Italian Neo-Realism: De Sica, De Santis and the Complexities of Classification

Italian model Silvana Mangano as the antagonist of Giuseppe De Santis' 'Bitter Rice': is this staying true to neo-realist ideals?
Italian model Silvana Mangano as the antagonist of Giuseppe De Santis’ ‘Bitter Rice’: is this staying true to neo-realist ideals?

Introducing Italy, 1945…

Italian neo-realism as a movement within film inspired and provoked intense controversy between viewers and critics globally despite its fleeting, short-lived and, arguably, bitter-sweet pilgrimage into the dark, scarred heart of a nation critically wounded both emotionally and physically with the after-effects of World War One. Italy as a nation was crippled with social and economic cutbacks which included poverty, mass, widespread unemployment, hunger, lack of opportunity, the physical invasion of Nazi forces on Italy itself and the abuse and torment that many citizens suffered at the hands of the regime during the war. Italy was also home to many vigilante, rebel Partisan forces who suffered greatly when attempting to force the Fascist troops away from the country, and many were captured, imprisoned or murdered.

Despite the cruelty Italy endured under the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, ally to Germany’s Adolf Hitler during the war, some film-makers chose to limp out of the war without shame; proudly displaying their amputations in perhaps the most beautiful display of artistic ‘wound-licking’ there has ever been: and so neo-realism was born, a movement associated with honest, raw and realistic displays of life and its trials and tribulations, with the everyday person and his or her troubles unfolding on the screen before us.

De Sica and his ‘l’uomo qualsiasi’

The final scene of 'Bicycle Thieves.'
The final scene of ‘Bicycle Thieves.’

Since its conception, several critics and students of film have attempted to categorise and compartmentalise the features and connotations associated with neo-realism as a genre, and often with great difficulty. Whilst the films generally celebrated as forerunners of neo-realism do share similar characteristics, it is far too simple and misguided to try to pigeon-hole such an innovative and revolutionary style of film-making. For instance, in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Italy (1948) a film hailed by some as the crowning glory of the neo-realist era, there are significant and consistent efforts made to achieve a certain style and format that expresses and emphasises the issues facing the ordinary Italian man or ‘l’uomo qualsiasi’ of the time: De Sica used non-professional actors that were chosen because of the way they looked and moved, the film is shot on location in several scenes, the sound recording is direct and synchronous, the editing is slow-paced, the lighting is naturalistic and overall there is a clear motive of blending documentary and fiction film to produce what Martin Scorsese recalls in his documentary My Voyage to Italy, films that are simply ‘slices of life’ (see Andre Bazin’s, What is Cinema? Volume 2, 1967). This approach enabled De Sica to show on-screen what he really wanted to get across to the people of Italy and beyond; whilst you may be poor, poverty-stricken, desperate, starving, downtrodden and abused, the love and loyalty of friends and family is beyond any measurement of worth, as seen in Bicycle Thieves when the protagonist Antonio Ricci and his son Bruno melt into the crowd as they hold hands, the bicycle that could have saved them lost in the mess and bustle that is Rome.

Not a ‘genre’ but a ‘style’

Whilst De Sica’s films are seen to embody all that is neo-realist, Giuseppe De Santis is another director who manipulated these values to create a rather different film. Bitter Rice, Italy (1949) stars Silvana Mangano, an Italian starlet who won the title of Miss Rome before her appearance in a Mario Costa film. This is instantly interesting as Mangano may be seen as the embodiment of all of the Americanized, Westernised, consumerist tendencies that neo-realism was attempting to destroy. In fact, some publications even nicknamed her ‘the Italian Rita Hayworth’, the very same glamourpuss whose poster Ricci is pasting up in De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves when the dreaded robbery takes place. However, her character is eventually brutally abused and De Santis clearly expresses the way that American ideals and idolisation can lead to disaster, disillusionment and, in Mangano’s character’s case, death. Considering this, can we accept that De Santis and De Sica each made similarly significant contributions to the neo-realist movement? Or is De Sica’s casting of a gorgeous beauty queen, his use of specialised editing, huge embellished sets and non-diegetic music as a key device veering too far away from what a neo-realist film apparently ‘should be’?

If both films, despite their production difference, express the same eventual values, are they not considered champions of the same movement? De Santis’ film even begins by showing the pain and hardship of the Italian women aboard the train to the rice-fields, most of them scrabbling for pieces of bread, working simply because they are living hand-to-mouth existences, a scene echoing De Sica’s exploration of poverty wherein Antonio’s wife sells her prized dowry bedsheets in order to fund the purchase of a bicycle that could better the entire families’ future. Again, this emphasises De Sica’s and De Santis’ combined motive, despite their contrasting approaches.

