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I Want To Ride My Bicycle: Commodities In Bicycle Thieves

10 min read

In an ever-growing materialistic society such as ours the value we put on things rivals that which we place on loved ones. After all people love things, don't they? People love the thrill of owning something which, in some way, gives them a heightened status or the thrill of social mobility. There is a reason car culture is so rampant; cars mean travel, travel means employment opportunities or chances to visit destinations others can't, exclusivity means elevated social status which in turn means cars are the best thing ever. And for Bicycle Thieves' protagonist Antonio, the bike is a holy symbol that's going to give him the life he has dreamed of; a life where he is a respectable working-class man.

Director , from the very opening shots of Bicycle Thieves, establishes and develops a fetishistic obsession, where a material object is worshipped with abnormal dedication, for objects and possessions in his characters. The commodities here offer a form of mobility, for example Antonio's bike offers both social and fiscal movement on top of literal mobility. This is important, for the communist left-wing political lens of De Sica, when considering the satire of this type of capitalist relationship. De Sica points and laughs at the idea that man's reliance on production line commodities opens up social gateways by showing just what happens when such a thing is taken away; man is left useless and unable to think for himself. He can't focuses on the logical solution of just finding another practical way of solving his problem, he can only think of getting back his material wealth.

But these possessions also signify a move away from personal humanity, as attachment grows then the emotional empathy towards other people shrinks resulting in commercial products having a higher emotional value than a wife or child. There is a hierarchy between objects established in De Sica's film, he makes sure that the audience knows the bicycle is the ultimate form of commodity whereas the bed sheets in protagonist's Antonio's home, or the bus that brings the working masses to their foreman during the film's opening credits, or the posters of Hollywood star Rita Hayworth that Antonio is paid to put up around his neighbourhood are not. They are merely there to bolster the importance of the bicycle and the forms of mobility associated with it.

Much of Italian Neorealist cinema is focused on the working-class response to post-war society; this is vital to understanding Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves through the lens of materialistic individualism with which to view the film. De Sica's presentation of one's material possessions being the driving force for career and social status is something which should never be overlooked, as he spells out a modern Icarus journey which permeates even our contemporary relationship with things; the more we obsess, the more we will have to lose.

For people living in a post-war Europe, living in cities yet to rebuild and recover from Nazi occupation and bombardment, there was little to latch on to as economies tried to rebuild and deal with rising unemployment. Italy especially had a population that found talking about the fallen regime an uneasy subject. With increasing destruction and reconstruction people began to find strong attachment and satisfaction in commercially made products or objects. An example of this would be commercial public transport; buses, trains, trams etc. Post-war, unification and reconstruction where prevalent sentiments and public transport offered a way of getting construction workers from one part of the country to the other. A reliance and deification began to occur where transport like this became seen as a commercial product with a purpose, it aided social mobility by allowing workers to get to their jobs to earn a wage on top of creating new jobs for those building and driving these new trains and buses. This has remained to this day where we still place a high level of attachment on public transport, although the added environmentalist aspect is new to our modern sensibilities, the obsession with commodifying transport is much the same.

The opening of the film fixates on the economic liberation that commodities can bring to the people of a post-war Italy. De Sica uses a long take tracking shot which keeps a bus in centre frame, its deeper black colourisation contrasts the white rubble of the background; giving this bus an almost mythical quality as it appears unworldly. There is even a biblical quality to the vehicle as unemployed and desperate men surround it waiting for the messiah-like foreman to step off and offer them jobs, the framing of the crowd when the foreman reaches his pulpit on a nearby staircase mimics that the shot composition of the silent American Bible epics; for example the sequence in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments where Moses parts the Pacific Ocean, both scenes situate a prophet figure in an elevated position in the centre frame.

By drawing on religious imagery seen through Hollywood , De Sica is able to create a poetic reality where the worth given to the lives of men via employment is commodified because the very act of getting a job is seen as something theatrical and therefore worthy of paying to see; something which the workers have done by buying bus tickets to get to the job distribution ceremony in the first place.  However, it is initially quite hard to actually see the foreman as De Sica keeps the bus the central focus of the frame throughout the slow pan and uses the unemployed mob to hide the foreman, thus marking the commodity as the real saviour. Without this commodity how would the foreman have arrived to offer jobs?

Antonio's bicycle drives the plot due to its absence from it, allowing a quest narrative to be formed as Antonio searches for his stolen commodity across Rome. After the bike goes missing we see Antonio transform into what Torrun Haaland calls ‘man whose feeling of shame overcomes indignation toward an unfair world'. In the case of Antoni, he faces shame through an emasculation tied to the man's role as provider for the household. Without his bike he cannot seek employment nor a wage to which he can use to preserve his family, the commodity is tied to his perceived continual existence and value to society. The bicycle begins to undermine Antonio's societal importance from an early point in the film, in a sequence after Antonio has brought the bicycle home we see his son Bruno tending to it. The idea that men all serve an identical purpose in society, the idea that they exist solely to keep the flow of commodity obsession flowing, is proposed by De Sica.

