There aren't many positive outcomes of war and repression, but Benito Mussolini can be thanked for creating the conditions that nurtured Italian neo-realism. As exemplified by Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini, these films were made on the cheap, with grainy newsreel stock, non-professional actors and with a sense of political urgency.
Rossellini kicked off the movement with Rome: Open City, which was literally filmed out on the streets during the waning days of Il Duce. This film was a celebration of the Italian resistance, in particular the ways in which Catholics and Communists made common cause against the Fascists.
Open City also heralded an aesthetic breakthrough, in which the carefully controlled conditions of studio soundstages were cast aside out of necessity. Audiences saw and accepted the rough editing, haphazard lighting and non-professional actors.
After the appearance of Open City, other important films like Shoeshine and Paisan followed. However, the era's most enduring legacy is De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, perhaps because the story's heart-breaking simplicity transcends its political context.
The film's premise is simple: In the devastated economy of post-war Italy, jobs are scarce. The film's protagonist finds a job, but it requires a bicycle. One day, his bicycle is stolen. In order to save his job, he and his adoring young son set out to find the missing bike.
With this humble setup, De Sica explores the tensions between an individual's struggle to survive and a society's need for order and security. It's also one of the most wrenching father-son tales in movie history.
A new print of The Bicycle Thief will be shown this Friday, Jan. 31 at 8 p.m., as part of the Winter Film Series at N.C. Museum of Art. Tickets are $5 for non-members, $3.50 for members. Go online to www.ncartmuseum.org for more information.