The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Touch of Evil (1958)

Screening: The Bicycle Thief (1948)

Movie Clip Question : Touch of Evil (1958)

I. What is Realism?

A. In artistic traditions, realism is meant to depict subject matter as it appears in real life without interpretation or embellishment in an effort to capture some sense of truth or faithfulness to the real world

— see the work of 19th C. prominent realist painter Gustave Courbet (

— In Film, Theory and Criticism, Siegfried Kracauer (“Basic Concepts,” Week 2) advocates for a realistic cinema: suggesting that documentaries, newsreels, educational films, et. al. are “cinematic” because they aim to represent “physical reality” – what he sees as the purpose of film art

B. But Realism is a construction, and the definition of realism changes over time.

— For example, Courbet’s art today doesn’t look so real in an age of exacting visual reproductions due to digital photography

— Old Hollywood films that were once meant to look “realist” now feel outdated, with stylized acting or noticeable effects (e.g. a moving backdrop behind a car)

II. Cinematography and Realism

A. What is cinematography?

                        See The Film Experience, Ch. 3

B. Like mise-en-scene, a film’s cinematography (literally, “writing in movement”) plays directly into questions of realism.

— In the mid-20th Century, a tendency towards greater depth-of-field and long takes in cinema began to be associated with a more realistic aesthetic.

1. Depth of Field — describes the area in the frame that is in focus (not blurry): A greater depth of field is also called deep focus (often achieved with a wide-angle camera lens); opposite of Shallow focus (often achieved with a telephoto lens) See The Film Experience, pp. 78, 89)

CLIP: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

2. Long Takes – “long” refers to the duration of the shot in time (not distance) — an alternative to covering a scene in many shots edited together, the “long take” represents the world in a more “continuous” way, perhaps more akin to “reality”

CLIP: Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

Ponder: How do these clips conceive cinematic space? Do the scenes feel more “real”? If so, why?

III: Neorealism

The most famous cinematic trend towards “realism” appeared in post-war Italy in a movement often called “Neorealism” that lasted from about 1943 to 1952.

A. Both practical factors and ideological factors made up this move towards realism:

1. Practical factors: Cinecitta, the big film studio, was damaged in the war: filmmakers took to the streets; and because film stock was in limited supply, shooting was done on raw film stocks of various types, giving a more rough-hewn look

2. Ideological factors: Marxist thought, the French tradition of Poetic Realism and post-revolutionary aesthetics in the Soviet Union (all championing the proletarian workers) also helped contribute to a greater emphasis on realism, real people and real stories.

3. Reacting against both pre-war Italian glossy cinema and American Hollywood, Italian Neorealism’s major thinker and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini once wrote, “Reality in American films is unnaturally filtered, purified. . .”

— He called for a “hunger for reality,” and “the real protagonist of everyday life” and wrote that Cinema “should accept unconditionally what is contemporary, today, today, today. It must tell reality as if it were a story; there must be no gap between life and what is on the screen.”

B. Characteristics of Neorealism

1. Aesthetics/craft: Post-recorded sound dubbing, improvisation of script, handheld documentary style, locating shooting, naturalistic lighting and makeup, nonprofessional acting

— and yet there is still crisp focus, smooth camera movements, and an organized choreography of staging and mise-en-scene

2. Structure: No causal chain; random, unresolved endings; flattening experience, underplaying climax, details of daily life

3. Key films:

Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945), shot during waning days of war about Italian resistance. Rossellini once said, “I had absolutely no interest in telling a romanticized tale along the usual lives of film drama. The actual facts were each more dramatic than any screen cliche.”

The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

Screenwriter Cesare Zavattini wanted to make a film that simply “followed a man through ninety minutes in his life.” The Bicycle Thief isn’t that film, but a step toward capturing the worker’s “slow and tired” path.

See CLIP: La Terra Trema (Luchino Visconti, 1948)

— Filmed in actual fishing village, with nonprofessional actors

IV: Andre Bazin

— one of the most influential film critics ever, Bazin championed realist aesthetics such as deep-focus photography, staging in depth, and an emphasis on the ambiguity of the image, particularly in the work of the Italian Neorealist filmmakers. In his essay, “De Sica: Metteur en Scene,” he highlights:

A. The performance calls upon the actor – often an amateur — to be rather than express himself

B. Setting and photography are natural as opposed to artificial sets

C. Narrative Structure — “respect the actual duration of the event”

— He writes: “Neorealism knows only immanence. It is from appearance only, the simple appearance of beings and of the world, that it knows how to deduce the ideas that it unearths”

D. One of Bazin’s main philosophical points has to do with Ambiguity. He believes this style of filmmaking lends itself to a more poetic, ambiguous state:

— “Let us be thankful to Zavattini and De Sica for the ambiguity of their position… [I]t is a positive striving after poetry, the stratagem of a person in love”

— “Not one gesture, not one incident, not a single object in the film is given a prior significance derived from the ideology of the director.”

… its “true merit lies… in not betraying the essence of things; in allowing them first of all to exist for their own sakes, freely; it is in loving them in their singular individuality”


How is Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief the “ultimate expression of neorealism,” as critic Andre Bazin defines it? In what ways does the film’s cinematography contribute to the film’s sense of realism? Feel free to mention elements of mise-en-scene, too, but because we’re focusing on cinematography this week, please emphasize the camerawork first. And do you completely agree with Bazin? Might there be ways that the film isn’t so realistic, after all?

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