Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette) is one of those movies that I think more people have heard about than have necessarily seen it. More commonly known as The Bicycle Thief (the title of this Criterion edition is the accurate translation of the original), this 1948 Italian film is the most well-known entry in the Neorealist movement. De Sica and the other post-War directors in Italy were striving for a cinema that mattered, that used the common language of real life to say something about contemporary experience. Shot on the streets of Rome, it's not flashy or overly histrionic. Rather, its economy of style makes way for a complex morality play that illustrates what can happen to a man when he's pushed against the wall for too long.
I think I first caught Bicycle Thieves on PBS sometime in the early 1990s. The Player had already come out, and I knew it was the film that brings the Tim Robbins character's own moral quandary into stark relief. Its placement in that story was also a reminder to the hollow film executive that movies had a social power beyond the commercial trash his studio was prone to greenlight. The authentic feel of De Sica's vision plays in sharp contrast to Robert Altman's slick Hollywood thriller even as it indicts the same.
The story is simplicity itself. Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani), a struggling family man, finally gets a job after a long dry spell. The only catch is he needs his bicycle in order to perform his duties, and in an O. Henry-style twist, he pawned the bike to feed his family. Thanks to some quick thinking and self-sacrifice on the part of his wife (Lianelle Carell), he is able to get the bike out of hock and report for duty. Only, in yet another cruel machination of fate, the bike is stolen from him while he works.
Having the next day off, Antonio goes out into Rome to look for the stolen property himself. He takes his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) with him, because the young boy knows the bicycle like the back of his hand. As they search through the black market and pursue suspects into churches and bordellos, Bruno serves as a kind of Jiminy Cricket figure. His perplexed questioning of his father's actions spurs Antonio on through aggravation while also reminding him why it's so important that he keep his job. Finally, when it seems like there will be no justice for his family, Antonio must answer the age-old philosophical question: is it okay to steal a piece of bread when your family is starving?
Lamberto Maggiorani plays Antonio as a quiet, stoic man. There are many instances in Bicycle Thieves where you start to think he doesn't have the fortitude to see the given task through. When it comes to confronting other people, he really has to screw up his courage in order to not back down. De Sica uses the city as almost another character. Its wide open spaces feel desolate, and alternating images of poverty and opulence weigh on Antonio, never letting him forget the conundrum he is caught up in.
The climax of Bicycle Thieves is fraught with nervous tension and heartbreak. Once again, it's Bruno who is going to serve as the final commentator on the scene, his agony of seeing his father break being more painful than the break itself. Enzo Staiola is really quite good. For a first-time child actor, he seems just as comfortable with the emotional elements as he is joking around with his dad. Sometimes, you think the kid has more guts than the adult, but then Antonio gives him just the right look that says, "You really don't understand how the world works." By the end of the day, Bruno will understand, and Antonio's feelings of failure hurt all the more due to the realization that he can't protect his son from the onslaught of reality any more than he can the pangs of hunger. De Sica must have had some kind of magic touch to cultivate the chemistry of a father/son bond between the two; then again, he's got a knack for capturing the emotions that pass from person to person, because the chemistry between Antonio and his wife also comes across as effectively sincere.
Really, that's the true trick of Neorealism. Vittorio De Sica wasn't just trying to capture the reality of his surroundings, he was also drawing real human emotions out of his actors. It appears that the best route was just giving them a true-to-life scenario that doesn't flinch from the tough questions and letting the performers do their thing. It's the punch-to-the-gut of honest feelings that makes Bicycle Thieves so emotionally harrowing. The power of its conclusion hasn't dimmed at all in nearly sixty years, and the film is likely still going to be relevant in sixty more.
Originally written February 17, 2007. For technical specs and special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.