The values, ideals and themes of these films are paramount to their appeal with audiences today, who still find themselves sympathising with each character’s plight; from Bruno and Antonio all the way to Silvana, one of the most arrogant, manipulative and vicious screen temptresses in existence. It seems, perhaps, that the constrictions placed upon this venture in film-making may be too binding: perhaps neo-realism, literally translated, ‘new realism’, was never really a ‘genre’ as such, but a ‘style’ of film-making that sought to show the world that Italy was still standing after World War 1, regardless of category.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Gene Noz

    I have been obsessing a lot about the classics. Particularly, I’ve been obsessing about the ending of Bicycle Thieves. It’s a beautiful closing scene which is truly unforgetable, you could almost feel the film winding down in the last few minutes which makes the shot of Bruno and Antonio dissapearing into the crowd all the more pleasurable. In my opinion the closing scenes of a film are the ones which have a lasting effect on your opinion of the film, the best example I’ve found of this is a film like La Dolce Vita, it may have it’s ups and downs but the last 30 minutes are some of the greatest ever captured on film. Though this is not the case with this film as its is amazing throughout.

    • The Bicycle Thieves is a great film indeed. The Little Fugitive (’56) came to mind immediately on seeing it. Both films center on the unfairness that life can present, often at the hands of others, and the travails that result. Of course there are many films that deal with this type of theme, but The Bicycyle Thief and The Little Fugitive really depict this on a small, intimate scale, in a very personal way – neorealism, if you will. Most people can relate to this, probably from their own, personal experience – I’d even suggest that the high praise of the two films reflect, at least in part, empathy for the characters, as opposed to sympathy.

    • Patricia

      The ending of ‘greed’ is better.

    • I am myself an obsessive Orson addict. Everyone should getting into his work. I’d say you start with the obvious, like Touch of Evil, which is an amazing film noir that a lot of people consider his best work. You could also see The Magnificent Ambersons, the movie he made right after Kane, but that one is quite frustrating since the studio chopped of half of the movie. Next, I’d say the Trial is good, if you’ve come to like his style. You gotta be ready for some non-sense, though, which is pretty much the point of the thing, and maybe read the amazing novel it was inspired from (i’ll say inspired).

      When you’re really into his work, see Chimes at Midnight. It was his favorite movie of his, a real gem, a lost masterpiece. Lost is right, though. It’s incredibly hard to find… But if you don’t mind about the quality, it’s on Youtube. I don’t think you can enjoy it as much that was as I did in a theater.

      I also liked Othello a lot. If you like to see someone work around shadows and light, it’s probably the best exemple i’ve seen. Some people don’t like it that much, though… Shakespeare fans, see.

      At the end, if you’ve become as obsessed as I am (which I hope you will, lol) you can see his last feature, F For Fake, which is neither a documentary or a “normal” movie, but more of an essay film. And we get to see him a lot, so that’s good!

      Jesus, if I continue, i’ll recommend all of his films. I loved them all (well, except maybe The Stranger), what can I say.

    • Many European movies do not have a happy ending. That is probably the reason why European movies aren’t as profitable as Hollywood. The vast majority of moviegoers want to see movies that are emotionally uplifting and make them feel good about life. This is not just in the United States, but throughout the entire world.

      My parents are from West Africa, Liberia to be precise. My mother saw the BThieves and hated it. She said war-torn Italy looked far more glamorous than West Africa. So she couldn’t see why there was so much misery when they had much more to hope for than people in other countries. She doesn’t like drab, sad movies, from Europe or anywhere. Since many European movies are drab, she doesn’t watch much of them. She prefers Hollywood movies because there is a likely chance they fill her with hope. She spent most of her life working as a live-in caretaker. That job involves being a nurse for old folks. It includes feeding the elderly, bathing them, cleaning them, and long hours awake, sometimes she gets less than 6 hours of sleep a day. When the patient she takes care of is asleep, she has time to watch movies. She is miserable at her job (but she needs to pay the bills), so why should she want to see a movie about other miserable people?

      Sad movies don’t go over well with the general public. Bicycle Thieves was a part of the Italian neo-realist movement. That movement was brief and didn’t have fans amongst the population, only fans amongst intellectuals. So the films were never profitable nor much loved by the general population. City of God and Central Station was never popular in Brazil because Brazilians see that every day. Slumdog Millionaire failed in India. Indians see that every day. People go to movies to escape into a world that makes them feel good, not to watch films that tell them life is hopeless.

      People want to see movies about people happy. That’s all. So Hollywood is smart enough to provide for what the general public wants.

    • Janis Wise

      I like the ending of City Lights but it did not leave a lasting impact on me like The Bicycle Thief. It’s a bittersweet ending though, like how I felt with the ending of Roman Holiday.

  2. Lucille

    Iranian cinema in the 1990s and early 21st century has been compared to the neorealist movement. I recommend people to look into it.

  3. Tristan

    I really enjoyed this article and I really hope you write some more.

  4. I am studying Italian neo-realism in my University film studies class (Rome Open City and Bicycle Thieves in particular), this article is quite useful, thank you.

  5. Bitter Rice is interesting but while it’s ostensibly “realist”, in that much of the action takes place on location, and within a specific social context, there’s little else of what Zavattini defined as central to the movement. The story deals with the least average of the group, and focuses on the special, and not ordinary. The lighting and mise-en-scene are stylistic to the extreme.

  6. Jon Lisi

    Great article. Can’t neorealism be both a genre and a style? I guess it probably depends on how rigidly one understands genre in the first place. To me, genre is amorphous whereas style is connected to specific filmmaking techniques.

