Bicycle Thieves

02/07/2020

Filmic Foundations and the Moral Life

There is a good argument to be made that cinema is basically a realistic art form because of its roots in recorded reality. A painter paints what he sees with the skills he possesses, but someone photographing what the painter sees merely has to press a button. As Andre Bazin insisted, “no matter how skilful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image.” Bazin adds that if “all the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence.” (‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image) For many early film theorists that absence was a problem; how could cinema be an art form at all if it didn’t find manifold ways to manipulate the image and make it aesthetic? For Soviet montage theorists like Sergei Eisenstein, the point was not reality but the “theme of the spectator”. Dudley Andrew notes, “all the filmmaker’s attention is focused on the means needed to lead that spectator to a confrontation with the theme. And the filmmaker must lead him there with his eyes open, exposing to the spectator his means, his mechanism…” (The Major Film Theories) The filmmaker thus manipulates the image all the better to find their theme and produce a work of art. Recorded reality initself would not do that. Bazin wouldn’t entirely disagree: he was well aware that realism was an act of creation, but was wary of manipulating the image any more than necessary. While Eisenstein and his colleague V.I. Pudovkin emphasised the importance of editing, Bazin focused more on mise en scene, especially on longer takes and deeper focus camerawork that allowed the viewer more freedom in choosing what to see within the frame. Bazin reckoned the brilliance of Nanook of the North rested in the longer take: “…it is inconceivable that the famous seal-hunt scene in Nanook should not show us hunter, hole and seal in the same shot. It is simply a question of respect for the spatial unity of an event at the moment when to split it up would change it from something real into something imaginary." Bazin wasn’t absolutist on this, saying too that the long take in Rope “could just as well have been cut in the classic way” ('The Virtues and Limitations of Montage') but Bazin often saw cinema at its most resonant in the respect it had for the reality it filmed, and part of this lay in the formal choices the filmmaker would adopt.

Understandably Bazin was a big defender of neo-realism, seeing in this Italian, more or less post-war film movement, many of the tenets he promoted, and praised Bicycle Thieves as much as any other work. Perhaps the takes aren’t always so long, maybe the music intrudes a little too often for the sounds of Rome to be heard in all their variety, and maybe even the story is a little too dramatic for a cinema that wanted to capture the everyday. But in its interest in the lives of the poor, in its use of non-professional actors, in its focus on the streets and buildings of Rome, Vittoria de Sica’s film suggested an interest in people’s lives quite distinct from that of Soviet Montage. The Russian filmmakers were interested in people’s lives too, but so cut up by editing that the details of the quotidian gave way to the manifestation of the political: the cause of Communism was served but the people often seemed secondary to it. In neo-realism, the people really did come to the fore, and none more so than the father and the little boy in Bicycle Thieves.

Partly what makes the film an exemplary work of realism is that it builds on the sort of small details in a person’s life that can often seem absent from the dramatic. Realism’s purpose is frequently to make such details significant. In the early stages of the film, central character Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) gets offered a job but cannot take it without a bike: it is a job putting up posters throughout the city. The film follows him during the morning when he accepts the post but then has to retrieve his bike from the pawnshop. We see him discuss with his wife that he has the job but not the bike and witness her in the apartment taking the sheets off their bed as well as new ones from the cupboard drawer: they will just have to sleep without them. They take the bedding to the pawnshop and manage to get 7,500 lira for it, even though some of the sheets have already been used, and Guido then manages to buy his bike back for 6,500 lira. We might wonder during this scene pedantically over a couple of details. When the wife whips the sheets off the bed she goes to wash them but will they be dry so quickly? This is southern Italy; the sun wouldn’t take long to dry them off so perhaps they will be ready in no time. In her frustration with her husband and just before she throws the dirty sheets into the washing bucket she tosses the chair across the room with such disrespect we might wonder if someone so in need of money would be so careless with material items. 

