#33 – Bicycle Thieves (1948), dir. Vittorio de Sica

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

I want to ride it where I like. Antonio and his son Bruno suffer the indignity of poverty and desperation — but also enjoy connection and understanding — in the neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves.

We’ve already taken a rather precipitous dive into Italian Neorealism with a trilogy of movies by the genre’s founder, Roberto Rossellini. But the most famous and most highly lauded film from that school of movie-making is director Vittorio de Sica’s deceptively simple masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (Ladri de bicicleta, 1948). So potent was the film’s impact — at least among critics — that it topped the first Sight & Sound list in 1952 — yes, just four years after the movie came out it was hailed as the greatest film ever made. And while Bicycle Thieves no longer hangs about in the vaunted Top 10 of the Sight & Sound list, it is still easy to see how the film captured the hearts and minds of the critical establishment back in the day (and its current rank of 33 is nothing to sneeze at either). Like Rossellini’s Neorealist Trilogy, Bicycle Thieves makes pointed use of location shooting and non-professional actors to tell a story that is grittier and more grounded in the real world than filmic spectacle. But unlike Rossellini’s work, which uses extreme violence or an uncompromising narrative bleakness to make its points, Bicycle Thieves is a simple story about a simple family. It follows a man and his son as they scour Rome looking for the man’s stolen bicycle, which he desperately needs to keep his job. But in sticking with this father/son duo, de Sica offer up a wealth of commentary on poverty, family, the plight of the working class, religion, and Italian society in general but always in a manner that feels organic, funny, and emotional resonant. So let’s go for a ride! (Just make sure you lock up that bike up when we’re done.)

J. – What a thoroughly delightful film!

I feel like that’s a strange thing to say about a movie that packs an emotional wallop, focuses on the troubles of the working man in a post-war society, and is generally considered one of the great achievements of 20th century cinema. But damn it all if the film doesn’t manage to be utterly charming amid all the desperation. And I think that is ultimately why Bicycle Thieves is such a successful movie.

This not a happy-go-lucky story, as it follows the travails of a family struggling with crippling poverty. In presenting that sort of scenario it is very easy for a film to become relentlessly grim (the Rossellini route) or preachy. The other, more despicable, path followed by many movies dealing with working class struggles is to imply that there is something ultimately positive about poverty — a dignity and simplicity that the rich just can’t see in their gilded palaces. But Bicycle Thieves manages to circumvent these facile approaches through humor, energy, well placed background details, and by framing the story as a quest rather than just a descent into desperation. All the downs have an up, and the film is so deft with its sleights of hand and satire that you feel the pain and desperation of Antonio but are (almost) never left wallowing it. Hope springs eternal throughout the film, which is in many ways the Bicycle Thieves‘ finest — and most cutting — joke.

In some ways I feel like I’ve started with what should have been the conclusion to a yammer, S., but I couldn’t help believing that the tone and feel of the film were ultimately more important than the visuals, the story, or even the characters (excellent as those all are).

S. – This film is entirely engaging, I was totally absorbed from the beginning. Despite the obviously desperate circumstances you never pity Antonio and his son Bruno because there is nothing pitiful about them. None of the Ricci family are cowed by their situation. A lot of the energy comes from the very stripped back performance of the lead. I think you are absolutely right, J., that the subject matter can so easily slide into trite territory by romanticizing poverty. Having the central characters on a quest to undo a wrong also has potential to reduce the experience to a fairytale version of life in postwar Italy. Yet Antonio avoids cliché, far from being a hero he gets frustrated, frequently behaves like a jerk and makes some pretty bad choices in an completely believable way that had me firmly on his side.

In a movie with so much appeal what stands out most to me most was how superbly it was filmed. The slightly off-balanced effect of having amateur actors performing beautifully shot scenes is wonderful to watch. Even though the story is small and the action bordering on clumsy (sometimes actually clumsy, poor Bruno) the visuals are stunning, realism has never looked so good.

