Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)


In all likelihood, there is nary a top 100 list, or even a top 10 list, of film critic after film historian after the most casual of film fans that does not include Bicycle Thieves. Receiving an honorary Academy Award as the best foreign film of 1948, years before the category even became official, the film has widely been considered one of the best offered by both the time period and the foreign market, and rightly so. However, watch the 90 or so minutes of “Bicycle Thieves” with an untrained eye, or at least one lacking a certain amount of film going experience, and that greatness could be rather difficult to identify. Rarely, if at all, in this film will one find the flashy cinematographic or editing genius of, say, Citizen Kane, or the clever and complex dialogue of the period’s iconic film noir. Rather than set a precedent with style, director Vittorio De Sica relies, ironically, on its utter simplicity to demonstrate its brilliance, indeed proving that style need not precede substance.

Of all the elements of “Bicycle Thieves” that give it that simplicity, perhaps the one that is most deceptively so is the plot. It concerns Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a worker among a mass of workers, doing what every one of those workers in Post-war, poverty-stricken Rome would do: look for any little job that comes their way. One such job comes Antonio’s way in the form of putting posters up throughout the city. The job, however, requires a bicycle: the kind of bicycle that Antonio just happened to pawn. The problem is soon solved, though, with the help of his wife Maria (Lianella Carell), the couple’s bed sheets, and a trip to the pawn shop. Soon enough, Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) are on the job and all appears well.

Of course, with the film’s mood of poverty and pessimism set from the opening scene, depicting a poor section of the city with masses of workers lining up for jobs as if begging for food, Antonio couldn’t possibly get off that easily. Sure enough, his world is changed as his bicycle is stolen while on the job. The remainder of that fateful day is chronicled by the film, as Antonio and young Bruno search the city for the bicycle, and thus searching for a means of living.

As Antonio and Bruno search for the bicycle over the course of this fateful day, it becomes evident that the plot, already simple in design, begins to fade into the background, perhaps becoming irrelevant after a while. “Bicycle Thieves,” at its core, ceases to be a plot-driven vehicle as father and son search for a means of conveyance, instead embracing and embodying the Italian Neorealist movement of the 1940s. It paints a picture of post-war Italy, about as real as tangible as a fictional movie of that period could be. An image such as that in the warehouse-like pawn shop, for example, depict a world both real and easily perceived within the confines of the celluloid, as the clerk takes Antonio’s bed sheets and climbs a wall of shelves, each containing more bed sheets. This in a nutshell is Rome and its poor citizens: a snapshot of a time and place without cinematic fluff or flare, but rather a simple look, making for something more genuine and more real.

Consider also late in the film, when Antonio, as close to despair as we have seen him, spots his thief by chance and chases him into a back alley and brothel. Instead of finding justice, he is greeted by the alley’s denizens, as steadfast in their defense of the seizure-prone young man as they are hostile against the invading force that is this father and son duo. Never does Antonio prove the young man’s guilt, nor do we the audience ever find out if he is indeed the perpetrator. In a way, it is irrelevant. What matters here are the moment and the place. Antonio and Bruno are outsiders in this little alley, this miniature world of people joined by an unnamed bond that is immediately recognizable through this small scene. Sure, it is just another step in Antonio and Bruno’s day-long journey, but it, like the film as a whole, also sets the scene for a world that feels recognizable and tangible upon first viewing. Thus is the genius in the simplicity of “Bicycle Thieves,” and thus is the essence of Neorealism. One need not have lived in circa-1940s Rome to know that De Sica was depicting out of genuine experience. Antonio and Bruno’s journey becomes our own, as what is indeed a simple story of finding a bicycle becomes a tour of a living and breathing city, a piece of pure atmosphere rather than ordinary plot.

Of course, any film of merit will need some plot of interest as a backbone to move it along. Yes, a search for a bicycle isn’t exactly a grand conflict or epic quest, but it does speak worlds of a place steeped in reality, its simplicity a means of allegory towards a demonstration of Rome’s poverty-related situation circa 1948. A plot steeped in a message like this, so straightforward yet so grand at its core, is luckily carried by performances that are, if not “great,” at least impressive. Lamberto Maggiorani, playing Antonio, was not a professional actor, nor was Enzo Staiola as his son Bruno, making their achievements in front of the camera that much more impressive. You wouldn’t know that most of these performers were making their cinema debuts because they are playing, quite simply, who they are, essentially living out their everyday lives in front of a camera. No theatrics, no heart wrenching monologues, just going through the motions of a day in the life. The pair of father and son, in fact, seems to become one before long, working off each other in what have now become many iconic film images. Following a bout of frustration taken out on his son, for example, Antonio takes Bruno to a lively restaurant, complete with music and Mozzarella sandwiches. As the pair eagerly receives what to them is a feast and Bruno eats heartily, with his hands, Mozzarella stretching to oblivion in the process, he looks with both confusion and embarrassment towards a boy of higher class, eating politely with utensils and a snooty look. “To eat like them,” Antonio says, “you have to earn a million lira a month.” True, but what about the look of unabated, child-like joy on young Bruno’s face upon first sight of the sandwich, or the jolly music band, or just a simple meal with his father? Poverty-stricken and desperate a place as this is, it sure seems like familial bonds and an appreciation of life’s most overlooked pleasures, as so quaintly and beautifully portrayed in this simple yet pleasant lunch scene speak higher than some money.

Naturally, such ideas suggest a motive aimed towards promoting economic equality among the classes, perhaps even a socialist agenda, and indeed De Sica was often believed to have held such sentiments. Never is such an idea more apparent than in the now-famous climax and finale. Antonio’s final despair in the crowded town square over failing to find the bicycle, and his subsequent decision upon seeing an idle bicycle, suggest a chain of crime in such a setting that seems unavoidable. That Antonio, the man (as opposed to “character”) desperate to simply get by day-to-day, should come to these dire circumstances comes as a shock to the viewer who would not expect such a decision out of him. At the same time, however, one should not be surprised that it has come to this. Yes, Antonio is exonerated of any potential crime and put on his way along with his now horrified son, and such an outcome would commence the swell of music and happily-ever-after cue of a more formulaic film. Here, though, the viewer need look no further than the final image of citizen after citizen walking away from the camera, slouched and morose, to realize that this ending is far from storybook: it is steeped in the real.



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