However, this is pedantry with a purpose. Our point isn’t to attack the film for what might seem like a couple of minor improbabilities (if improbabilities they are) but for creating such possible questions in the first place. The film has carefully placed us in the lives of characters for whom the necessities of existence become the needs of narrative. There is a high degree of tension in a sequence that can seem to be about such small details: sheets and a bike. But those sheets must be sold to remove the bike from the pawnshop so the husband can support his family. If Bazin was very concerned with the formal details of what realism meant for cinema aesthetically, one can also see how important the movement happens to be narratively too. The film’s writer Cesare Zavattini (a key figure in neo-realism and also a critic who commented on its theoretical aims) didn’t want to get rid of the story but to transform our expectations of what a story happened to be. “A woman is going to buy a pair of shoes. Upon this elementary situation it is possible to build a film. All we have to do is discover and then show all the elements that go to create this adventure, in all their banal ‘dailiness,’ and it will become ‘spectacular’.” (‘Some Ideas on the Cinema') Realism needn’t mean getting rid of the narrative; often it meant no more than shrinking it from the hyperbolically unlikely to the immediately probable. As Zavattini says, “one shouldn’t be astonished that the cinema has always felt the natural, unavoidable necessity to insert a ‘story’ in the reality to make it exciting…” But why should the unlikely story of saving the world from alien invasion be more of a narrative than a man who is losing his bike, or his home (Umberto D.) or purchasing a horse (Shoeshine); or why should a story about the rich and royal (from Antigone to King Lear) be more valid than about a man who puts up posters for a living or an old man who is losing his room? 

A formalist might agree that attending to the common man is of importance (the Soviet directors were interested in making such figures central to their dramas) but that realism wasn’t the method by which to achieve it. The important thing wasn’t the common man but the Populace, a collective social class moving towards emancipation, as we find in films like Strike, October, Battleship Potemkin and Earth. Whether focusing on the urban (Strike) or the rural (Earth) the importance lay in revealing the historical shift towards revolution. Neo-realism is much less ambitious and thus perhaps can be ostensibly less demanding in its technique. Rather than revolutionising cinema through finding the means by which to show radical change, neo-realism appears to seek much more amelioration. It demands a better life for the people instead of necessitating a comprehensively different one. Here isn’t the place to go into whether or not this makes the movement conservative next to the Soviet school. Better for the moment to show how this amelioration works in the context of the drama itself.

By the end of the film, Antonio will try and steal a bike just as earlier in the film his bicycle was stolen from him. He will fail in his attempt just as the thief succeeded in his but we shouldn’t assume that the film wants to show him either as an incompetent thief or a dishonest man. The film’s purpose is to show that a system which pits people in competition with each other creates winners and losers without care or consideration for others. It creates humiliation rather than promotes dignity. While the film is interested narratively in the search for the bike, it is even more interested ethically in the debasement of Antonio as he searches for it. What the film proposes isn’t that society must be revolutionised but that a person can live in it with their dignity intact, with food to eat, shelter to live in and a job as a likelihood rather than a luxury. When at the beginning of the film the crowd gathers around the man at the job-centre who stands on the steps announcing he has two jobs to offer, he is speaking to a crowd of at least fifty, all looking for an economic miracle. But while Jesus on the mountain can divide the loaves and the fishes so that everybody can eat, the man on the steps can do no more than tell everyone congregated there are only two posts available and many of them have qualifications for other tasks. To provide the basic necessities of life needn’t demand Communism but it must at least offer a modest form of socialism, one that sees people not as surplus labour, a unit in an economic argument, but a body and spirit that demands replenishment on a daily basis - not only when there is work available. 

When Antonio visits a church looking to persuade an old man to give him the address of the boy who stole his bike, people aren’t there out of spiritual hunger but a culinary need. The old man wants to know what’s on the menu as the service starts. It is not a love of God that will make man free but a love of one’s fellow man as individuals. For Bazin, this is a form of love. “De Sica’s love…radiates from the people themselves. They are what they are, but lit from within by the tenderness he feels for them.” ('De Sica: Metteur en Scene’) After the scene where Antonio steals the bike, the bike’s owner decides he won’t press charges. “The man has enough trouble”, he says, as he seems both cynical and sympathetic, aware that his own good fortune meets the misfortune of someone else. He looks like he knows his own life could be a lot worse and wishes the lives of others could be a bit better. In such a world, others would have bikes and wouldn’t be stealing his, as he nevertheless says “a fine example you set your son” as Antonioni’s son, Bruno, looks on. 

Out of such an exchange comes troubled communication rather than insistent confrontation, as if the neo-realists wished to offer less a dialectical relationship between shots that led to Eisenstein talking about a collision of images, often reliant on strong oppositions, but on a unification. One needn’t pretend that the film is made up of the long takes Bazin sought, yet it is made very differently from the montage-focused works that not only included the Russian school but was also practised by numerous Hollywood filmmakers, directors determined to put tension into the shot and mastered by Griffith in, for example, the problematic scenes between blacks and the Klu Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation. Bazin and Zavattini were looking for a gentler aesthetic, one that needn’t dramatise the real in demands for exaggerated narration and cinematic exaggeration, but for nothing less than “the redemption of physical reality.” The term belongs to another theorist of realism, Siegfried Kracauer, who uses it as the subtitle for his book Theory of Film. In it, Kracauer quotes the writer Blaise Cendrars who “imagines two film scenes which are completely identical except for the fact that one has been shot on the Mont Blanc (the highest mountain in Europe), while the other was staged in the studio.” The contention is that the former has a quality not found in the latter. There are, on the mountain, says Cendrars, certain “emanations, luminous or otherwise, which have worked on the film and given it a soul.” This soul, which has a lot to do with things and little to do necessarily with God, this soul, which must give to the cinematic image properties of reality rather than pragmatically carve them up for narrative or political exigency, is that of a world that wishes to share things rather than possess them, to suggest that a bicycle isn’t a covetous object but a practical necessity that ought to be within the means of the poor as well as the comfortable. The film ends with the father breaking down in tears but his son goes for his hand, the vulnerable looking after the vulnerable in a moment that fulfils the Bazinian ideal. As Bazin says, “The complicity between father and son is so subtle that it reaches down to the foundations of the moral life. It is the admiration the child feels for his father and the father’s awareness of it which gives tragic stature to the ending.” (‘Bicycle Thief’)

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Bicycle Thieves

Filmic Foundations and the Moral Life

There is a good argument to be made that cinema is basically a realistic art form because of its roots in recorded reality. A painter paints what he sees with the skills he possesses, but someone photographing what the painter sees merely has to press a button. As Andre Bazin insisted, "no matter how skilful the painter, his work was always in fee to an inescapable subjectivity. The fact that a human hand intervened cast a shadow of doubt over the image." Bazin adds that if "all the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence." ('The Ontology of the Photographic Image) For many early film theorists that absence was a problem; how could cinema be an art form at all if it didn't find manifold ways to manipulate the image and make it aesthetic? For Soviet montage theorists like Sergei Eisenstein, the point was not reality but the "theme of the spectator". Dudley Andrew notes, "all the filmmaker's attention is focused on the means needed to lead that spectator to a confrontation with the theme. And the filmmaker must lead him there with his eyes open, exposing to the spectator his means, his mechanism..." (The Major Film Theories) The filmmaker thus manipulates the image all the better to find their theme and produce a work of art. Recorded reality initself would not do that. Bazin wouldn't entirely disagree: he was well aware that realism was an act of creation, but was wary of manipulating the image any more than necessary. While Eisenstein and his colleague V.I. Pudovkin emphasised the importance of editing, Bazin focused more on mise en scene, especially on longer takes and deeper focus camerawork that allowed the viewer more freedom in choosing what to see within the frame. Bazin reckoned the brilliance of Nanook of the North rested in the longer take: "...it is inconceivable that the famous seal-hunt scene in Nanook should not show us hunter, hole and seal in the same shot. It is simply a question of respect for the spatial unity of an event at the moment when to split it up would change it from something real into something imaginary. Bazin wasn't absolutist on this, saying too that the long take in Rope "could just as well have been cut in the classic way" ('The Virtues and Limitations of Montage') but Bazin often saw cinema at its most resonant in the respect it had for the reality it filmed, and part of this lay in the formal choices the filmmaker would adopt.

Understandably Bazin was a big defender of neo-realism, seeing in this Italian, more or less post-war film movement, many of the tenets he promoted, and praised Bicycle Thieves as much as any other work. Perhaps the takes aren't always so long, maybe the music intrudes a little too often for the sounds of Rome to be heard in all their variety, and maybe even the story is a little too dramatic for a cinema that wanted to capture the everyday. But in its interest in the lives of the poor, in its use of non-professional actors, in its focus on the streets and buildings of Rome, Vittoria de Sica's film suggested an interest in people's lives quite distinct from that of Soviet Montage. The Russian filmmakers were interested in people's lives too, but so cut up by editing that the details of the quotidian gave way to the manifestation of the political: the cause of Communism was served but the people often seemed secondary to it. In neo-realism, the people really did come to the fore, and none more so than the father and the little boy in Bicycle Thieves.

Partly what makes the film an exemplary work of realism is that it builds on the sort of small details in a person's life that can often seem absent from the dramatic. Realism's purpose is frequently to make such details significant. In the early stages of the film, central character Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) gets offered a job but cannot take it without a bike: it is a job putting up posters throughout the city. The film follows him during the morning when he accepts the post but then has to retrieve his bike from the pawnshop. We see him discuss with his wife that he has the job but not the bike and witness her in the apartment taking the sheets off their bed as well as new ones from the cupboard drawer: they will just have to sleep without them. They take the bedding to the pawnshop and manage to get 7,500 lira for it, even though some of the sheets have already been used, and Guido then manages to buy his bike back for 6,500 lira. We might wonder during this scene pedantically over a couple of details. When the wife whips the sheets off the bed she goes to wash them but will they be dry so quickly? This is southern Italy; the sun wouldn't take long to dry them off so perhaps they will be ready in no time. In her frustration with her husband and just before she throws the dirty sheets into the washing bucket she tosses the chair across the room with such disrespect we might wonder if someone so in need of money would be so careless with material items.

However, this is pedantry with a purpose. Our point isn't to attack the film for what might seem like a couple of minor improbabilities (if improbabilities they are) but for creating such possible questions in the first place. The film has carefully placed us in the lives of characters for whom the necessities of existence become the needs of narrative. There is a high degree of tension in a sequence that can seem to be about such small details: sheets and a bike. But those sheets must be sold to remove the bike from the pawnshop so the husband can support his family. If Bazin was very concerned with the formal details of what realism meant for cinema aesthetically, one can also see how important the movement happens to be narratively too. The film's writer Cesare Zavattini (a key figure in neo-realism and also a critic who commented on its theoretical aims) didn't want to get rid of the story but to transform our expectations of what a story happened to be. "A woman is going to buy a pair of shoes. Upon this elementary situation it is possible to build a film. All we have to do is discover and then show all the elements that go to create this adventure, in all their banal 'dailiness,' and it will become 'spectacular'." ('Some Ideas on the Cinema') Realism needn't mean getting rid of the narrative; often it meant no more than shrinking it from the hyperbolically unlikely to the immediately probable. As Zavattini says, "one shouldn't be astonished that the cinema has always felt the natural, unavoidable necessity to insert a 'story' in the reality to make it exciting..." But why should the unlikely story of saving the world from alien invasion be more of a narrative than a man who is losing his bike, or his home (Umberto D.) or purchasing a horse (Shoeshine); or why should a story about the rich and royal (from Antigone to King Lear) be more valid than about a man who puts up posters for a living or an old man who is losing his room?

A formalist might agree that attending to the common man is of importance (the Soviet directors were interested in making such figures central to their dramas) but that realism wasn't the method by which to achieve it. The important thing wasn't the common man but the Populace, a collective social class moving towards emancipation, as we find in films like Strike, October, Battleship Potemkin and Earth. Whether focusing on the urban (Strike) or the rural (Earth) the importance lay in revealing the historical shift towards revolution. Neo-realism is much less ambitious and thus perhaps can be ostensibly less demanding in its technique. Rather than revolutionising cinema through finding the means by which to show radical change, neo-realism appears to seek much more amelioration. It demands a better life for the people instead of necessitating a comprehensively different one. Here isn't the place to go into whether or not this makes the movement conservative next to the Soviet school. Better for the moment to show how this amelioration works in the context of the drama itself.

