Bicycle Thieves (1948)

In defining the Italian neorealist era, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (also known as The Bicycle Thief) is one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. It stands as a work of profound emotion, highlighting human frailty, the importance of objects and the circle of morality by telling a beautifully simple and elegant story set in the bustling streets of Rome.

This movie is truly a work of art, a real and concise piece of passionate filmmaking by De Sica. In a time where most motion pictures functioned as paths to escapism, especially in Hollywood, De Sica’s realistic look at the Italian streets and at the poor stood in stark contrast to the glitz and glamour produced in major studios. His Bicycle Thieves is a lean film, utilizing the suffocating poverty of Italy in its post-war era as a defining factor.

Lamberto Maggiorani stars as Antonio Ricci, a poor father and husband looking for work. He is given a job, but the conditions require that he has a bicycle. Together with his wife (Lianella Carell), Antonio sells some bedsheets and procures a bicycle to do the job. He is elated, as you might imagine, and becomes overjoyed at the prospects of earning money to help lift his family out of abject poverty.

One day, while working at his job of posting Rita Hayworth posters in Rome, Ricci has his bicycle stolen. He becomes frantic in the search, going to the police and using the help of friends to find the stolen property. With his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), he traipses through Rome in all conditions to track and hopefully recover his bicycle.

Watching Maggiorani, who was a factory worker and not a trained actor of any kind, put life into Ricci is an astounding experience. The way he struggles, with himself and with the situation, to come up with a way to understand what has happened to him and to come up with a way to go on with his life is simply amazing. The bicycle is no mere object to Ricci. It represents his livelihood, his pride and his ability to pull his life out of the gutter to offer hope for his family.

With this in mind, watching Ricci’s desperate search through Rome takes on weight and urgency. As he pushes people aside to gather possible clues or to find people who may know where the thief is, we’re with him every hurried step of the way. We’re with him when he considers theft himself, too, and we see the distance growing between Ricci and Bruno as the man becomes more desperate and more upset.

Bicycle Thieves is a wonderful motion picture in that it taps the realism of the streets and of human despair in ways that few other pictures ever have. Placing this film in the context of post-war Italy, a country burning with poverty and anguish, creates a deafening sense of trouble and sorrow for its characters. The raw emotion is inborn for this picture, as though the massive importance of the bicycle and what it means to Ricci simply never needs to be explained.

From the relationship between Ricci and Bruno to the way Ricci elects to solve his problem, Bicycle Thieves is a movie filled with human frailty. It offers us a profound understanding of that frailty, treating it with respect and honour and dignity. The poor are not mere objects to shuffle aside, the thief is not a villain anymore when the story comes full circle and the lengths to which despair can take us are realistically and intensely explored on multiple levels. Indeed, Ricci’s search through Rome mirrors our lives and our searches for individuality, meaning and respect.


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