Known as one of the most influential and innovative directors of postwar European cinema, Vittorio De Sica has been celebrated for his contributions to Italian neorealism. Neorealism drastically changed the film landscape in Europe and beyond, and De Sica’s films evoked the quintessence of the movement with his use of non-professional actors, on-location shooting, natural light, and deep explorations of the human condition.
Despite his clear gift as a director, De Sica began his film career as an actor. In the 1930s, he became a popular leading man and starred in several breezy sentimental romantic musicals and comedies. However, the harsh reality of fascism in Italy and WWII pushed De Sica to evolve from a lightweight actor to one of Europe’s greatest tragic filmmakers. As fascists took power in the late 1930s, De Sica developed an urge to direct. This desire coincided with meeting his longtime artistic partner, Cesare Zavattini—the writer associated with some of the greatest European directors of the 20th century—around 1941. The hypocrisy and lies pervading Mussolini’s fascist leadership provoked the two men’s desire to “tell the truth” in their films.
After the demise of the fascism and the end of WWII, there was an explosion of creative energy in Italy, and De Sica and Zavattini’s neorealist partnership flourished. The duo produced Shoeshine (1946), a tragic account of two children whose friendship crumbles when they begin committing petty crime in postwar Italy. De Sica, finally in a position of complete artistic control, said he “felt such...happiness!” during the production of Shoeshine, and the film proceeded to earn an honorary Academy Award and paved the way for the arrival of Best Foreign Film category thereafter. De Sica and Zavattini’s other major films, such as Miracle in Milan (1951), Umberto D. (1952), and, of course, Bicycle Thieves (1948), also focus on banal details of ordinary lives to reveal the wider social issues facing postwar Italy—economic turmoil, poverty, generational estrangement, and the moral depravity cast by the dark shadows of the fascist regime.
De Sica and Zavattini went to great lengths to preserve the truthful rendering of reality in their films, as proven by their casting of non-professional actors. De Sica in particular played a crucial role in the casting of his films. As he explained it, “the man in the street, particularly if he is directed by someone who is himself an actor, is raw material that can be molded at will. It is sufficient to explain to him those few tricks of the trade which may be useful to him from time to time; to show him the technical and, in the best sense of the term, of course, the histrionic means of expression at his disposal.” As he implies, De Sica effectively applied his own actor’s talent into his directing style. He worked well with amateurs, from whom he was able to elicit incredible performances.
De Sica’s remarkable casting abilities are especially evident in Lamberto Maggiorani’s performance as Antonio in Bicycle Thieves. Maggiorani’s heartbreaking and affecting performance prompted unanimous praise, and—according to De Sica—there was apparently “much excitement about him [Maggiorani].” Billy Wilder, the American filmmaker who directed Sunset Boulevard (1950), Double Indemnity (1944), and Some Like It Hot (1959), even wanted to cast Maggiorani in an American film. However, after interviewing Maggiorani, Wilder realized that Maggiorani was not an actor at all. De Sica explained, “I had made him [Maggiorani] seem an actor, because I myself am an actor and know immediately how to get the things I want.” De Sica’s feelings about casting non-actors were so strong that David Selznick—a popular American producer—said he would finance Bicycle Thieves if Cary Grant were cast as Antonio, but De Sica declined the offer. Because Cary Grant was predominantly known for his non-serious romantic films, the idea of him playing an impoverished and suffering Italian father seems absurd, but De Sica’s rejection of Selznick and Grant nonetheless demonstrates the stark differences between Hollywood and neorealism. By casting “real” people and non-movie stars, De Sica heightened the authenticity and desperation of his characters, which had them become all the more universal and relatable.
Notably, De Sica avoided obvious camera moves or long tracking shots while directing his films. He also did as little editing as possible; the few cuts he made held deeper meaning in congruence with what the characters were experiencing in that moment. De Sica, along with Zavattini, also often developed stories with very little plot, which subverted traditional storytelling at the time. De Sica’s ability to infuse deep meaning into performances and shot compositions made him famous within the neorealism movement.
Though the extraordinary stunning, humanistic Bicycle Thieves stands as De Sica’s most significant accomplishment, his other films are no less remarkable. In several of his neorealist classics, De Sica communicated a progressive social agenda and portrayed his characters simply as they are, with all of their faults and values uninhibitedly on display to enable a tender connection with audiences. Such artistic tendencies are rare, which is why De Sica still remains as one of the most beloved figures of European cinema.