  7. Nellie White

    Italian Cinema scene is one to explore:
    La Meglio Gioventu
    Il Gattopardo
    L’albero degli zoccoli

    And also I’ve been impressed by the following, all directed by Mario Monicelli:
    -La grande guerra (“The Great War”), a 1959 tragi-comedy set on the Italian front during World War I.
    -I compagni (“The Organizer”), a 1963 film set in Turin at the end of the 19th century about factory workers’ struggle to get their 14-hour workday cut down to 13 hours to reduce accidents induced by fatigue.
    -I soliti ignoti (“Big deal on Madonna Street”), a 1958 tragi-comedy about a group of amateur criminals trying to pull a robbery.

    All three deliver top notch acting and good cinematography. The first two films also present detailed reconstitutions of respectively the front in World War I and working conditions in the early industrial revolution. As such, they vividly show settings and events we might have only read or heard about.
    The third one vaguely echoes Bicycle thieves as it shows that pretty crime is still alive and well in Rome ten years after, although it has a decidedly comical tone, as opposed to De Sica’s film. I consider I soliti ignoti less of a must-see than the first two, but it still is magnificently entertaining.

  8. In the DVD of Umberto D. De Sica gives a great explanation of what he means by the”neo-realism” of post WWII Italy. He says it goes further than realism which would not get the point across…it is a heightening of the realism of the time which was the apathy each individual had towards his fellow man. Times were very tough but instead of bringing people together it made them more self involved. It is illustrated in Umberto D. when his past co-workers can see Umberto is too proud to beg for money to stay in his rented room but it is as though they look through him and talk about about the trivialities. His landlady is even worse. Umberto helped her out during the war and now she turns on him because she wants to feel superior to him. It is heart-wrenching that his little dog and the poor maid of his landlady are the only two who show him respect and warmth. I love the harsh honesty of De Sica’s films. They are so moving because they show the stark truths of life with their outstanding character portrayals and simplistically human stories.

    • Kristy J

      I think Umberto is far superior to The Bicycle Theif. De Sica is clearly more at home concentrating on the individual problem and suffucing it within the backdrop of general economic misfortune, rather than using his protagonist as an Alice to guide us through society and its ills [as occurs in TBC]. For some reason TBT got massively overrated at the time [topping the first S&S – unbelievable in hindsight], and it has been given a bit of a free pass from then on in, not least because films such as Umberto gave De Sica the necessary directorial reputation. If Umberto had been released before TBT, the latter would undoubtedly be considered a secondary work.

  9. Michelle Webb

    It’s time for me to take a look at these texts. Thanks for a great article – often we are looking at what’s currently circulating, and sometimes forget to look back at the classics.

  10. Alice Bishop

    Great article. I’m also studying Italian cinema in university at the moment. Despite watching Martin Scorsese’s 4 hour documentary on the classical period recently, I’m still struggling to enjoy a lot of the films. I’ve always had a soft spot for Bicycle Thieves and a lot of Fellini’s work but nothing else has really stood out for me yet. We will be viewing all of the main neorealist films in the next few weeks so hopefully I can find some more I like – Umberto D. looks the most promising 🙂

  11. The bicycle thief is a movie directed by De Sica in 1948. This movie’s progressive use of technology made it a stepping stone for other Italian neorealist movies. Two of the movie’s technique were its post synchronized sound and it’s wild sound. Post synchronized sound is the recording of dialogue and sound effects in synchronization with the picture after the film has been shot. One example where De Sica used post synchronized sound was in the scene where Antonio had lost the bicycle thief in a wild chase and he was slowly walking back to the car in distress. The synchronized sound of his footsteps were faster than the actual step he was taking. It s kind of hard to explain, but it is like a person who is lip synching and somehow their lips are moving faster than the song. Another use of progressive sound technology De Sica uses is his well known wild sound. He uses wild sound to make the movie more realistic. For example, in the scene where Antonio and Bruno are standing in the street lost and confused because Antonio had accused the wrong guy of stealing his bicycle, you hear the crowd screaming from the stadium. We do not see the crowd or inside of the stadium, but the wild sound suggested that there were about tens of thousands of people inside the stadium. He also uses wild sound to incorporate a large crowd into the movie to suggest a more realistic sound feature. De Sica approach of rambling narrative made the movie, The Bicycle Thief so real. He uses what we call ” real time” in order to keep the audience focus on what is going on in the present. Though out the movie, he did not use any flashback method neither did he take his audience into the future. I believe the movie ran over a course of three to four long days. Every single day in Antonio life was very significant in putting together this movie. De Sica also strives to use vignettes, where the movie stop following the life of the main character and focus on other people. One example of the Vignettes is when the movie followed the life of the saint, the woman who sees. The director did not go in depth with her life, but he shows how she performed her miracles and the amount of people she heals on a daily basic. Her room was always full and the line was so long that people waited for hours just to talk to her. De Sica use what he call “rounded character” to make some kind of comparison between good and evil. He wanted his audience to carry a message after watching the film. He wanted to show what would make a good man turn into the bad guy. He did a good job changing his character by making Antonio very angry and hurt that he wanted to steal someone else bicycle.

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