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Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Although not the first Italian neorealist film, director Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece was one of the key films in the style’s international acceptance. Shot on the streets of Rome with a largely unprofessional cast, it captures the teeming life of the city and the sense that the story on screen is just one of millions that could be told about the working classes, the people who had been largely ignored by Italian films in earlier decades. De Sica and his frequent screenwriter, Cesare Zavattini, transformed a novel about a cynical artist hunting for one of his two bicycles into a requiem for the disenfranchised.

Antonio (real-life steelworker Lamberto Maggiorani) has been unemployed for two years when he lands a job pasting up movie posters (of Rita Hayworth in Gilda). His wife pawns their bed sheets to buy him the bicycle he needs for his job, only for it to be stolen on his first day at work. With his nine-year-old son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), he searches the city, growing ever more desperate as he feels his source of livelihood slipping away.

De Sica discovered Maggiorani when the latter’s wife responded to a casting call seeking nonprofessional actors. He used the untrained actor’s own nervousness about appearing on camera to fuel the character’s insecurity until, by the end, he had achieved the kind of complete unity of actor and role many trained actors struggle for years to attain. The film won a Special Academy Award in 1950 as the year’s best foreign language film, seven years before the Academy created a competitive category for international films. It also won Best Film at the British Academy Awards, Best Foreign Language Film from the New York Film Critics, Best Film and Director from the National Board of Review, and Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes. In 1952, the first Sight & Sound poll named it the greatest film ever made.

d. Vittorio De Sica, 89 minutes, DCP

Courtesy of Janus Films