Realism and Bicycle Thieves

Realism and Bicycle Thieves

Figure i. Bicycle Thieves (DeSica 1973)
Figure i. Bicycle Thieves (DeSica 1973)

Figure i. Bicycle Thieves (DeSica 1948)

“Viewed in this perspective, cinema is objectivity in time” (Bazin 1967).

In the first few weeks of this module, the viewing that generated the most interest for me was Vittorio DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). It might seem strange that I have chosen to focus on this movie, as my first reaction to viewing the film was ambivalent. While I appreciated the importance of the movie and its contribution to cinematic history, my engagement with it was distanced and academic. It didn’t evoke a strong emotional reaction in me, which slightly unnerved me as one of the things I knew about the movie through cultural osmosis was that it was a sad, tragic film. I questioned myself; had I missed an integral part of the film? Was there something wrong with me?

Likewise, when I was first introduced to the realist school of film theory, I struggled to consider the value of cinema as an empirical, objective medium where reality can be totally replicated on screen. For a medium as constructed as narrative film, I saw it as ingrained with the subjectivity of those controlling the camera, calling the very notion of realism into question in that what is reflected was not objective reality, therefore for me, there was a flaw in the central thesis.

On reflection, I can see this was quite a shallow understanding of the nature of realism and what it meant for films like Bicycle Thieves (1948). Looking back at the historical context and the wider Italian Neorealism movement, it’s clear that the film was a result of the film maker’s attempt to capture the world as it was. Director of Bicycle Thieves Vittorio DeSica describes the desire to:

“Plant the camera in the midst of real life, in the midst of all that struck our astonished eyes. We sought to liberate ourselves from the weight of our sins, we wanted to look ourselves in the face and tell ourselves the truth, to discover what we really were, and to seek salvation”
(Rossini and Scala 2013)

For DeSica, the value in realism came from its ability to not just reflect the world as it was, but to use film to make a connection with the world it was depicting, suggesting that realism could illuminate elements that the filmmakers could not perceive about the reality they had set out to commit to film.

This is an assessment the theorist Sigfried Kracuer would certainly agree with. Kracauer posited that realism provided a connection to the Lebenswelt, the world of concrete perceptual reality that other forms of cinema could not connect us to, describing them as a form of distraction from what he perceived to be the ‘real’ world (Aitken 2006). To accomplish this, the film needed to be as close to reality as possible. The techniques DeSica used such as casting non-actors in key roles, filming on location rather than in specially constructed sets, and using long static shots to mimic the way we perceive the world, were an effort to maintain a realistic representation of life in post second world war Italy.

The film theorist Andre Bazin pointed to Bicycle Thieves as an important film text (Bazin 1971), pointing to the naturalistic mis-en-scene and ‘accidental’ nature of the plot as one of its key strengths in that it was distinct from propaganda films where the meaning of the story was spelled out and resolved. For Bazin, one of the key strengths of narrative cinema was its ability to immortalize the temporal, focusing on existential concerns while remaining close to our perceptual experience (Aitken 2006), meaning the conclusions we drew were more meaningful as they had not been dictated through the film text.

Here I would disagree with Bazin’s assessment of the plot as accidental, as to me it follows a clear narrative structure. However, I can see that my disagreement may be due to the evolution of technology and cinema. What may have felt accidental at the time Bazin was writing now appears constructed, especially when we consider the cultural context. I am used to watching accidental, slice of life media, particularly through social media and YouTube. I would challenge Bazin to still describe the plot of Bicycle Thieves as accidental after sitting through a thirty-minute vlog of someone’s week. It does make me think what Bazin would have made of YouTube in relation to his conception of pure cinema. Would he have seen value in its ability to reflect the world, or would he have found it more detrimental than useful due to its lack of focus?

When evaluating the importance and influence of Bicycle Thieves and the wider realism movement in film, I was reminded of a film I had watched recently that had really resonated with me, The Florida Project (2017). The film’s director, Sean Baker, specifically pointed to Italian neorealism as having influenced him (Little White Lies 2017), and it’s not hard to see the similarities between the two films. Like Bicycle Thieves, The Florida Project features non-actors in key roles, was shot on location in Orlando Florida, and focus on societal issues portrayed cinematically in a naturalistic way. Both films also depict the relationship between parent and child.

Figure ii. The Florida Project (Baker 2017)

I connected to the The Florida Project in a way that I did not connect to Bicycle Thieves. When considering my reaction, I thought about my personal context and the subjectivity I had brought to my viewing of both films. Looking at the films, it’s no wonder The Florida Project resonated with me more clearly. It was set in my current historical context, in a location I had recently visited, and had a narrative that I could connect events in my personal world with. It made me consider my position as a tourist in an area close to such deprivation. For me, the distillation of these issues into a narrative film connected me to the real, physical world, in a location I had been physically present in a way I had not considered – the apotheosis of realism for both Bazin and Kracauer.

I also thought about Bazin’s assessment of realism as cinema as “objectivity in time” (Bazin 1967), and my initial assessment of cinema as a subjective medium that may be incompatible with realism. Perhaps my lack of connection to Bicycle Thieves came from my subject position as someone viewing the film at a time far from its historical context. This made me consider that the subjective view of the filmmaker I had discounted as tainting the nature of realism was not in fact a problem, but part of the purpose.

However, it was in applying Siegfried Kracauer’s theory of cinematic realism to my experiences that I found the most resonance. It could be that what I recognize as an emotional connection is my connection with the Lebenswelt, a world of immediate subjective experience. One reason I was able to connect to The Florida Project more deeply was because I had visited the area recently. I’m sure the irony would not be lost on Kracauer that my connection to the film comes in no small part due to my subjective experience of visiting Orlando, somewhere I’m sure he would consider a monument to the distraction he derided.

Overwhelmingly, through reading and connecting the theoretical to my personal viewing experiences, I have found value in realism that I didn’t find on first learning about the theory. For me, I think this has demonstrated that I find value in the theoretical through applying it closely to my personal viewing, not just course material.


Aitken, I. (2006) ‘‘And what about the Spiritual Life itself?’, Distraction, Transcendence and Redemption: The Intuitionist Realist Tradition in the Work of John Grierson, André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer’. in Realist Film Theory and Cinema : The Nineteenth-Century Lukácsian and Intuitionist Realist Traditions. ed. by AnonManchester: Manchester University Press, 137

Baker, S. (2017) The Florida Project: A24

Bazin, A. (1971) ‘Bicycle Thief’. in What is Cinema? Volume II. ed. by Gray, H. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 47

Bazin, A. (1967) What is Cinema Volume 1. ed. by Gray, H. Los Angeles: University of California Press 14

DeSica, V. (1948) Bicycle Thieves. Italy: Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche

Little White Lies (2017) Sean Baker: ‘If you’re a Filmmaker in the 21st Century, it’s Hard Not to be a Social Activist’   [online] available from <> [February 18 2019]

Rossini, A. and Scala, C. (2013) ‘Introduction’. in New Trends in Italian Cinema : “New” Neorealism. ed. by Rossini, A. and Scala, C. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 3

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