Seeing the child performing the duty of commodity care that is typically associated with adult life is comedic initially as there is the innocence of a boy wanting to be like his father, but this episode shifts into a tragic mode as Bruno's face is framed behind the spokes of the bicycle wheel as to mimic a prison cell. Commodities are shown to have a corruptive quality on the youth of Italy, but it is a corruption that can only be created by adults who fuel the economy by using their wages to purchase as many commodities as possible.

The normalisation of commodity fetishism is characterised as deeply problematic by the film, the direct exploitation of children who give ethical weight to the idea of commodity consumption allows De Sica to show the dehumanising nature of this consumption. By determining human value entirely based on ability to consume commodities created a society in which both man and boy become obsessed with obtaining ways not to provide for a home, but to provide for an obsession which they perceive as providing for the home.

The bus itself as a commodity is hard to define, part of what makes it so commercialised is the very act of buying a ticket to ride on it in the first place. However that is also something that provides a job, in order to dispense tickets one needs a ticket conductor who collects the money used to purchased the commodity of a ticket and helps to cycle that back into the economy. The mob of workers believe they need the bus, for the bus is what brings them employment. Potentially that bus may be their form of employment as either driver or ticket conductor, thus creating a cycle which allows them to partake in a capitalist system where they can further buy more commodities to obsess over because they bring with them a new status or new opportunities. In this opening scene the crowd can be seen gathering around the Val Melaina, part of the Borgate which were outlying areas of housing built to accommodate Rome's poorer inhabitants. One of their key functions was to keep workers out of harm's way from fascism; assuming that the buildings themselves can be classed as commodities given that they provide shelter to those can afford to pay. Therefore the crowd of workers in this scene cannot escape the world of commodities, they are literally surrounded by them on all sides. Commodities are the things that both protect them and carry them, assuming a parental role in their lives. While the bus and Val Melaina barely feature in De Sica's film past this opening episode, it establishes a running motif throughout the film; man cannot exist peacefully without commodity to give him meaning.

The bus however presents a strictly male perspective of the consumer of commodities; a consumption which gives back to them for consuming. De Sica presents the direct opposite of this for his sole major female character, Maria Ricci, as the female relationship with commodities is based on what they don't have or what they must give away. She occupies a subordinate role in the family life where she is expected to sacrifice her commodities for the men so they can further consume commodities, a privilege which Maria never gets a chance to partake in.

Upon receiving an employment offer from his foreman, the condition being that he owns a bicycle which Antonio insists that he must buy, Maria goes to the bedroom and strips her bed before finding more bedsheets from her kitchen. These are the things keeping her family from freezing in the winter; they are more than mere commodities and yet they are sold off without fanfare solely to allow Antoni to pursue his dreams of being a true man and a respectable breadwinner for the family. But it is vital to note Maria's reaction to all this, she looks at Antonio with a scowl before she nervously takes her new sheets from their dresser and strips the old ones from the bed. There is an immediate tension between the couple as Maria avoids Antonio's eyeline throughout the scene while De Sica keeps her centre frame as she moves through her home, the penultimate shot of her in the kitchen shows her dwarfed by the narrow door frame which allows the interior of the kitchen to appear cramped and claustrophobic.

The emphasis on her anxiety presents us with the fact that the female sacrifices of commodities shown here is what gives Maria worth as a person, and she is self-aware of this. Instead of running the risk of having an angry emasculated husband who can't bring in money to buy the necessary commodities, she sells the commodities that she cares for yet doesn't fully own to begin with in order to purchase a bike for her husband; something which proves in vain anyway as it is stolen later.

The commodification of female companionship as shown in the aforementioned scene is one of De Sica's most important perspectives and is something which has remained extremely contemporary nearly 80 years later. While societal standards towards female freedom have drastically changed and improved in many areas, there is still a strong traditionalist view that heterosexual women are there to sacrifice their own sense of self to bolster the life of their male partners. De Sica's deconstruction of the silent suffering women as seen in Maria should be recognised for the bold statement that it is; women can't and shouldn't live for men. However the working class angle chosen by De Sica does throw this into contention. To what extent is Maria merely trying to help her family survive through any means necessary?

Antonio's job, which he can perform thanks to his wife's sacrifice of vital commodities, involves placing promotional film posters around the city. The poster depicts Hollywood actor Rita Hayworth smiling whilst in a seductive pose; this is an explicit representation of the commodity as an image of desire, a desire that is borderline sexual in nature. The idea of watching a film is rooted in ideas of escapism, it is a commodity that allows patrons to briefly forget about their working-class woes, it provides an emotional reconciliation that can only be accessed through the capitalist system of paying for goods and services. De Sica portrays Hollywood cinema as a prostitute here, a commodity which offers a shallow and brief escape for a premium price.

De Sica' Bicycle Thieves presents a wide series of commodities which all have unique implications for how they affect society. Within the capitalism-ingrained society which the film takes place in, commodities occupy a unique position where they control the lives of people more so that the free-will of a human being. The Italy of Bicycle Thieves is one where commercialism is the driving force for people's emotional satisfaction.