By the end of the film, Antonio will try and steal a bike just as earlier in the film his bicycle was stolen from him. He will fail in his attempt just as the thief succeeded in his but we shouldn't assume that the film wants to show him either as an incompetent thief or a dishonest man. The film's purpose is to show that a system which pits people in competition with each other creates winners and losers without care or consideration for others. It creates humiliation rather than promotes dignity. While the film is interested narratively in the search for the bike, it is even more interested ethically in the debasement of Antonio as he searches for it. What the film proposes isn't that society must be revolutionised but that a person can live in it with their dignity intact, with food to eat, shelter to live in and a job as a likelihood rather than a luxury. When at the beginning of the film the crowd gathers around the man at the job-centre who stands on the steps announcing he has two jobs to offer, he is speaking to a crowd of at least fifty, all looking for an economic miracle. But while Jesus on the mountain can divide the loaves and the fishes so that everybody can eat, the man on the steps can do no more than tell everyone congregated there are only two posts available and many of them have qualifications for other tasks. To provide the basic necessities of life needn't demand Communism but it must at least offer a modest form of socialism, one that sees people not as surplus labour, a unit in an economic argument, but a body and spirit that demands replenishment on a daily basis - not only when there is work available.

When Antonio visits a church looking to persuade an old man to give him the address of the boy who stole his bike, people aren't there out of spiritual hunger but a culinary need. The old man wants to know what's on the menu as the service starts. It is not a love of God that will make man free but a love of one's fellow man as individuals. For Bazin, this is a form of love. "De Sica's love...radiates from the people themselves. They are what they are, but lit from within by the tenderness he feels for them." ('De Sica: Metteur en Scene') After the scene where Antonio steals the bike, the bike's owner decides he won't press charges. "The man has enough trouble", he says, as he seems both cynical and sympathetic, aware that his own good fortune meets the misfortune of someone else. He looks like he knows his own life could be a lot worse and wishes the lives of others could be a bit better. In such a world, others would have bikes and wouldn't be stealing his, as he nevertheless says "a fine example you set your son" as Antonioni's son, Bruno, looks on.

Out of such an exchange comes troubled communication rather than insistent confrontation, as if the neo-realists wished to offer less a dialectical relationship between shots that led to Eisenstein talking about a collision of images, often reliant on strong oppositions, but on a unification. One needn't pretend that the film is made up of the long takes Bazin sought, yet it is made very differently from the montage-focused works that not only included the Russian school but was also practised by numerous Hollywood filmmakers, directors determined to put tension into the shot and mastered by Griffith in, for example, the problematic scenes between blacks and the Klu Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation. Bazin and Zavattini were looking for a gentler aesthetic, one that needn't dramatise the real in demands for exaggerated narration and cinematic exaggeration, but for nothing less than "the redemption of physical reality." The term belongs to another theorist of realism, Siegfried Kracauer, who uses it as the subtitle for his book Theory of Film. In it, Kracauer quotes the writer Blaise Cendrars who "imagines two film scenes which are completely identical except for the fact that one has been shot on the Mont Blanc (the highest mountain in Europe), while the other was staged in the studio." The contention is that the former has a quality not found in the latter. There are, on the mountain, says Cendrars, certain "emanations, luminous or otherwise, which have worked on the film and given it a soul." This soul, which has a lot to do with things and little to do necessarily with God, this soul, which must give to the cinematic image properties of reality rather than pragmatically carve them up for narrative or political exigency, is that of a world that wishes to share things rather than possess them, to suggest that a bicycle isn't a covetous object but a practical necessity that ought to be within the means of the poor as well as the comfortable. The film ends with the father breaking down in tears but his son goes for his hand, the vulnerable looking after the vulnerable in a moment that fulfils the Bazinian ideal. As Bazin says, "The complicity between father and son is so subtle that it reaches down to the foundations of the moral life. It is the admiration the child feels for his father and the father's awareness of it which gives tragic stature to the ending." ('Bicycle Thief')


© Tony McKibbin