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The film makes excellent use of on location shooting around Rome, giving a lively and compelling worker’s-eye view of the city. De Sica never once dwells on the city’s many architectural wonders, avoiding the iconic or idealized in favor of the real.

J. – I think that the smallness of the story is one of its great strengths. By keeping the story so focused on the lives of the Riccis, they become a cipher for exploring and understanding the full breadth of Italian society at the time. And by zeroing in on their personal travails, Antonio’s stolen bicycle takes on an almost cosmic significance. (It is also a damning symbol of the state of Italy at the time that Antonio the man was of no value to society, but Antonio’s bicycle was in demand by thieves and employers alike.)

But as we said above, S., this has the potential to deliver a film that wallows in the despair of a struggling family, but Bicycle Thieves really doesn’t take that route. The film puts setback after setback before Antonio and Bruno, but I never once felt like I was being bludgeoned by their increasing desperation. I think there are many reasons for this (which I am sure we will explore), but one thing that I felt like the filmmakers did supremely well was to hit the viewers with fake-out after fake-out — you are pretty much always wrong about the way this movie is going to go. For instance, there is a great scene early in the film where Antonio has his newly unpawned bike outside a doorway. He goes in after his wife while street kids play outside — the scene is constructed in such a way that you are positive the bicycle is going to be stolen, but it isn’t. The tension builds to nothing, which ultimately adds punch to the scene where his bike is indeed pinched. Likewise there is a scene early in the film in which Bruno meticulously tends to the bicycle, oiling and cleaning it — the film (and standard storytelling conventions) immediately make you think that it will be Bruno who finds the bike because you have seen his fixation on its every detail. But he does not. This kind of thing happens repeatedly in the film, which at the very least kept me constantly on my toes as a viewer but also opened up some great opportunities for humor and drama.

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Bicycle Thieves is loaded with fake-outs that play with narrative convention in fun ways, and consequently keep the viewer guessing as to exactly what will happen. In this scene is powerfully obvious that the bicycle is about to be stolen — only it isn’t, but the movie has a great time showing you that it isn’t wise to make assumptions just because you think you know the standard beats of storytelling.

S. – The film plays with the idea of fairness in a sophisticated way. So many of the jolts in the story occur because even though the audience is primed to feel sympathetic to Antonio, nothing falls neatly into place. This seems so unexpected in the usual movie schema where a congenial protagonist may have to face one or two turns of bad luck but their perseverance and charisma eventually sets things right again. Antonio’s continual struggles avoid descending into farce because our hero doesn’t expect the universe to play fair. There is no significant time allowed for wringing of hands or an escalation of bitterness, each set-back is met within the moment rather than accruing as an impossible obstacle. The immediacy required of people living in such hard circumstances removes the luxury of wallowing in self-pity, an insight that seems more valuable than contriving an atmosphere of unrelenting tragedy. The interactions with other people reveal the unfairness that plagues the central family is endemic in the community, it is not as simple as finding a person to blame. In spite of the ubiquitous hardship the fact that Antonio can still laugh is enough to show that he hasn’t been defeated and the many small humourous moments infuse a liveliness into the narrative that is surprising and makes the characters feel real.

J. – I wholeheartedly agree with what you are saying about the humor making the characters feel more real. I think specifically to the scene in the church as an excellent example of this. That scene is hilarious, and is in many ways a pretty sharp satire of religion and charitable organizations, but since it is played out with such energy and humor it never once becomes heavy handed. I particularly love when Bruno opens the door to the confessional in search of the man who knows the bike thief only to be whacked on the head by the priest inside. That moment rings so true, even though it borders on blasphemous — indeed the father and son make a mockery of the church proceedings, but that can also be said of the criminal who goes there for a free bowl of soup. But with the well developed desperation of Antonio and Bruno colliding with the realistic devotion found in a church setting it all somehow feels justified and strangely gentle in its humor despite all the chaos.

