The Bicycle Thief (1948)

directed by Vittorio De Sica

Plot Summary
In economically depressed post-war Italy, an out-of-work man, Antonio, is offered a job requiring a bicycle. Not having one, his wife Maria pawns some household items in order to acquire the needed transportation. On Antonio’s first day of the job, his bike is stolen, and the culprit escapes after a brief chase. Antonio and his son, Bruno, begin searching the streets and fruitlessly question a suspicious elderly man. The two eventually find the thief but are unable to prove their case due to a lack of evidence or witnesses. Dejected, Antonio tells his son to get on a bus as he eyes an unattended bicycle nearby. Bruno misses the bus and turns to see his father trying to steal the bike and being chased by a group of people. Antonio is caught and chastised by the pursuers, although the owner decides not to press charges. Father and son begin walking down the street, and Antonio starts to cry as the two disappear into a crowd.


One of the primary goals of Italian neorealism was to move filmmaking away from the stilted, contrived (and quite popular) national cinema that had formed under Fascism. The movement’s main principles were set forth by Cesare Zavattini who also penned several of its most enduring classics including The Bicycle Thief. What this film shares with other important works in film history is the ability to work effectively on different levels and to suggest universal conditions from specific characters and events. It is an emotional tale that also touches on themes of alienation in the modern world.

The film makes excellent use of the conventions of neorealism, establishing it as a superior example of what the movement brings to cinema. The performances of the non-professional actors are excellent, particularly the main parts of Antonio by Lamberto Maggiorani and of his son Bruno by Enzo Staiola. Much like the typage of Soviet Montage, these roles were filled primarily based on physical appearance, yet the two establish a good rapport early in an optimistic, cheerful scene where they prepare for the day’s work. Shot on location, the film places these realistic characters into actual places around the city that adds to the story’s verisimilitude. The various long shots of the city streets and their crowded buildings are expertly composed and provide an aesthetic beauty that sits ironically beside the grittier elements of this drama. The film focuses intently on its struggling working class characters and on their concerns and behavior. Economic problems are illustrated early on as a large group of men wait for any kind of job opportunity. When the Riccis pawn some of their linen, a telling shot shows a large roomful of these surplus items, assumedly from the numerous other families who have made similar sacrifices. The film realizes that this squalor of everyday life usually doesn’t make it to the screen and points out the contrast between the ‘reality’ of this film and the glamorous escapism of most movies. Alberto’s job is to put up posters of Rita Hayworth (in Gilda) that look exceedingly fake in this context. Similarly, the romantic embraces and flourished speeches exchanged by many movie couples are replaced by the more practical relationship of Antonio and his wife. She says he looks like a cop in his new work attire, and he responds in a playful but somewhat rough manner.

As it delves deeper into the characters’ lives, the film elaborates on what is most important to them. Antonio initially appears to be an ideal neorealist hero with a practical outlook on life who scoffs at his wife’s visit to a local mystic. Later, however, after being unable to track down his missing bicycle, Antonio returns to this psychic and asks for guidance. Although she doles out disappointingly generic advice, the film proposes that people desperately look for relief and assurance, even from questionable sources, when they have lost all hope. This is simple human nature, and it should not be surprising that so many people are lined up in this woman’s room given the social and economic climate presented. The film places the characters’ material concerns over their spiritual ones as evidenced by the sequence where Antonio and Bruno follow the suspicious elderly man into a church. The solemn proceedings carried out there make it difficult for Antonio to thoroughly question the man, as he seems unaware that the middle of a service is not the best time to conduct his inquiry. In this way the church serves as a kind of refuge, which is indeed one of its intended functions, and it is also crowded with those needing help with their daily struggles. Nevertheless, this place becomes another time-consuming obstacle in the Riccis’ search as they lose their suspect and become trapped there for a short time. Up to this point, finding the bicycle has been an all-important quest to Antonio. But when he mistakenly fears Bruno to be the boy who almost drowns, he gains a better perspective on things, at least temporarily, remembering the love he shares with his son.

