impressive are the long sequences of the old man shuffling around his room and of the servant girl wandering around her kitchen at dawn. With great economy, these scenes describe the moments when the old man and the girl are at their most authentic…. Unfortunately, these brilliant scenes emphasise the arbitrary quality of the social satire: the scenes in the hospital or with the exploiting landlady appear—from the realist point of view—contingent to the main themes. And the ending of the film on a note of weak uplift (in conflict with the pessimism of its inherent logic) suggests that yet again De Sica and Zavattini aren't really aware of what kind of film they are making.

Let me draw some conclusions from this. In their inability to synthesise their Augustinianism with the optimism of the neorealist movement; in their inability to think beyond the family unit to the problems of society (a failure prevalent in Italian films); and in their over-emphasis on the truth of a child's vision, De Sica and Zavattini resort, somewhat uncertainly, to Christian ideas…. I am suggesting that De Sica and Zavattini are using Christianity (perhaps sub-consciously) as an escape from facing up to social problems. This is a debatable point. What is less debatable is the effect of naturalism on their work. It is totally pernicious. For not only does it not help them to resolve the contradictions between their social and metaphysical themes, but it doesn't help them to confront the social conditions of their time. Perhaps the methods of realism might have taken them further; but that would have required a clearer idea of what realism is. (pp. 28-30)

Eric Rhode, "Why Neo-Realism Failed," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1961 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 30, No. 1, Winter, 1960–61, pp. 26-35.∗


Gordon Gow


Peter Baker