Bicycle Thieves (1948), Vittorio De Sica

An Italian neorealist masterpiece of immense stature and influence, Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Bicycle Thieves, a film with an apparently simple story, has so much to say about political, psychological and social issues, the human condition and the complexity of life.

bicycle-thieves-2What would you do to feed your family? Anything? To what extent would you hold on to your morals when threatened by hunger and humiliation? Would you commit a crime in order to survive? It is a blessing mankind have invented the TV, the comfortable armchair and DVD discs… Thus we pass judgement and moralise on other people’s choices, sure that we do not ever have to face hardships like they do. How can a film like Bicycle Thieves [Ladri di Biciclette] convey such a multitude of meanings, each of them so simple and yet so profound?

Just few years after the end of World War II, in Rome, unemployed Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggioranni) is desperate to find work. When he is offered a job to put up movie posters, there is the condition that he must have a bicycle. After pawning some linen to get his bike back from the hack, Antonio is ready to work. On the very first day on the job, as soon as he gets distracted his bicycle is stolen. Antonio spends the next two days looking for the thief with varying degrees of success. At the end, he tries to steal a bicycle himself but is immediately caught up and is given the rough treatment.

This poignant and influential masterpiece, with its apparently simple story and economical performances manages to imply complex feelings of desperations and helplessness through the most basic of appeals. The film deals with the two most important spheres in anyone’s life. It shows the relationship of man and his work, and man and his family – the two social measures of man. The first is essential for man’s honest existence and dignity; the second is key for his self-preservation and self-esteem. The movie may make us cry, but more pertinently it makes us think too!

.Bicycle Thieves and the Tools of Survival.

The feeling of hopelessness expressed by the main character is implied from the very first scene of the film. As the group of unemployed men gather at the bottom of the stairs, waiting to find out who will have a job, Antonio sits on the ground, away from the event. His desperation is such that he could not find any motivation to be waiting anxiously by the stairs with the other men. When eventually he recovers his bicycle and is ready to work, relief becomes palpable in his and his wife’s faces. In less than ten minutes from that all-pervading hopelessness to his first day on the job, joy reappears in Antonio’s life. That is more than a job; that is happiness on two wheels.

It is quite interesting – and rather funny too! – that in the US the film is called ‘The Bicycle Thief’. The correct translation from the original in Italian is indeed bicycle thieves. Obviously, this is not a matter of life and death; it is just the movie’s title. Every year, thousands of films are given different names, and sometimes rather odd ones, around the world. Furthermore, the film is also known as Bicycle Thieves by the elite film distributor Criterion. What is relevant about this curiosity is how representative the translation is of the individualist frame of mind in America.

cropped-bicycle-thieves-1.jpg   bicycle-thieves-3

As long as the American public recognises the full meaning and the different nuances the title in the plural implies, then it does not matter how they call the movie. This Italian neorealist masterpiece, like every film belonging to that movement, can be said to be communist in intent, if not in content. European cinema traditions in general, and Bicycle Thieves in particular, do not share the common ethos of the individual ever-present in American filmmaking. The desire to ascertain fixed roles and determine the good guy from the bad is not necessarily relevant in this film.

There might be an argument that defends the American title. Although in fact there two thieves in the story, the real violator is the one that takes from the protagonist. Then, as the audience gets used to the bad guy being the one who disappeared, at the end, the good guy gets to violate another person too. A-ha! He is the true bicycle thief. Thus, there’s nuance here too added to the already mentioned American  inclination to ascertain roles, which in this case functions as creating further ambiguity. Therefore, the singular thief has its values too.

However, on the other hand, one should not be looking to identify the thief in the film, because at the end, the prey turns into the predator, albeit unsuccessfully. The point is that the guy who steals his bicycle might have been in a situation of desperation similar to Antonio. He also might be worthy of our sympathy. It is just a matter of point of view. If the camera had been focusing on the thief’s background story up to that point, we could arguably have felt differently towards the whole situation. In reality, we are all, somehow, bicycle thieves. It is this essential ambiguity that makes De Sica’s masterpiece so deeply satisfying.

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