The Bicycle Thieves (1948), originally released in the United States as The Bicycle Thief, is a neorealist Italian drama film, directed by Vittorio De Sica, which has the power of a great parable, more than a drama. Its enduring power lies in the arresting simplicity of its story for which it is regarded as one of the foundation stones of Italian neorealism and one of the greatest films of all time, even awarded an honorary Oscar in 1949.
Based on the struggle for the existence of the common people in Rome, right after the Great War, when Italy was paralysed by poverty, The Bicycle Thieves is considered one of such films, which is not only the instrument, but also a means or medium for the viewer to attain eternal salvation. The thought-provoking and at times nakedly brutal screenplay of the film, termed as a lyrical masterpiece by American playwright Arthur Miller, was adapted from the novel of Luigi Bartolini, by Caesar Zavattini. Zavattini mentioned in his accounts that he even visited a brothel, along with Di Sica, for research to get close to the ground reality for the material of the film.
The neorealist films are the fruits of a naturalistic movement in Italian cinema during the 1940s, in which amateur cast was promoted, along with professionally trained technicians and filming in locations, instead of walled studios with sets. Keeping up with the spirit of the movement, Vittorio De Sica selected a factory worker,Lumberto Maggiorani, for the male lead, the lead actress was a journalist who had approached him for an interview, while the young boy was spotted in the crowd watching the filming.
The film contains a simple story, depicting a struggling poor worker searching the streets of Rome for his stolen bicycle, which he needs to keep his job intact, but reflects contrasting human feelings of hope & despair, love and melancholy, malice and sacrifice.
The Bicycle Thieves depicts the struggle, agony and inner conflict of Antonio Ricci, residing in the neighbourhood of post-World War II Rome and desperate for a job to support his small family. The film opens at a government employment office where Antonio Ricci, a man with a hungry look on his face and seemed already beaten in life, visits in anticipation of a job. Somewhat to his surprise, he was offered a job of putting up posters, which he probably cannot accept, as it requires having a bicycle and he has recently pawned his cycle to buy food.
However, his wife Maria solved the problem, as she immediately stripped the sheets from their bed, washed them and took them, along with the unused sheets, to pawn all to redeem his bicycle.
Despite their poverty, the tenement apartment of Antonio Ricci observed a rare glimpse of happiness and hope in the next morning after the bicycle is redeemed. While Bruno, the young son of Ricci and Maria, cleans the bicycle, alleging about a new scratch on it acquired from the pawnshop, Antonio prepares himself for the day and Maria prepares their breakfast. Before leaving for the day, the husband-wife starts a mock-fight, after which Antonio plants a kiss on her neck, while the newborn baby kept looking at the open window from the bed, awake but quiet. After dropping Bruno at the service station where he works, Ricci starts plastering cinema advertisements on the walls, exhibiting a large portrait of Rita Hayworth, indicating an ironic contrast between the glamorous world of Hollywood and the drudgery of the everyday lives of the commoners.
Unfortunately, disaster struck on the same day, when his bicycle was stolen by a young man on the first working day, while Antonio Ricci was atop his ladder, engrossed in his work. Although Antonio gave a frantic chase, he lost the trail. He reported the matter to the police, but they could not give him any assurance, advised to search for the bike himself and also informed him that stolen goods often surface in the Piazza Vittorio market. Antonio was dumbfounded, as he did not know where to search, whether he is to search all over Rome and if he is to search, what is the point of even filling out a complaint.
Nevertheless, before returning home, he contacted his friend Baiocco, while he was rehearsing for an amateur stage play. He assured Antonio to accompany him with his men to look for the bike at Piazza Vittorio and the following morning, they all visited the market, along with Bruno. As they found thousands of bikes and lots of outlets for its different parts, they decided to split up and meticulously scan different items, which unfortunately yielded no fruitless results. After the end of their venture, Baiocco advised Antonio to continue the search in another market, Porta Portese, where they are unable to accompany him as they were engaged elsewhere. At Porta Portese Antonio and Bruno accidentally spot the thief with an old man and although the thief eluded them, the old man was caught, who feigned ignorance. However, tracking the old man the father and son entered into a church, where the old man eventually succumbed to Antonio’s persistence, told him the address and apartment number of the man, but refused to escort them and ultimately managed to slip away.
By that time, it was already late afternoon and Antonio was feeling frustrated as the hope of retrieving the bike seemed to be fading away. Keeping aside the thought of the bike, at least for the time being, he entered a restaurant to entertain his tired son. The restaurant was filled with bourgeois families, which harshly reminded the father and son about their lower socioeconomic status. Somehow, it also helped Antonio to think rationally again and he realised that he must find his bike to provide for his family. As luck would have it, as they came out of the restaurant, Antonio suddenly stumbled upon the young thief. Chasing him desperately, he entered a brothel and dragged him out on the street. While the young man continuously denied Antonio’s accusations, a hostile gathering crowd retaliated by saying that he cannot accuse a person without any concrete evidence. In the meantime, faced with the fervent attempt by Antonio to get a confession, the young man abruptly fell on the road and began to have a seizure. The pathetic condition of the young man further irritated the crowd, who started to blame Antonio for the sudden seizure of the young man. In between the commotion, Bruno fetched a police officer, who privately told Antonio that his effort was useless, as without any eye witness of the alleged crime, he cannot prove his point. Moreover, the gathering crowd comprising the locals would testify for the young man.
Antonio had to leave the area with his son in despair, while the Sneering crowd kept shouting at him. They sat on a curb, surrounded by thousands of bicycles, outside of a packed football stadium, when Antonio suddenly saw an unattended bicycle at some distance. He conceived an idea, but had inner conflicts to materialise it, paced back and forth to pacify himself before taking a decision and finally, gave Bruno some money to take a streetcar home. As Bruno left, he approached the unguarded bicycle and jumped on it, followed by the immediate outcry over his attempted theft. Bruno, who missed the streetcar, helplessly watched from a distance his father forced off the bike by a group of men and hackled mercilessly. While the hostile public began to drag Antonio towards the police station, the child ran into the melee weeping, calling his papa. Noticing the weeping child, the owner of the bicycle became compassionate and released the offender from the mob. The father and son walked out from the crowd, while Bruno was grasping the hand of his father,Antonio was trying to keep back tears and his heart filled with shame.
Considered part of the canon of classic cinema and one of the foundation stones of Italian neorealism, The Bicycle Thieves is a simple but powerful film about a man who needs a job and is routinely voted one of the greatest films of all time.