Bicycle Thieves (1949)
Release Date: December 13th, 1949 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Vittorio De Sica Actors: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Elena Altieri
ntonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) struggles to make money in poverty-stricken postwar Rome, finally managing to get a job hanging posters throughout the bustling streets. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) sells their bed sheets so that Antonio can get his bicycle out of a pawnshop, giving him the conveyance for which he was chosen to receive the job in the first place. On his first day, his bicycle is stolen and, in the couple of days that follow, he brings his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) to help scour the unfriendly streets for the dastardly thieves.
Showcasing one of the most heartfelt and authentic interactions between father and son (perhaps the greatest that cinema has to offer), “Bicycle Thieves” doesn’t tread lightly on the idea that crime leads to more crime and people in desperate situations often resort to unbecoming means. A similarly profound scene sees Maria selling the family’s sheets to get Antonio’s bike out of hock – to a man climbing dangerously high metal shelves to stow the new linen amongst countless more of the same. Row after row is filled with product he can’t possibly use – especially in a town so poor that the majority of its citizens no longer have the need for sheets.
As Antonio becomes more desperate, valuing the bike as a salvation beyond mere transportation, he drags Bruno through the rain and crowded streets in search of the invaluable possession. Antonio follows an old man, who is clearly in cahoots with one of the robbers, and harasses him in a church, but eventually allows the elderly criminal to elude him. When Bruno questions his father’s actions, he gets slapped. Despite the discipline and even the bad example Antonio later sets when he tries to steal another bicycle, Bruno is the one who constantly looks out for his father. As if their roles were reversed, Bruno, perhaps never fully grasping the item’s importance, has to watch over Antonio like he was a child, reduced to impatience and stubbornness caused by a missing toy.
Early on, Maria visits an old woman dubbed the “Holy One,” who blesses a lucky few with her visions and prophecies. She tells Maria that her husband will get a job, but Antonio doesn’t believe in such nonsense. Later, when he has run out of ideas, Antonio finds himself back at the old woman’s home and asking for help. “Either you find it right away, or you never will,” she tells him. Antonio takes this as senile ranting. The longer he waits around unable to locate the bike, the more likely it will be disassembled or sold off. But what the Holy One really alludes to is his reasons for searching. Either he will recognize immediately what his futile hunt is doing to both his sense of morals and his relationship with his son, or he never will.
The bike is just a bike to the cops, who require forms and paperwork and have no real means of locating the perpetrators, but the vehicle represents Antonio’s livelihood – his life or death. “Why kill myself worrying when I’ll end up just as dead anyway,” he says, right before he treats his son to a hearty meal they can’t afford. Driven to snatch another man’s bike when all else has failed, Antonio is treated to a life lesson – one that allows him a second chance at living, as well as at guiding his son’s viewpoint of the situation. The irresolute conclusion is just as tragically ambiguous as it needs to be, not revealing the exact destiny of Antonio and Bruno, but hinting that a new opportunity at doing the right thing is possible.
Deceptively simple, Vittorio De Sica’s cinematic masterpiece features unequalled, authentic performances by non-actors, potent visuals, complicated moral dilemmas, and a beautifully bittersweet central relationship. Incredibly honest and doubtlessly powerful, this pioneer of Italian neorealism is further surrounded by excellent music and a title that, whether translated as the popular American version “The Bicycle Thief” or the more accurate plural form “Bicycle Thieves,” imparts a double meaning of the lead character becoming the very thing he condemns. Along the way, audiences are treated to amazing genuineness and a beautifully poignant adventure shared by father and son.
– Mike Massie