But for me the key scene of the film is the one in the restaurant. Through a series of events Antonio believes Bruno has drowned, only to find out that the boy is fine. Suddenly shocked into realizing that there are things more important than money, he treats the boy to a meal that he can’t afford. This scene is great for a few reasons: Antonio is so determined and grim throughout the film that he is danger of being a one-note performance, which wouldn’t be wholly surprising given that Lamberto Maggiorani was not an actor but a pipe fitter. But Maggiorani comes alive in that scene, laughing and reveling in the food and showing us a side of his character that had been absent. The film to that point had humanized Antonio by making him a downtrodden victim of society, but it takes that moment to bring the character to life from a performance perspective. In a lesser film this would have been the coda — the celebration after the lead has learned the trite lesson that family is more important that financial security — but not this film. The real coup from a performance perspective is how the meal transforms Antonio from jollity back to desperation. This moment — and Maggiorani’s performance — draws us right into Antonio’s inner struggle, and without this scene, without this moment of squashed joy, I believe the ending would have felt hollow.

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Bicycle Thieves adds to its verisimilitude by including a few unfortunate accidents into the mix. Poor Enzo Staiola takes a bit of a thumping as Bruno — this very real fall was clearly not intended, but the film is wise enough to quickly incorporate it into the mix. And big props to Enzo, who was not a child actor, for carrying on in this scene and another where he nearly gets run over by two cars (also not intended!).

S. – Antonio is on an emotional roller-coaster throughout. I am so impressed by the performances and the director’s ability to convey a simple tale with such gravitas. By living this small story through the eyes of one man the complex layers of political and social climate loom as shadows in the background without becoming the subject. De Sica’s approach is so different from that of Rossellini, at no point did the commentary displace the story. It is obvious that post-war Italy was not easy on it’s citizens without the underlying issues being directly acknowledged. This approach makes the movie highly accessible and is a skillful use of “show don’t tell”. Without ever feeling lectured to or emotionally manipulated the challenges of surviving in a city experiencing the aftermath of conflict are plain to see. The fable told may appear to be a simple one but there is plenty of nuance there for viewers willing to look for it.

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Though the film follows the plight of Antonio and treats Bruno as something of a comedic sidekick, it could be easily argued that the movie is really about the child learning the harsh realities of the world — particularly in the final moments of the movie, which don’t just bring Antonio low but forge a new image of his father in Bruno’s eyes. It’s hard to know what is going through Bruno’s mind at that moment, but Enzo Staiola’s wide-eyed performance is wonderful to behold, particularly as he clumsily eats in a restaurant that is too fancy for his social station.

J. – I think you’ve hit on a key aspect of Bicycle Thieves by noting its accessibility — it’s a very viewer-friendly film. This may be what has knocked it down a few slots on the Sight & Sound list over the years, as it cannot be said to challenge the viewer in the manner of a 2001 or a Joan of Arc. The story is simply told and hits its emotional beats in a manner that is crystal clear for the viewer, and even if the movie does engage in a bunch of narrative bluffs, those sleights of hand don’t in any way complicate the story so much as build tension and undercut audience assumptions. But while I didn’t find Bicycle Thieves to be a challenging movie, it is also in no way a pure entertainment vehicle like, say, Casablanca.

No, there is great strength in the subtle political and social threads being woven around the main story that both support the narrative and give power to the plight of the two leads. So when you get to the film’s justly famous ending — and the reason the film is called Bicycle Thieves, rather than Bicycle Thief — the emotional gut punch feels wholly organic. It’s just as you say, S., you never feel emotionally manipulated by this movie, which is an uncanny feat of manipulation of its own.

Related yammers:
#183 – I Was Born But… (1932), dir. Ozu Yasujiro
#202 – Germany, Year Zero (1948), dir. Roberto Rossellini
#183 – The Grapes of Wrath (1940), dir. John Ford
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