Of all artistic terms, "realism" may stand as the most ambiguous—there is much uncertainty about what political and aesthetic attributes make art “realistic.” German literary critic Erich Auerbach is one of the many theorists who have defined realism, an artistic movement which flourished in mid-19th century France after the Revolution. Auerbach believes realist art depicts ordinary people within a specific historical background. Adopting a humanist point of view, Auerbach embraces the “serious treatment of everyday reality,” as well as the more politically inclusive rise of “more extensive and socially inferior human groups to the position of subject matter,” as key elements of realism.
Realism is considered by many as a “dead” or outdated aesthetic movement, but its general sentiments endured throughout the 20th century. Neorealist films like Bicycle Thieves incorporate elements of realism to render authentically the injustices faced by the poor and working classes of Italy. The film shows how a poverty-stricken individual's life can hinge upon a bicycle, the most mundane and ordinary of objects. By centering its plot on the quest to find a bicycle, Bicycle Thieves adheres to Auerbach's claim that realist art must incorporate a “serious treatment of everyday reality.” Bicycle Thieves also inclusively has Antonio, an impoverished man belonging to a more “socially inferior human group,” as its principal protagonist, which also aligns with Auerbach’s belief that realist art takes unremarkable individuals as its muses and subject matter. De Sica’s decision to emphasize excluded, marginalized groups of society in the film is in many ways a rejection of the studio Hollywood-influenced productions during Mussolini’s regime, whose glossy grandiosity was detached from the everyday reality working class of Italy.
Neorealism is often considered to be a radically new form of cinema, but through its brutal honesty, sympathetic portrayals of the working class, and mundane depictions of ordinary life and daily processes, it is a movement that clearly has roots in realism. Simple in construction but profound in depicting the all-encompassing totality of human life from Antonio’s point of view, Bicycle Thieves not only embodies the strengths of Italian neorealism, but shows a continuity with a longer tradition of art that takes everyday life seriously.