Arguably the finest example of the Italian neo-realist cinema movement during the mid-1940s, Bicycle Thieves is a fascinating and moving examination of faith, desperation, love, and society, all under the guise of a film about a man searching for his bicycle. It also re-wrote the textbook on the notion of story, emphasizing narrative feeling over plot event and exploring character and emotion in the mundane rendered dramatic through filmmaking prowess. It’s a remarkably simplistic, primal, elemental basic premise; essentially, the movie unfolds as a man and his son look for a bike that was stolen from them. It sounds like relatively light viewing initially, but Bicycle Thieves is among the most powerful explorations of the human experience essayed on film. Its seemingly simplistic nature gives way to a powerful statement about post-war Italy and the heartbreaking portrayal of what desperation and fear can do to a person; it is both uniquely, and earthily of its own time and location and a broadly human experience applicable to any situation. It also reminds, above all, that the things we think of as quite little are in fact very big. It emerges as a film of great desperation and fear, but also one of the cinema’s most profoundly humanist and even uplifting statements, all captured under Vittorio De Sica’s plaintive, mournfully poetic camera.
The film’s protagonist is Antonio Ricci, played by Lamberto Maggiorani, a downtrodden father with a wife and two children who has just received a glimmer of hope in the form of a job hanging posters throughout the city streets. Desperately needing the money, he accepts and is able to purchase a bike with what little his family has. Soon afterward however, a young male steals the bike, and, although the crime means the world to Antonio, who fears that his family will surely starve without the money he would be receiving as payment for his new job, no one else seems to care much. This leaves Antonio and his son to scour the city in an attempt to find the bike themselves.
Watching Antonio and his child search the city almost aimlessly for his bike with virtually no concern from anyone else and essentially no lead whatsoever is a consistently melancholy experience. The film doesn’t sugarcoat anything. It’s Sisyphean, any seeming chance quickly washed away by the society around Antonio that sometimes seems out to get him. it captures, in images of people seemingly conspiring against Antonio, at once a reality of poverty where people must group together to survive however they can, even at the expense of others, and something behind and beyond reality – the pure paranoia of a man would feel looking for his only chance at survival and seeing no avail.
However, despite this melancholy, the film maintains a sense of hope, even if this itself manages to enhance the existential melancholy. Antonio is simply unwilling to give up, and we come to see that its more to provide an image of hope to his son than because he truly believes in hope. In a scene where Antonio and his son share a meal in a restaurant with what is likely the last of their money, we see desperation but also tenderness and lightness at just how dogged he is. It’s not sentimental though. It’s more like the last strains of humanity becoming all the more precious at their end.
In fact, this is the only breather in the film, the only scene where Antonio isn’t chasing after the thief, but it’s still shot-through with bitterness and despair, for they will always be chasing that thief no matter what they are doing. This human parable, the sense that this is a timeless experience recognizable to all even as it is distinctly of the Italian post-war impoverished urban experience, is enhanced by the intentional decision to leave the thief an enigma. He isn’t a villain, nor a humanized empathetic figure, but a nameless, almost faceless fear, one more agent of a city and a life out to turn Antonio inside out. The thief’s individuality doesn’t matter, as he, like everyone in the city, has become de-individualized, de-humanized, and rendered a moot and faceless facet of the daily doldrums of city life. He could be anyone. Here, the film gives us, distilled into one seemingly simple quest, the human experience, and a profound examination of day-to-day lived experience and eternal human distance – not only can Antonio not find his bike, but he can never look its new owner in the eye.
Bicycle Thieves is a bleak account of society. It paints a picture in which individuals are forced to claim, even steal, bikes, commonly used for recreation these days, as a necessity for survival. By the end of the film, we have watched Antonio’s hope and faith essentially shot down and fully eliminated, given no quarter by a law force stuck between a rock and a hard place, trying to retain some social order even at the loss of a moral order. When one final last ditch attempt fails, it’s as soul crushing a moment as the cinema gives us. Not only has he failed to secure a bicycle, but Antonio has succumbed to the very action which took his bicycle away from him to begin with. Not only are his actions heartbreaking, but they implicitly humanize the person who stole his bike in the process, even though he is assumedly nowhere to be seen.
Only at the last second does the film posit another path for Antonio: his son restores hope by reaching out and walking proudly, defiantly with his father as well as the impoverished masses of Italy. For a film so much about desperation which forced people to fight for their own individual lives even at the expense of others, this final scene, with people artfully and even artificially – in defiantly non neo-realist fashion – assembled together, gives us one of the most profound statements of communalism and solidarity ever to grace the cinema. It’s made all the more forceful because the people aren’t engaging in formal action together. They just happen to be walking in the same direction, but De Sica’s camera transforms this togetherness into one of the most human actions of hope ever captured in cinema. It’s also important that they remain unknown as individuals – like the thief, they are everyday people meant to remain as such. They aren’t human because we come to know them but because of the oppressive visual emotionality of the scene as it is constructed. Our not knowing them actually makes the scene all the more timeless and omni-present – they could be any group of people, anywhere, if only we look for them.
And because De Sica’s camera groups them together even when they aren’t acting together, he captures a sense of human connection even in non-action, a human connection in simply existing together in the world and suffering from the same problems. They comfort father and son by their very presence and restore our faith in a humanity that is, after all, in it together on Earth. We have here a scene that defines “movie magic”, a strange term to use for a film often defined by its cold, sad realism. But in this final scene we get a moving image of such indescribable power as to rival that famous final shot of Chaplin’s City Lights. The old phrase “the light is darkest just before the dawn” has never been truer.
And like that scene, it reminds us, for all the “neo-realist” genre’s qualifications as “reality”, directors such as De Sica still understood that they were making films predicated on craft – if they capture people acting “realistically” and eschew artificial film narrative, they still use pure visual craft to construct scenes, not simply to observe them as they happen in the world. It is their filmic-ness, their visual nature, and their proudly visual craft, which defines their power – not simply that they happen to capture people living in poverty. Thus, “neo-realism” of plot isn’t mutually exclusive with filmmakers making films that are still artificial even when they feel more “real”. De Sica understands this and isn’t afraid to play around with visually manipulating individuality and community to enhance the “realism” of the film by producing a sort of visual “hyper-realism” that conveys the impression of reality, or the emotional truth behind the reality, rather than simply a reality. He isn’t content to simply just his camera sit there as people do what they will – he’s directing them after all. Thus, his film has as much of a dramatic visuality as any more openly stylized film.
At the end, there is no bicycle. Antonio hasn’t recovered it. But he has found hope and humanity in his never-ending journey to find a bicycle with his son, and in his son’s affirmation of that journey. It ceases to be a tangible object and more a hope and a dream. Even in the restaurant scene, the spectre of the bicycle remains, not only because it reflects on their desperation in any situation, but because the bicycle was always about their bonding and humanity to begin with. Indeed, we get the sense here that, though there is no physical bicycle in their presence, their bonding and hope has taken its place as, if you will, a bicycle-of-the-mind. And we get the sense that not only physical survival but all the little things that breathe life and essence into humanity are contained within that particular bicycle.