Directed by: Vittorio De Sica
Written by: Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Gherardo Gherardi, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci
Starring: Enzo Staiola, Lamberto Maggiorani, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda
What may be a toy for some becomes a way of life for others depending on one’s rung on the socio-economic ladder. Growing up, I had a bike I would ride around the neighborhood for fun but never paid much thought to the transportation resource it could provide to someone else. In Bicycle Thieves it shows the struggle of one man and how something that seems commonplace makes a difference in the survival of his family.
Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) struggles to make money for his wife and two kids but receives a job where he’d put up advertisements. The only kicker comes from a bicycle being necessary for the completion of the job. After having his stolen, Antonio and his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola) search for the thief who threatens their livelihood.
The premise and story of Bicycle Thieves is fairly simple, much like many of Vittorio De Sica’s films, but what makes his works masterpieces come from the emotional fortitude he uses to lace them together. He does so again with this film and shows the power of parenthood and the pride that exists within it. Taking place after World War II in Italy, many struggled with the economic issues arising from the war. Desperate times call for desperate measures and poverty happens to be on the rise. Antonio finds himself failing at the main purpose of his role, providing for his family. It makes something like having your bike stolen be all the more devastating.
I can only imagine watching this film again when I become a father, but it touches on the universality of providing for one’s family and how desperate one can get. In the search for this bike, Antonio begins to lose his composure and well-being because he’s running out of time to keep the job requiring a bike. He attempts to use the proper authorities to report the crime, but the police offer no real support. The man cannot catch a break, especially when he lost the bicycle when doing his job after leaving his mode of transportation unattended. It pushes him to his breaking point, which the title refers to.
Ultimately, the story surrounds the idea of shame, whether it be from the failure to provide by Antonio or the actions he resorts to in order to retain the job. His decisions come from a man who needed to pawn his wife’s dowry sheets, which were very valuable, just to retrieve a tool stolen only a few days later. Additionally, these shameful activities occur for Antonio all in the presence of his son. The connection held by Antonio and Bruno defines the story, as the father serves as a guide and a teacher to their children. Bruno learns from the intentional and unintentional actions of his father, whether Antonio wishes him to do so or not. It’s part of the developmental process in both of their lives and grasping the responsibility of it pushes Antonio to the limits. It appears to be something inherent to men and just how prideful they can be when it comes to finance and providing. His wife and her family certainly did not anticipate she would be living and raising her children in poverty, which becomes her reality living with Antonio.
The backdrop for the father and son story happens to be an Italy after World War II. After suffering defeat, most nations who happen to be on the losing side of a war face financial strife, and the impact lands on its citizens. It makes all of the men of that time journeymen workers, who wish to take anything that could provide them with a living wage. I doubt hanging up advertisements would be Antonio’s ideal career choice. This predicament shows a country in disarray and informs the desperate and violent nature of everything occurring in the story. Something like a bike holds incredible value because it represents more than a recreational tool, it helps gain employment, therefore ensuring food on the table and clothes on the back of children.
Visually, the film looks stunning and accentuates the feelings held by all of the characters. A particular scene shows the downpouring of rain landing on both Antonio and Bruno as they look around and see nothing but bicycles being ridden around them. It resembles almost a cruel joke by God, who almost mocks Antonio’s inability to hold onto the basic tools needed to provide for his wife and children. Scenes at the church and a restaurant show the characters saying so much through their silence, as they enjoy the small moments and beg for better.
It almost makes me mad just how perfect this film is with its simplicity yet harboring a power so fierce it makes you go through a range of emotions. For a story centered on poverty, there happen to be several moments of joy in the film, like when Antonio initially gets the bike and believes things will change soon for the family, or the heartwarming moment where the father and son share a meal together. Sure, others have more than them but they enjoy what they have in front of them, which truly symbolizes all that should be considered important. Something Antonio loses sight of and therefore leads to his shame.
Bicycle Thieves has been considered an essential film, and I sincerely agree with that sentiment. In its mercifully short runtime, it tells a story so efficiently and emotionally potent that it leaves you wanting more. The love and despair on display can be seen through the heartwarming performances of the two leads, as it ultimately tells the story of the lengths one man would go to ensure his family can survive in an unforgiving world. Life will not always go your way, but one’s ethics define them above all. Antonio’s actions define him and he sees it through the eyes of his son. The son who witnesses everything his father does and just sits next to him. Truly a majestic masterpiece of storytelling and filmmaking in a way that left me in awe at its conclusion.