“The Bicycle Thief” came out during a difficult time of recovery and transition. It was November of 1948 and World War 2 was over. Italy was in political and economic turmoil. It was this setting that inspired the filmmakers of Italian neo-realism. Director Vittorio De Sica was first known as an actor but began directing films in 1940. “The Bicycle Thief” was a drastic change from his first films and the shifting Italian social structure along with the influence of friend and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini lead De Sica to embrace the neo-realist perspective on filmmaking.
“The Bicycle Thief” has long been considered the masterpiece of movement and the film received an honorary Academy Award at a time when there was no category for foreign language films. The film is a clear example of Italian neo-realism. It deals in humanity and truth allowing the drama to come naturally through these things. There is no emotional manipulation or deception. Every scene in “The Bicycle Thief” feels grounded in reality at times to the discomfort of the audience.
Another neo-realist signature found throughout the film is the avoidance of sound stages and studio sets. De Sica shot his scenes on location which was partially due to budget, but it also took this truthful story to the places where it was happening. Every scene is grounded in the paralyzing poverty that the Italian people of the time would undoubtedly relate to. This gets back to the truth and humanity of the movement which sought to reveal, expose, and enlighten. Currents of social politics and commentary flow throughout the film energized by the ground-zero locations and realities.
Sticking with the neo-realism approach De Sica avoided using professional actors for his roles. His star Lamberto Maggiorani was actually a factory worker who had brought his son to the set to try out for the role of young Bruno. Enzo Staiola, the boy eventually cast as Bruno, was spotted on the street corner watching the film being made while selling flowers with his father. For De Sica a real-world authenticity could be brought from untrained actors that you would never get from trained professionals. His perspective reminded me a lot of French auteur Robert Bresson.
The simplicity of the story may surprise you. It is very basic and direct yet its succinct 93 minutes never feel lightweight. In fact it translates human emotion and experience in ways that few movies have. Maggiorani plays Antonio, a husband and father desperate to find work in post-war, poverty-plagued Rome. We first see Antonio standing in an employment line filled with anxious men trying to provide for their families. Antonio lands a job offer pasting movie posters and advertisements around town. For him it’s the chance to finally get his family on the right track.
Unfortunately the job requires a bicycle and Antonio recently pawned his to put food on his table. His understanding and hardworking wife Maria (Lianella Carell) pulls the sheets from the beds and takes them to the pawn shop in order to get the bike back. A proud Antonio heads out to work the next morning. But as you can guess the bicycle is stolen leaving Antonio in a terrible position. Along with the help of his adoring son Bruno (Staiola) Antonio sets out to find the bicycle – a difficult task spanning different neighborhoods around the city.
The story follows a very straightforward path and Antonio encounters people with similar desperate circumstances. At times we see things through the eyes of a follower – a simple observer of Antonio’s determined attempt to reclaim his bike and his dream of providing a better life for his family. Other times I felt as if we were seeing things through the eyes of young Bruno – having the hardships of life opened up to him without a filter and watching his heroic father find what is rightfully his. But De Sica snaps us back to reality with several scenes between father and son that are truly heartbreaking. We realize that this isn’t a lighthearted affair and real life is hard and uncompromising.
In the end “The Bicycle Thief” paints a bleak picture of a troubling cycle. It takes abject poverty and theft and links them together to form a depressing revolving door. Some have used the film strictly for social commentary. Others have criticized the film saying it needed more of an edge. Personally I think “The Bicycle Thief” is better served as a story – one rooted in truth and one that holds up a mirror to the human experience and compels us to see the reality of it. Movies that can do that are rare, especially these days. That is why films like “The Bicycle Thief” remain timeless and special.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS