Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
The Bicycle Thief (1948), directed by Vittorio De Sica, is widely regarded as a classic masterpiece. It won an Oscar in 1949 in the category equivalent to what is now called Best Foreign Film. It also won awards at the time of its release from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics. Even more astonishing, in 1952, in the first Sight & Sound poll of filmmakers and critics (conducted once very ten years), The Bicycle Thief was voted the best film of all time! It had dropped to 6th (tie) by 1962, however, and was out of the top ten by 1972. Despite being closely tied to its post-World War II setting in Italy, The Bicycle Thief provides an allegory of universal applicability regarding the dehumanizing influence of poverty combined with lack of opportunity. It is a simple but powerful film and possibly the best classic Italian film.
The Story: The setting is in devastated postwar Italy where jobs are few and poverty rampant. Countless able-bodied men queue up in long lines as a small number of jobs become available. The barker announces availability of a job for a man with a bicycle. Our protagonist, Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), yells that he has a bicycle. In actuality, he had a bicycle, but it is in hock at the pawn shop like most of the rest of his familys meager possessions. Ricci, however, is desperate and hopes somehow to scrounge a bicycle before his job begins the next day. Riccis faithful wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), provides the solution, removing the sheets from their bed. Ricci trades the sheets at the pawn shop and retrieves his bicycle. He feels blessed by a miracle. At last he has a job and can support his family!
Maria pays a visit to The Fortune Teller (Elena Altieri) to thank her (she had told Maria that Ricci would find a job). Ricci, who is waiting outside, gets impatient and goes to find out whats keeping Maria. He leaves his bike by the door and, since we know the films title, we fully expect it to be stolen. This time, it turns out to be a tease. The bicycle is still there when he returns. During Riccis first day on the job (pasting posters of Rita Haywood in Gilda) on walls, his bicycle is stolen while he is up on a ladder. He pursues the thief, but cannot catch him. He solemnly heads home and reports the misfortune to his wife.
Ricci desperately spends all of the next day searching for both his bicycle and the thief. Initially, he gets help from a friend, Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda), who guides him to a bicycle market where stolen bicycles are fenced. Baiocco abandons Ricci, however, when it starts to rain. Ricci continues his search with only his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), to help. He spots the thief talking with an old man and gives chase. The thief gets away on Riccis bicycle again, but Ricci is at least able to catch up with the old man in a missionary. Try as he might, Ricci cannot get the old man to provide any information and, when Ricci is momentarily distracted, the old man gets away.
Losing his temper, Ricci smacks poor little Bruno. Hes basically a good dad, however, and immediately feels bad and offers to take Bruno for a treat that they can ill-afford at a restaurant. He gets Bruno some cheese sticks and even lets him taste some wine. Bruno is cheered until he notices a rich family at the next table sloppily eating large servings of pasta.
Ricci later spots the thief again and chases him into a brothel. There, however, he encounters the young mans mother, who is quite protective of her son. In the ensuing argument, a large mob sympathetic to the thief gathers, threatening Ricci. A policeman arrives but since there is no proof, nothing can be done. The policeman searches the apartment but the bicycle doesnt turn up, having probably already been sold.
Finally, at a complete loss, Ricci tries to steal a bicycle, thus completing this cycle of criminal desperation. Bruno can only sadly watch, understanding how thoroughly beaten down his poor father has become. The Italian title, Ladri di Biciclette, really means Bicycle Thieves, but whether singular or plural, we suddenly realize at the end that the title actually referred to the main protagonist. Thievery may be despicable but desperate circumstances also drive decent people to desperate measures.
Themes: The main theme of this film is obvious. It illustrates how the cycle of poverty grinds anybody down. We see a man chewed up by the society in which he lives. We see the utter import and denigration of being jobless. It is a theme that liberals and humanists will embrace but that conservatives will either deny or choose to ignore. A second equally compelling theme is the impact of the fathers depreciation on his loving son. No man wants to be humiliated, but least of all in front of his children. No child should have to bear seeing a basically good parent shrink in stature before his very eyes.
Production Values: De Sica (1902-1974) was an actor, mainly in light comedies, before turning to directing. As a director, he first produced light comedies and later returned to them, but between these comedic periods and again toward the end of his career, he produced a few of the classics of Italian Neorealism. His first great film of this ilk was Shoeshine (1946). It won the very first Academy Award in what became the Foreign Film category. Neorealism as a film style was characterized by stories about the daily living of working class people, featuring non-professional actors and actresses. Viscontis Ossessione (1942) is sometimes considered the first film in this style. Some critics instead cite Rossellinis Open City (1945) as the seminal work. The theme typically implicit in films of the Neorealism period is that the abject poverty of the lower classes is attributable to the concentration of wealth among the privileged rich. As a movement, Neorealism not only dominated Italian filmmaking from 1942 to 1952, but its effect was strongly felt throughout the world, contributing to the French New Wave as well as the work of such giants of cinema as Satyajit Ray and André Bazin. During the years of Italian Neorealism, films were often shot outside of studios with minimal budgets. (De Sicas budget for The Bicycle Thief was $133,000). Such films contrasted sharply with Hollywood films with respect to glossiness, the themes tackled, and casting.
Hollywood was using the star system but in Europe, the emphasis was on fresh faces from the public playing parts similar to each persons real life situation. None of the three leads in The Bicycle Thief were professionals. Maggiorani worked in a steel mill. The acting jobs by both Maggiorani and Staiola were nevertheless highly effective understated and completely natural.
The script for The Bicycle Thief was written by Cesare Zavattini, a film writer who worked with many great directors during the 1940s through the 1960s. He was a member of the Italian communist party. Even so, this film was not especially applauded by Italian leftists; its social commentary lacked sufficient critical bite aimed at the class structure to satisfy their designs. Ricci is not so much a hero as a real man, with strengths and weaknesses. It is fine that Ricci is a man who wants to provide for his family and is beaten down by lack of opportunity, but the villains are not made especially visible. It might qualify as realism carried a step too far, but Zavattini and De Sica actually visited a brothel and a fortune teller while preparing for the filming of The Bicycle Thief. How much they partook of the services at each locale Im unable to say.
The cinematography in this film is quite stunning and sublimely poetic, especially the photography of the city of Rome. The Rome depicted by De Sica is a confusing labyrinth and a demon with a voracious appetite that seems to swallow up Riccis bicycle whole. The musical score by Alessandro Cicognini is suitably moving.
Bottom-Line: The Bicycle Thief is one of the greatest films of Italian Neorealism, possibly the greatest. It is original and poignant. Its pathos touches the heart of most every viewer. It is filmed in black-and-white, in Italian with English subtitles, and has a running time of 89 minutes. It currently ranks as the 115th most popular film on the Internet Database popularity poll, which makes it 15th most popular among non-English language films.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Italy:
Christ Stopped at Eboli
Death in Venice
Divorce Italian Style
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
General della Rovere
The Last Emperor
Life is Beautiful
Miracle in Milan
The Night of the Shooting Stars
Nights of Cabiria
Rocco and His Brothers
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
The Sons Room
The Spider's Stratagem
The Tree of Wooden Clogs
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Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older