Movie Review: The Bicycle Thief
The Bicycle Thief (original Italian title, Ladri Di Biciclette) is a 1948 neorealist film by director Vittorio De Sica that has persisted as one of the most influential films in the history of Italian and world cinema. It has captured audiences for decades with its juxtaposition between hope and hopelessness, between the joy and misery of everyday life. It leads the viewer through the gritty streets of post-war Rome full of shambling buildings, hole-filled roads, tattered beggars, calloused blue-collar workers, and desperate thieves.
The Bicycle Thief was a film that dared to reveal the serious social problems of the time that most other films at the time were too afraid to do out of fear of repercussions from the Italian government and the public. In fact, when it was first released, it indeed received plenty of criticism from the Italian public, embarrassed that their situation of poverty was being shown on film for all the world to see.
Today, however, both Italian and global audiences see The Bicycle Thief as an ode to humanity and humanity’s struggles as well as its tenacity. It follows the simple story of a man, Antonio Ricci, scouring Rome in an attempt to find his stolen bicycle alongside his young son Bruno. Without finding the bicycle, Antonio would be without a job to provide for his family, a serious fate for those in post-war Rome where there were few, if any, jobs available.
The Bicycle Thief
When I first saw The Bicycle Thief, I knew nothing about neorealism or the crippling poverty in Italy after World War 2. I was both shocked and enthralled by how much Antonio’s simple job of putting up promotional posters around Rome meant to him. At the beginning of the film, Antonio’s and his family’s situation of poverty is elaborated upon when they have to sell their bedsheets in order to buy a bicycle for Antonio’s new job.
The viewer quickly understands the importance of work in this period of time. Even Bruno, a boy of 5 years, spends his days working at a gas station, bringing home meager amounts of money to help feed his family. Unlike today, the period in which this film was made did not have governments that were ready to help feed and shelter poor families. Back then, if people could not provide for themselves, they would end up begging on the streets or dead from starvation.
Neorealism films took a unique approach to filmmaking in which they often used nonprofessional actors: real people plucked straight from the streets without any previous experience as actors. This was done in order to get the most realistic reactions out of fictional characters. Interestingly, before filming ever started for The Bicycle Thief and while De Sica was still looking for people to play the film’s characters, American film producer David O. Selznick offered to help fund the movie on the condition that Cary Grant played the role of Antonio.
De Sica was flattered by the offer but had to decline, knowing that despite Grant’s superb acting skills, it would be impossible for him to move like a working-class Italian, to have the same callouses on his hands and the same dark, sleepless rings under his eyes. Instead, De Sica discovered Lamberto Maggiorani, a factory worker who had brought his son in to audition for the part of Bruno.
Maggiorani’s son did not get the part of Bruno, but Maggiorani did get the part of Antonio. He seemed perfect for the part: a gaunt man with hollowed cheekbones, dark eyes, and strong hands. Difficulty ensued when it seemed impossible to find the right child to play Bruno. Countless parents brought in their young boys, dressed immaculately for auditions and proving that they were movie-material with little dances and songs. However, none of these boys were right for the role of Bruno Ricci. So, De Sica began filming without anyone cast as Bruno.
One day while filming one of Antonio’s scenes, De Sica turned towards a pesky, onlooking crowd and noticed a small boy looking up at him. De Sica, who had an eye for detail and knew precisely how his characters ought to look (as was the case with his later film Umberto D.), immediately knew that this boy, Enzo Staiola, was the boy he needed to play Bruno. An exceedingly ordinary-looking boy with a bulbous nose, large eyes, and a curious, adult-like face, Enzo indeed took on the role of Bruno with great results.
Despite the film’s simple story and despite the time period in which it was made, it remains surprisingly relatable even today. Another thing about it that interested me when I saw it for the first time was that the film did not end with a stereotypical happy ending where Antonio finds his bicycle. Quite the opposite, Antonio does not find his bicycle. Instead, he is driven into desperation to keep his job and attempts to steal a bike himself. Before he does, he sends away Bruno so his son does not have to see his father commit such a lowly crime.
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One cannot help but feel sympathy upon watching Antonio steal an unattended bike, unable to peddle away quickly enough over the cobblestone streets before onlookers begin to chase him. The viewer, perhaps unwittingly, roots for Antonio, the bicycle thief, while continuing to despise the unknown thief that stole his original bicycle at the beginning of the film.
Antonio rides as fast as he can down the street, a group of men chasing him, Bruno catching sight of him just as the men tackle him off the bicycle and catch him. These men hit and deride Antonio whose expression is more desperate than ever. The owner of the bike intends to take Antonio to the authorities, only changing his mind when he sees little Bruno squeeze his way into the crowd, crying for his father. The bike’s owner decides to let them go without any consequences, but such freedom means little in Antonio’s situation.
In the final scene of the film, Antonio and Bruno walk side by side, engulfed by a massive crowd that had just drained out of a sports stadium nearby. Antonio’s expression is hollowed out by hopelessness, knowing he will never find his bicycle, knowing that he is not skilled enough to steal one himself, and knowing that he will lose his job. What he does not know is how he will provide for his family. The only solace is Bruno’s persisting love for his father, taking his hand as they drift through the crowd.