Bicycle Thieves (1948)

How many of us can say we’ve been in a situation where we’ve had to desperately search for a missing item because our life depended on it? Not many I’m sure. Probably even none. To do that would mean living on the brink of bankruptcy, and few of us have been in such a poophole.

But here we find Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a charmingly decent man, living in poverty with his wife and son, in a post-war Rome. They’re a happy couple, or at least happy enough given their circumstance. The war has left Rome devastated, and most — if not all — of what we see in Bicycle Thieves is a reflection of this devastation: run down buildings, dirty roads, and jobless people. The citizens of Rome are certainly not happy about their state of affairs; they’re rude, brash, and impatient. Probably eager for things to turn around for the better. I know I’d feel the same.

So what is the one thing that people in such living conditions would treasure, apart from a place to live? A job. Why a job? Because having a job means having money, and having money means being able to keep the house you’re living in. That is the most important.

Bicycle Thieves opens with a shot of Rome. This isn’t a set constructed in some studio with glaring lights and laid out pathways. This is actually Rome. We’re on location — which is rare for a movie made back in the ’40s. Young men alight a crowded bus and wait impatiently at the foot of a short staircase that leads to The Council building. They’re waiting for jobs. This is much like the scenario in On The Waterfront, where dock workers wait anxiously every morning for the chance to earn money. But while Waterfront has a-list celebrities (Marlon Brando), Bicycle Thieves compounds its neorealism by having its main characters played by non professionals. The result makes Bicycle Thieves look and feel more sincere and more desperate than its Hollywood counterpart, which is precisely what we need.

Back to the young men. They congregate around the steps. They’re eager. The man at the top calls out for Antonio, who has sprawled himself on the grass some metres away; he has given up hope of ever finding a job. He’s called to the stairs and he discovers that there is a job waiting for him. The only catch is that he must have a bicycle, because the job requires it. What a pity! He pawned his bicycle some time earlier because his family was so broke. He returns to his wife with the good — or bad — news and she, being the fore-thinking female that she is, decides to pawn their bedsheets to get his bike back. And so she does, and so the bike is back in their possession, and so the chance for happiness can exist.

There is wondrous elation in the Ricci household after the bicycle returns to them. There is now a light at the end of the tunnel, and Lamberto Maggiorani plays the character as himself so freely that he exudes confidence and invincible hope. It’s like he’s beckoning the audience to smile along with him, and indeed I was.

There is a scene that director Vittorio De Sica stages so well that it caught me off guard, quite pleasantly too, I might add. Antonio and his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) stop by a clairvoyant’s house because she told Maria that Antonio would find a job, and now Maria wants to thank her. Antonio doesn’t know this, nor does he believe in such hocus pocus (we see a crucifix hanging over his bed), and so he waits downstairs with his bike while Maria goes about her business upstairs. After his patience wears off, he leaves his bike under the care of a couple of dodgy looking kids and goes up to get her. When they descend the stairs, De Sica frames the shot such that we expect the bike to have disappeared. But it’s still there. The couple ride off on it with smiles on their faces. This is clever misdirection that only enhances the events that follow.

Antonio’s bike does indeed get stolen, ironically while he’s working (the job requires him to paste posters up on public walls). At once, hope starts to fade away, and he spends the rest of the movie searching high and low for the one item that will restore it. But it’s not hope that drives the story, nor is it love, nor father-son bonding. It’s desperation, and nothing more. Without Antonio’s desperation, the bike, and what the bike represents, has no value. Without desperation, his relentless search for this beacon of hope seems more like an obsession than anything else (I suppose to some extent it is an obsession).

Taken along on this journey is Antonio’s son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), who doesn’t really do much. He’s an adorable little boy with a spunky spirit, and he shines brightest when emotions run high. Take the pizzeria scene for instance (even though it’s not a pizzeria). Bruno is treated to a rich man’s meal because his father has briefly given up hope and has decided to splurge a bit on a feast. I wonder if they tell Maria about it later; I would love to have witnessed her reaction. Both of them are happy for once, and Enzo Staiola’s pudgy face beams with each mouthful he takes, even when he looks over at a wealthy family enjoying plate after plate of Italy’s finest. It’s a romantic scene that is filled with joy but outlined by dreaded reality. Why can’t everyday be like this for the Riccis, or for all mankind for that matter?

Such questions are not to be asked nor answered in this film. Here, poverty has already struck, and now its victims must do whatever it takes to overcome it, even if it means creating a riot in a church, causing a stir in a local neighbourhood, or stealing someone else’s bicycle at an opportune moment. Such measures must be taken. Whether they succeed or not is an outcome no one can control. This is Italian neorealism at its most intimate. We are watching real people deal with real dire situations in a real place. How can we not relate to that?

And this movie is all about us relating to its characters. The bond between husband and wife is tested. The bond between father and son is tested. The bond between need and conscience is also tested. The desire to do right by the people we love is a desire that still exists today. It manifests itself so strongly in Antonio that he fails to be a caring father (he often wanders ahead of Bruno, leaving him at the mercy of oncoming traffic and slippery puddles). He fails to show reserve and level headedness. Poverty has gripped him, and he has lost his dignity. He’s like the chubby kid at school searching for his pet toad in all the wrong places, and his world is populated by bullies. My heart is with him.

The alternative name for this movie is The Bicycle Thief, which implies that there is only one theft. Perhaps some viewers don’t like the idea of Antonio being a thief too. But him stealing a bike only goes to show you the desperation of his desperation. Yes he’s a thief, but he’s a thief only because he has to be. He commits the crime and he pays for it, dearly. Reducing the title from plural to singular will not change this fact.

Best Moment | Watching Antonio struggle with himself as he tries to decide which bicycle to steal, in one of the film’s greatest scenes. He is a good man. He doesn’t want to destroy himself by stealing what was stolen from him. But if his family is to survive, he has to. And that’s where the scene’s anchor lies.

Worst Moment | Nope.

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