Vittorio De Sica and Italian Neorealism

After the end of World War II, several countries experienced a great post-war economic growth. However, not every country was so fortunate. Italy struggled to get back on its feet. Its citizens no longer believed or trusted those in power to make the right decisions on their behalf. Italian Neorealism rose to popularity as a result of the anxieties of an entire nation trying to come to terms with the war it had just been involved in. In trying to reconcile the terrors it had seen, the people of Italy staunchly rejected the war films and historical epics that they had been used to before the war. Instead, Italians turned toward Italian Neorealism, a genre which was used as a kind of exposure therapy to help Italians process the effects of the war.

While Italy did not suffer the same kind of devastation as Germany or Britain did, the war still left substantial scars on the country. This is something that many Italian neorealist directors took great advantage of.[1] In Bicycle Thieves (1948), Vittorio De Sica used the ruined buildings of Italy to showcase the poverty his main characters live in.[2] The city around them lies in ruins, and they are just trying to make a living in this desolate country. Bicycle Thieves tells the story of a man who finds work when, sadly, his only method of performing his job is stolen right from under him.[3]

On top of this, Italy was in the midst of a difficult economic depression. Bicycle Thieves does an excellent job of portraying this poverty. If Antonio had enough money to simply buy a new bike, the events of the film might not have taken place. In trying to earn some more money, he exchanges his bed sheets for a few lire. The camera pans up as he glances past the counter to show that the wall is filled floor to ceiling with bedsheets.[4]

Money is brought up again and again throughout the film, and is the main driving force behind all of the conflict. Later on, when the main character and his son, Bruno, stop to eat dinner at a somewhat upscale restaurant,[5] they eat simple food while a nearby family eats sumptuously. By juxtaposing a wealthy family in contrast to the main character’s poverty, De Sica emphasizes just how far the country has fallen. While not on par with the severity of what America had suffered before the war, it was still difficult enough to prompt many Italians into small, menial jobs.[6]

This in particular forms the basis of De Sica’s earlier film, Shoeshine (1946). The utter poverty that these boys live in drives the plot of the film.[7] While working as shoeshines, they attempt to raise enough money to buy a horse. In their desperation, they decide to sell some stolen blankets. While this is perhaps an extreme case, the way in which their situation is filmed makes it seem all the more real. Which makes sense, given that neorealism is meant to remind one of reality. In that sense, it is not difficult to imagine any number of children trying to make extra money through illicit acts. It is not even difficult to image an adult doing the same thing. Perhaps something similar has happened to the other boys in the correctional facility, given that there are so many of them.

A close analysis of the settings of Italian Neorealist films reveal just how much directors like De Sica were obsessed with portraying what they believed to be the conditions everyday people lived in.[8] Antonio’s house in Bicycle Thieves is an example of this. One of the biggest pieces of furniture in the whole small apartment is a bare, thin mattress.

Most, if not all, of the mis-en-scene in Bicycle Thieves informs the viewer of the poverty that its characters live in. During the search for Antonio’s bike, he and Bruno travel to a small, open air market. Here is the heart of this small, impoverished community. Each vendor sells off scraps of what seems like junk (one vendor’s stall sells off countless doorknobs). Antonio goes on to investigate a vendor selling bicycle wheels, only to find that his bike has not been sold for parts.

But perhaps the greatest indicator of the state of Italy’s economy comes at the beginning of the film. The first shot is a long pan across a ruined countryside. Dusty fields are traversed by a bus as it travels into an isolated city. The audience comes across Antonio scrambling forward to accept a job that can pay him a steady income.

He excitedly rushes home to tell his wife Maria and, as he rides his bike off to work, the two happily plan out what they will do with the money he will earn from this new job. They pin all of their hopes on his bicycle work. This scene truly speaks to the mindset many Italians shared during this time. In the post-World War II economic state of Italy, many Italians would come to depend on the coming of some kind of post-war economic miracle to bring Italy back to its former glory.[9] As a result, this hyper-inflated hope placed on any kind of work one can find was more common than one can guess.

Later on, when Antonio and Bruno go on to track down the thief that stole his bike, they find themselves in a similarly dilapidated neighborhood. The young thief is revealed to live in a crowded, tiny apartment. As he and Bruno search the apartment, Antonio seems to realize that he and the thief are no different from each other, at least in terms of income.

As for Shoeshine, the statement on Italy’s economic state is much less clear. While Pasquale and Giuseppe do find steady work as shoeshines, their goal for doing so is much more childlike. Similar to Antonio, they are motivated by the prospect of owning a unique mode of transportation. For the boys, they start raising money on their own in order to buy a horse.[10] Finding that they are low on funds, they decide to sell a couple of stolen blankets[11] to a local psychic, stopping for a second to have their fortunes read.