Although this may sound as if the film threatens to slip into sentimentality, there is a deep strain of pessimism running throughout that counters any such inclination. "Damn the day I was born," Antonio comments at very start, before he even gets the bicycle. After losing and being unable to find it at the bike market, he simply says, "It’s hopeless," and the falling rain expands this statement beyond its specificity to become a general outlook on life. It seems there is a basic acceptance of life’s disappointments that allows for some freedom—Antonio remarks, "You live and suffer. To hell with it," and decides to take his son to eat in the restaurant. Once inside, an interesting sequence begins as Antonio says something to the effect of "There’s a cure for everything but death." His brief optimism drains away, however, as he thinks about how well they were going to do before the bike was stolen. It is a quick, sad fall from expressing the joy of being alive down to feeling the return of despair. But perhaps this pessimism is justified because even when Antonio apparently finds the primary culprit, he is unable to receive compensation because of a lack of evidence. As father and son walk together in the final scene, and Antonio starts to cry, it is clear they are faring no better than they were at the start and have little toward which to look forward. Perhaps the one good thing resulting from these experiences is a strengthening of the relationship shared between Antonio and his son. If this offers some hope, the film nevertheless paints a fairly bleak picture of life and also goes further to suggest some of the reasons behind the depressing existence portrayed.

The main reason, and probably the most modern theme of the film, is the idea that man is alienated from others in a segmented society, and everyone focuses on their individual needs. Antonio can’t rely on the police who, understandably, are unable to help locate the bicycle because of the difficulty and unimportance of the task; one cop answers another’s question with, "It’s nothing, just a bicycle." But to Antonio, it’s something vitally important, and he must play the cop in tracking it down, a role perhaps foreshadowed earlier by his wife’s observation. Later, as Antonio talks to his friends about the incident, he is told to "be quiet" because someone is trying to hold a meeting. Metaphorically, it seems that even when people try to band together for the common good, the individual voice is lost, and someone is compromised. A fragmented society is shown by the various indignant and defensive people Antonio confronts in his search: the man painting at the bike market who initially refuses to show the serial number, for instance, and the people who staunchly defend the person who assumedly rode off with Antonio’s bicycle. Their attitudes are enough to make one angry, but then again, what else would they do but try to protect their own. The film succeeds in creating empathy for Antonio’s dejected state so that his ultimate act becomes an understandable and painful reaction. It supplies one possible answer to the question: What makes a thief?

If alienation and distancing of people from one another give the film drama and a powerfully dispiriting message, then, paradoxically, how people can help each other provides the contrasting hope. The first sequence involves Antonio’s friend informing him that his name has come up for a job. Clearly, unemployment is high, and this man could have let Antonio’s chance pass so that perhaps his name would have been called. Furthermore, some of the street workers peruse the bike market with the Riccis to aid their search. So people do still look out for each other in some cases; it’s just that no good comes out of their combined efforts in this situation. In fact, Antonio’s bicycle is successfully stolen with an apparently careful orchestration by a group of thieves. And, as could be expected, Antonio’s lone, weary attempt fails as he is caught and chastised by an angry throng. Fortunately, he is not completely by himself because Bruno runs to be with his father, perhaps even trying to protect him. The man whose bicycle was briefly taken sees this and decides to let Antonio go. He has been saved by forgiveness and by his young son, and the two disappear into the nameless crowd of modern society with only each other for protection.

De Sica primarily keeps his direction seemingly simple and effective to focus clearly on the events unfolding. There are a few shots of Bruno walking alongside his father, looking up at Antonio, to stress his learning about life from him. These shots also make the climax very powerful as the viewer sees Antonio’s theft through his the eyes of his son. The sequence that involves his wife visiting the psychic while Antonio waits outside is shot in such a way that, given the film’s title, one thinks the bike will be stolen at this point. This moment of self-consciousness along with the superior film stock and greater resources during shooting differentiates this film from another neorealist classic, Rome, Open City. Rossellini’s film has a much greater documentary-like feel to it, while The Bicycle Thief seems more allegorical and multi-layered. One can see similar themes from this film in other Italian works soon to follow, particularly the alienation that is shifted to the upper classes and brilliantly explored in Antonioni’s work. The Bicycle Thief is essential viewing for a study of neorealism, and a highly influential, excellent film that is both thought provoking and poignant.

8 of 10

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© 1999

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