The enduring power of Vittorio De Sica’s heartbreaking Italian neorealist classic “Bicycle Thieves” (originally released in the US as “The Bicycle Thief”) lies in the arresting simplicity and ruthless symmetry of its simple story. This is not a hallmark of Italian neorealist cinema generally. A plot summary reducing the events of “Rome, Open City” or “The Earth Trembles” to two or three sentences would hardly be worth reading for its own sake; what gives those stories their power is not the bare events, but the telling. But relate the plot of “Bicycle Thieves” in a few sentences, and a person who had never seen the film might be forever haunted by it.
“Bicycle Thieves” thus has the power of a great parable or fable. In that sense, it is more poetic and less quasi-documentarian than other works of the neorealist movement; it is also, in part for the same reason, among the most accessible and universal neorealist films, as well as the best-known and most influential. Yet there is far more to “Bicycle Thieves” than its parable-like plot suggests.
The story opens at a government employment office where Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) waits with dozens of other men for job openings. Tellingly, when his name is called, Antonio isn’t waiting attentively with the other men; he is absently idling some distance away, and must be called by the others. Is he apathetic, or just hopeless? The hungry look on his face when he hears the news tells the tale: Antonio cares deeply, but he’s a man already nearly beaten by life.
Indeed, he accepts the job fatalistically convinced that he can’t take it. “Do I have rotten luck or what?” he laments to his wife Maria (Lianella Carell). The problem: The job requires a bicycle, and Antonio has recently pawned his to buy food. It is Maria who sees what must be done: She pawns all their bedsheets (some never used) to redeem the bicycle.
Consider all the film establishes in these brief opening scenes. First, Antonio and Maria are already at the limits of their resources, forced to choose between one necessity and another: transportation or food; basics of shelter (bedding) or employability (the bicycle). In other words, there can be no question of scraping together to replace the bicycle when the disaster foretold by the film’s title befalls Antonio.
Second, a great many people are in similar straits. There are any number of men outside that employment office ready to do the job if Antonio can’t — and racks of bikes at the pawn shop just like Antonio’s. As for Maria’s bundled bedsheets, a much-noted shot shows a pawn shop clerk matter-of-factly scaling a wide, deep tower of shelves 30 feet high, heaped with similar bundles, to stow Maria’s bundle somewhere near the top.
Third, Antonio is a sympathetic but flawed, passive protagonist — not noble or heroic, as the protagonist of a propaganda film would be. Teasing viewers with the title, De Sica threatens the theft of the bike long before it actually happens, in the process highlighting Antonio’s carelessness with his all-important vehicle.
The morning after the bicycle is redeemed offers the film’s lone glimpse of real happiness and hope. In the Riccis’ tenement apartment, Antonio and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), who works at a service station, prepare for the day. Maria has made them egg sandwiches for the road, and has taken in Antonio’s uniform cap to fit better. Antonio friskily manhandles Maria, who fights him off but smiles all the same. The baby lies in bed, awake but quiet. If there is any good in Antonio’s world, it’s here; this is what is at stake for him.
Antonio begins work as a bill poster, plastering Roman billboards with the sultry image of Rita Hayworth in “Gilda.” Many commentators have noted the pointed contrast between this glamorous icon of Hollywood fantasy and the down-to-earth, quotidian social concerns and style of neorealism, with its nonprofessional actors, location shooting, and emphasis on hard realities.
The most obvious hard reality of “Bicycle Thieves” is simply that, in the words of the great Catholic film theorist André Bazin, “in the world in which this workman lives, the poor must steal from each other in order to survive.” This isn’t a case of the legitimate use of another’s property out of sufficient need. The targets are no better off than the thieves — though the reverse is also the case, as the film later reveals. The actions of the thief who steals Antonio’s bicycle aren’t justified, any more than the terrible act at the film’s climax, but they’re understandable.