The economic conditions of Italy do not necessarily play as prevalent a role in Shoeshine. While these conditions do get the story started, the economic problems facing Italy take a backseat to the inner prison politics the boys have to go through during their stay in the correctional facility.[12]

Apart from the economic issues these characters face, Bicycle Thieves has quite a few strong statements to make socially. First, Maria, Antonio’s wife, brings a strange note of spirituality to the film, something that Antonio shows clear disrespect for. Maria goes to visit a fortune teller who tells her Antonio will find a job soon. He teases her for her belief in this fortune teller, chastising her for spending money on “nonsense”.[13] The film seems to paint Maria as both impractical for her spiritual belief and practical for her idea to sell her bedsheets to buy Antonio his bike.

One of the more subtle moments comes later in the film when Antonio and Bruno run through a church during mass in order to follow a lead about the boy who stole his bike. They disrupt the entire service, upsetting several churchgoers, once again displaying Antonio’s disrespect toward spirituality and religion. By the end of the film, Antonio becomes desperate. He goes to see the psychic himself and asks after his stolen bike. But she proves to be as ineffectual as the police were earlier in the film.

One of the other social comments this film makes is the clear ineffectiveness of authority. When he goes to the police about his stolen bike, they simply tell Antonio that they can do nothing about it. Not only do they not even attempt to help him retrieve the stolen bike, they make no effort to apprehend the thief who stole the bike in the first place.[14] This is perhaps a flippant disregard for how much the police can help the people of Italy with their everyday problems, as well as a disrespect for any kind of authority.[15]

Shoeshine, strangely enough, speaks to the terrible effectiveness of the police. Within a day of the illegal blanket sale, Pasquale and Giuseppe are apprehended and sent to a correctional facility. They are no longer seen as young shoeshine boys, but as juvenile delinquents.[16] While in prison, their friendship is tested, by distance and by the prison system. The boys make a pact not to rat out the people who gave them the stolen blankets to sell.[17]

However, the prison warden takes the boys into his office and makes one of the boys believe that the other is being beaten in a separate room.[18] This prompts the older boy to confess their involvement in the sale of the stolen blankets. This creates a huge rift in their relationship, causing the boys to fight in the prison.[19]

When they finally escape, the older boy accidentally kills the younger boy, checking off the final tick on the Neorealism checklist by having an unhappy ending.[20]

Italian neorealism came about in a time where Italy was still trying to reconcile the horrors that it had just experienced during World War II. With a deep distrust of authority, and a general cynicism with regard to spirituality, Italians had come to the realization that the institutions that they had come to know and trust before the war had fundamentally failed them. This is reflected most aptly in Vittorio De Sica’s most well-known films, Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves. In Bicycle Thieves, the ineffectiveness of authority and disrespect for spirituality takes center stage. Whereas in Shoeshine, the effectiveness of authority is portrayed as a destructive and unhelpful force. Italian Neorealism became popular because the audience could easily relate to the social and economic conditions that the people of Italy were going through in the films.


[1] Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994).

[2] Vittorio De Sica, Bicycle Thieves, Film, Directed by Vittorio De Sica. (1948; Italy: PDS, 2016.), DVD.

[3] De Sica, Bicycle Thieves.

[4] Vincent F. Rocchio, Cinema of Anxiety: A Psychoanalysis of Italian Neorealism. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999).

[5] De Sica, Bicycle Thieves.

[6] Luisa Tasca, “The “Average Housewife” In Post-World War II Italy,” Journal of Women’s History 16.2 (Summer 2004): 92.

[7] Vittorio De Sica, Shoeshine, Film, Directed by Vittorio De Sica (1947; Italy: Lopert Pictures Corporation, 2011.), DVD.

[8] Thompson and Bordwell, Film History.

[9] Tasca, “The “Average Housewife.”

[10] De Sica, Shoeshine.

[11] Bosley Crowther, “THE SCREEN,” New York Times, Dec 13, 1949.

[12] Crowther, “THE SCREEN.”

[13] De Sica, Bicycle Thieves.

[14] Rocchio, Cinema Of Anxiety.

[15] Francesca Grandi, “Why Do The Victors Kill The Vanquished? Explaining Political Violence in Post-World War II Italy,” Journal Of Peace Research 50, no. 5 (September 2013): 577-93.

[16] Crowther, “THE SCREEN.”

[17] De Sica, Shoeshine.

[18] Grandi, “Why Do The Victors Kill The Vanquished?

[19] Crowther, “THE SCREEN.”

[20]Thompson and Bordwell, Film History.