CLASSICS: Bicycle Thieves (1948)
written by: Cesare Zavattini
produced by: Giuseppe Amato and Vittorio De Sica
directed by: Vittorio De Sica
runtime: 93 min.
release date: November 24, 1948 (Italy) and December 13, 1948 (U.S.)
As I watched “Bicycle Thieves”, I couldn’t help but think of all the old photos I’ve seen of the Italian side of my family since my childhood. Most of the pictures were of ancestors I hardly knew around the time of the Great Depression when they migrated from “the old country” as they began a new life in Chicago. But what of life in Italy, before America? Growing up, I’d heard stories over the years, but it wasn’t until I’d finally gotten around to viewing Vittorio De Sica’s landmark film from 1948, that I was reminded what life might’ve been like in Italy back then. “The Bicycle Thieves” is populated by people who looked just as they did in those old photos – nicely dressed yet poor, rarely smiling yet content – that’s because the film simply holds a mirror up to a certain place in time and captures life as it was, resulting in a timeless story for any period.
Primarily known as a masterpiece of Italian neorealism (not just an inspiration for Tim Burton’s 1985 cult classic “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”) – which is to say it’s a film that embodies a genre known for the use of non-professional actors, real-life locations instead of studio lots and a documentary footage feel, that tells simple stories about the harshness of everyday life. (Although the simple story told here packs an emotional wallop). For Italians watching “Bicycle Thieves” and the other neorealism films made by De Sica’s peers, this was the first time they saw their own lives on the big-screen. It wasn’t escapism. It was their lives.
The most relatable aspect of “Bicycle Thieves” (and neorealism in general) is the film’s story. Screenwriter Cesare Zavattini adapted Luigi Bartolini’s novel of the same name, which tells the story of a poor and decent father, Antonio Ricci (former factory worker, first-time actor, Lamberto Maggiorani) who struggles to find a job and when he does his bicycle is stolen on his first day pasting posters throughout Rome. He needs that bicycle to get around and if he doesn’t have it, he can’t support his family. Desperation increases as Antonio and his 9-year-old son, Bruno (the adorable and precocious Enzo Staiola) scour the city streets for the thief and as their likelihood of finding the bicycle becomes more and more grim, the delirious father is tempted to compromise his own moral behavior, which would make him no worse than the thief he pursues (hence the title).
The audience immediately feels for Antonio – we’re happy that he finally lands a job surrounded by his equally desperate peers, but then there’s the fact that he pawned his bicycle off in order to make ends meet. Knowing he has to get it back, his wife Maria (Lianella Carell), quickly rolls up their bed sheets for Antonio brings them to the pawn shop in order to get his bicycle back. With this job, Antonio and Maria feel that better days lie ahead. Sadly, reality steps in and sideswipes their hopes.
That’s life though, right? Which is exactly what De Sica set out to portray and why so many viewers have translated so much meaning from the story. The performances and the circumstances the characters find themselves in are so powerful and vivid that it would be easy to follow along if we were watching a silent movie.
“Bicycle Thieves” initially comes across like a traditional fable, but what impacts viewers the most is the emotional impact of the film. Is there any other basic desire than to be able to provide for your family? It’s probably one of the most relatable drives that an audience can connect with. I know that as a father, I can definitely relate to the pressure, the panic and the desperation we see in Maggiorani’s Antonio. This can be seen (and felt) the more time we spend with the father and son as they search for the bicycle. The more Bruno tries to help his father in their search, the more distracted and short-tempered Antonio becomes. I get that – you’re focused on one thing and even though your child wants to help, you crack and lose your temper – parents have bad days, just as their kids do. Antonio is having a bad day. Looking at it through that lens, I was reminded of the unfortunate places we go when our emotions and anxiety is unchecked. It’s inevitable. Sadly, children are going to see all aspects of their parents as we see when Staiola’s Bruno gets scolded on their journey. What makes our hearts melt though is that no matter how bad we screw up, our children are always there, willing to see us make up for it.
Considering that father/son dynamic, it’s quite amazing to think that both Maggiorani and Staiola had no prior acting experience. They bring with them their own real-world experience and such naturalness is obvious on-screen. Nothing about their expressions, body language or line delivery feels rehearsed or choreographed – it all just feels like De Sica has gathered them together, provides them with situations and placed himself near them simply to capture and observe. De Sica captures Rome in the same way – no fancy lens work or angles, just natural light in stark black-and-white.
Like “Man with a Movie Camera,” much of “Bicycle Thieves” has a quality to it that almost feels like memories are being downloaded and transported to film. The cinematographer, Carlo Montuori, captures the environments as unassuming and authentic as he does Antonio and Bruno. Through De Sica’s direction, it’s easily to comprehend how cheap life was in the poor neighborhoods where both Antonio and his family lived and the neighborhood where the thief might be hiding. The extras in the film feel like actual bystanders (and no doubt were), react with genuine surprise and annoyance that they are being filmed – again, much like real life (only nowadays everybody has a camera/phone). It adds up to simple yet incredibly powerful visuals, which are quite unforgettable.
In many instances throughout the film, it felt like the Rome that De Sica shows us was similar to the same Italy my great-uncle would describe as we sat near his garden drinking lemonade. I would imagine that for many Italian Americans ,”Bicycle Thieves” serves as a window into their past, maybe not their own personal memories, but the glimpse into the lives of their ancestors. Yes, life was that hard, but they could be happy too. When you first see the ending of “Bicycle Thieves”, you may feel it ends on a depressing note, but when you think of it in context of the entire picture you watched unfold prior to those final moments, you’ll understand that the conclusion is more life affirming than you initially thought.
“Bicycle Thieves” has been widely considered a masterpiece for decades. It received an Honorary Oscar back in 1950 (only four years after its release) and for a long time was the considered the greatest film of all time by Sight & Sound magazine. It is the epitome of Italian neorealism and a great gateway to the genre.