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Antonio Ricci as a Portrait of the Post-war Italian Worker  

The neorealism film movement came about around 1945 as a response of the newly schooled Italian directors against the artificiality. Real locations, non-actors, and a documentary-like mise-en-scene dominate neorealism, in contrast the opera-like melodrama and idealized heroines with box-office appeal found in “white telephone” films before it (Wexman, 2010). As discussed by Wexman (2010) in an excerpt of an interview with renowned neorealist scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini, these types of films do not need metaphorical situations to provoke reflections – they simply convey “real things, exactly as they are”, by weaving fictional stories that covey factual truth (p129). Neorealism stays away from technicality and stylistics to show its intent. It relies entirely on the narrative and episodic elements to discuss its dominating themes.  A prime example of such films is Vittoria De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1946).  The main character was played by Lamberto Maggiorani, a non-actor who was a real-life factory worker in Milan (Ben-Ghiat, 2001).

Bicycle Thieves (1946) paints a portrait of the proletariat worker in post-war Rome through the struggles of its main character, Antonio Ricci. The story begins on the day when our unemployed protagonist finally gets a job as a bill poster, much to the envy of the many men lined up for months alongside him, all waiting for a chance to bring home a salary to their impoverished families. But to grab this unique opportunity Antonio needs to show up the next day at work with a bicycle – a treasure in this community where the only other choice for mobility around Rome would be the endless lines to ride cramped street cars. He used to have one, but like most patriarchal head of his social class, it had been pawned. His family sacrificed more of their remaining possessions to retrieve the bike. Like any worker on his first day of employment we see Antonio and his family happy, motivated, and hopeful of the days ahead. But their joy was short-lived when a few hours into his first day his bicycle was stolen. What follows next are harsh realities of how a person like Antonio in post-war Rome is condemned by his poverty of resources, social support, and guidance. He seeks help from the local police three times in the film, all of which failed to assist his need to retrieve his means of livelihood due to reasons that pass logic and civic duties but fail his need for justice and assistance. He seeks the help of compassionate friends whose willingness to aid him to look for the lost bicycle in a market that sells stolen ones are drowned by the complexity of the task ahead. Catholicism’s form of charity failed to benefit Antonio as well when his chance to find the bicycle thief was hindered by the need to be quiet for the mass being held in the name of faith. Antonio’s only refuge was the guidance of a seer who has been the only source of direction in his family’s cruel life. When he finally finds the culprit of his misery, he realizes that the thief is just like him – a worker whose mobility may as well be more limited than his as the thief suffers from epileptic seizures.  Interestingly, a metaphoric depiction in the lives of Antonio and his son Bruno against the bourgeois standard was evident in the scenes inside an Italian restaurant where the amount of money on their pockets limits their chance to know how it is like to enjoy a bowl of pasta and a bottle of wine in beautifully-labeled bottles.  Antonio comes to term with the idea that the only way to solve his problems is to be a bicycle thief himself. In a moral struggle scored by a suspense-filed music track, Antonio decides to steal an unmanned bike of another worker who was doing his job like he was when his Fides was stolen.  The story ends in an atmosphere of failure, with his son crying over losing the moral battle against the Bicycle Thieves and the uncertainties of the days ahead as another day has passed without any sign of hope for a better future.

An article by Ben-Ghiat (2001), also described how the Bicycle Thieves, 1948 represented the Italian working class if its era. She mentions how the cinema was used as a political tool then to influence votes, with the Communist using the context of films depicting the struggles of the working class as a way to organize communities under their ideologies (Ben-Ghiat, 2001).  In the same article, she discusses several key points in the film that relates to how, what could be considered as a “trivial” conflict in the protagonist life such as losing a bicycle, proves to be catastrophic due to his low position in the society.  However, Ben-Ghiat (2001) argues that Bicycle Thieves (1948) real target were not the proletariats that it depicts but the bourgeois viewers who would be acquainted to the “harsh national realities” that they are unfamiliar with (p 59).

A study of the films by Vittorio De Sica would also show his consistent commitment to stories about this marginal social class. In what is considered his first venture into neorealism, De Sica depicted the conditions of prison life and the misfortunes of the poor street children in Shoeshine, 1947. Cardullo (2000) says De Sica’s empathy for the plight of these street children and the generation they represent is evident on this film by giving a human dimension to frame the ideological context it tries to discuss. De Sica’s international popularity from the release of both films is the exact opposite of the indifference he received from the Italian government, church, and audience who critiqued his pessimism of the negative social realities during its time (Cardullo, 2000). In a later film, Umberto D (1952), De Sica directed a story about a retired government official living in a meager pension and an illiterate housemaid who is condemned by her pregnancy out of wedlock; which again is a story about marginal existence and the  onslaught of the harsh life these characters struggle with daily (Cardullo, 2000). Through neorealism, artists like Vittorio De Sica used fiction as a vehicle to show the social realities of his era.


Ben-Ghiat, R. 2001. The Italian cinema and the Italian working class. International Labor and Working-Class History. No 59. pp 36-51.

Cardullo, Bert. 2000. Actor-Become-Auteur: The neorealist films of Vittorio De Sica. Massachusetts Review: A quarterly of literature, the arts, and public affairs. (41:2), pp 173-192.

Wexman, Virginia Wright. 2010. A History of Film. 7th edition. ”Italian Neorealism”. Allyn & Bacon: Boston, MA. pp 129-132.

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