Bicycle Thieves (1948)

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Another month, another fine film discovery thanks to my list of 12 Classics for 2016. My selection this time was Vittorio De Sica’s classic about a man and his bike. In postwar Rome, Tony Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) must have a bicycle to secure a job as a poster-hanger; it’s the opportunity that might finally lift his family out of poverty. He and his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) sell their bed linens to get his bike out of the pawn shop, but it gets stolen during his first day at work. The rest of the film follows Tony and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) as they search the city’s markets and follow scant clues until, by chance, they track down the thief. However, with no bike, witnesses or evidence, Tony faces unemployment and a devastating setback in morale. Out of desperation, he resorts to stealing a bike for himself, and gets caught but is lucky to avoid criminal charges.

For a non-actor, Maggiorani does wonderful work enacting his roller-coaster emotions through the story: joy and pride at his chance to provide for the family he loves, anger at being a victim of cruel fate and at himself for letting the theft happen, foolish and admirable determination to find a needle in the impossibly huge haystack of Rome, terror at thinking he’s lost his son in the river after an angry outburst causes a temporary rift between them, and his incredible numbing shame at attempting theft and disappointing the boy who idolizes him. At first he finds his wife’s visit to the local “seer” a waste of time and money; he ends up cutting in line to ask her help and finds the thief soon after.

It’s an extraordinarily authentic, engrossing and moving story, that, like most “simple” classics, offers a wealth of imagery and meaning. I was especially struck by the way it conveys overwhelming tension, futility, pain and desperation, and the constant presence of danger and unfairness (often feeling like a suspense film), while also including beautiful moments of warmth, hope and understanding. Around every corner there seems to be some sort of crook, opportunist, predator, or mob, many created by this cycle of need, and little recourse or care for their victims. Weary, hungry, hopeless and thankful for his son after being reminded that things could indeed be much worse, Tony finds something positive, even if it’s the ultimate clarifying reality: we’ll all be dead someday so what’s the point of worrying? A splurge of nearly all his pocket money for a restaurant meal and wine becomes a bonding, educational and comforting moment between father and son, an experience more memorable and valuable than the extravagant meal being served to the stuffy pinky-up snobs at the next table. When circumstances and society make justice and success seem unattainable, and pressures threaten to rob people of their sanity and dignity, some small measure of happiness can always be found, and the hope is that Tony’s survival of his close call, along with his incredible endurance, and the love of a son who has witnessed harsh realities about his father and the world, will get them past humiliation and through hardship.

Click here to see many more discoveries in this Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan McNeil of The Matinee.

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7 thoughts on “Bicycle Thieves (1948)”

  1. One of my favorite films (it was my standard answer to “what’s your favorite film?” during my 30s). The ending is unimaginably painful, yet beautiful at the same time. I’ll never get used to the fact that it isn’t called “The Bicycle Thief” in English anymore – though the current translation is more correct.

    1. Yes, painful and beautiful at the same time, which is a very difficult thing to balance this well. I’d always heard about it so I’m glad I finally watched, and looking forward to going further into Italian films, have a few Rossellini and others here. Thanks!

    1. Great reason to make a list like this, fills in those gaps and in my case had been a really enjoyable project! Discovering a lot of movies and styles I like.

  2. Perhaps my favorite foreign film of all time…love the shots of post-war Rome, and yeah, that ending had about a million emotions going on at once. Haven’t watched my new Criterion disc yet, but now, I’ll make it soon.

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