“Bicycle Thieves” certainly has an economic message: a critique of social inequality, alienation, and lack of opportunity. Yet it never reduces Antonio to a purely economic man, a workman and no more (as both Marxist and capitalist theorists of a certain type might do, and as some commentators on the film do). Ironically, it is Antonio himself who does this; the bicycle and the job crowd every other consideration from his mind. There are other kinds of poverty besides purely monetary poverty. Antonio suffers for want of social and moral capital as well as economic capital.
In part, this may reflect problems in Antonio’s society as much as in himself. Many see in the film a critique of the police, the trade unions, and the Church, none of which effectively help Antonio in his crisis. At the same time, the mendicants’ church, where Antonio disrupts the Mass in his dogged pursuit of a potential lead, is already doing all it can for people worse off than Antonio. The police, too, do what little they can, supporting Bruno’s futile quest both times they’re summoned. (The last policeman also ensures Antonio and Bruno’s physical safety in a potentially ugly situation.)
What any purely economic discussion omits is the crucial role of young Bruno. In a sense, it’s easy to omit Bruno; as Bazin notes, the plot as such would be essentially the same without him. For the most part, all the boy does is trot about the labyrinthine Roman streets following his father on a hopeless quest for the stolen bike.
Still, Bruno is as actively concerned as Antonio, perhaps more so: He’s as familiar as his father with all the specifics of the bike, even noticing a tiny dent in the frame which he insists wasn’t there before it was pawned. “I’d have said something,” the boy grumbles, at once protective of his father’s honor and chagrined at his passiveness.
Again and again on that long day roaming the city, Antonio outpaces his son, at times charging ahead, not noticing if the boy slips and falls or even drops out of sight. Alas, Antonio treats his son not unlike he treated the bicycle: carelessly. De Sica even hints that the bike’s fate could befall the boy. Searching the market for the bike, Antonio and a number of friends ineffectively split up, leaving Bruno alone. As the boy scours tables of cycling paraphernalia, he resolutely ignores a squirrelly-looking man badgering him, offering to buy him a shiny new bell. (In that potentially ugly situation mentioned above, likewise, Bruno shows more responsibility and concern for his father than vice versa.)
Only once does concern for the boy briefly crowd the all-important bike from Antonio’s mind. Near the Tiber he hears a distant clamor about a drowning boy. As it slowly dawns on him that this could be his son, he starts walking, then running, to the scene. Antonio’s concern may be compounded by guilt: Not long before he slapped Bruno for no good reason, and the boy, shocked and tearful, had been keeping his distance: the only time when the son, not the father, is responsible for the distance between them.
Reunited with his son, Antonio impetuously decides, in a celebrated sequence, to treat the boy to lunch: “Let’s forget everything and get drunk!” This is Antonio at his most paternal, at least after the bike is stolen. Looking for a pizzeria, they wander into a fine restaurant, and for a few minutes they enjoy a happy respite over mozzarella sandwiches and a liter of vino.
But the privileged moment is too short-lived. They are out of their element; Antonio notices Bruno’s eyes irresistibly drawn to the heaping plate of the languid, well-dressed boy at the next table. “To eat like them, you’d have to earn a million lira a month,” Antonio admonishes, lapsing into morbidly reckoning all the lost income from the bill-poster job. When they leave the restaurant, Bruno is on his own again. Late in the day, trailing behind his father, the boy narrowly avoids being hit by a pair of cars.
Antonio’s greatest poverty is lack of hope. “I curse the day I was born!” he cries at the outset, job offer in hand, before Maria gets the bike out of hock. In the restaurant scene, in a comparatively upbeat mood, he muses, “Why kill myself worrying when I’ll end up just as dead anyway?”
Hopelessness leads to Antonio’s crowning failure. In despair at having found the thief but not the bike, Antonio decides to do unto others as they have done to him. Though he tries to shunt Bruno aside, the son knows the father better than the father the son; and the boy, incredulous and stunned, does the only thing he can: He stands by his father despite his manifest shortcomings. This is the first act of mercy that Antonio has received — and it leads to the second. Despite his paternal failure, the family remains the last bastion of hope and humanity, both for Antonio and for his broken world.