Life in post-WWII Rome is a struggle, and good work is awfully hard to come by. As such, the humble Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is thrilled when he's offered a job posting various forms of print advertising around his neighborhood. Unfortunately, the job comes with a catch: Antonio has to have a bicycle. No bike, no job. Alas, Antonio pawned his bicycle recently (a decision he was forced to make due to his inability to find work). He tells his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) about his predicament, and she generously responds by pawning their dowry bedsheets (the only thing of value the Riccis own). By doing so, they're able to get just enough money to retrieve Antonio's bicycle. For the first time in a while, things are looking up.
Sadly, Antonio's moment of contentment is cut short when a young man (Vittorio Antonucci) steals the bicycle. Antonio gives chase, but eventually loses the thief's trail. He reports the theft to the police, who bluntly suggests that the odds of recovering the bicycle are slim to none. Antonio has no way of scrounging up the funds for another ride, so he and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) are forced to search the entire neighborhood and conduct their own investigation.
There's such an affecting simplicity to the construction of Bicycle Thieves, which arguably ranks as the crown jewel of the Italian Neorealist movement. Like the other films from that movement, Bicycle Thieves was filmed entirely on location, features non-professional actors in all of the key roles and spotlights the struggles of the working poor (neorealism also promoted socialist political views, though that element is less overt here than in some of the other key works of the movement), but this particular story has a greater amount of universal resonance than many other films from that era. It reveals a great deal about the condition of life in post-WWII Italy, yes, but it also explores the less culturally specific theme of the impact poverty can have on person's life.
Antonio's bicycle isn't just a useful means of transportation, but represents the difference between hope and despair. With it, he has work, security, food, shelter and a future. Without it, he has nothing, and will once again be forced to scratch and claw for any assignment he can find. Antonio is a quiet, decent, good-hearted man, but the despair in his eyes betrays his stoic face. That despair only grows as the film proceeds, as he and little Bruno (a child with the face of an old man) wander through markets, restaurants, church services and crowds of football fans in search of the thief. Finally we arrive at that indelible ending: so affectingly empathetic, so realistically unforgiving.
Bruno's presence makes the story even more heartbreaking, as we bear witness to a child slowly discovering that his father is a very desperate man. There's one tremendous little sequence inside a restaurant, as Bruno suddenly begins to notice the stark differences between the realities of his life and the relative luxury an upper-class family dining at the same restaurant enjoys. Antonio's defeat would be humiliating under any circumstances, but it becomes nearly unbearable when he realizes that his son is watching him fail.
Director Vittorio De Sica opted to dub over the voice of Maggiorani, but it's the actor's chiseled, defeated face that sticks with you. There's such a pure authenticity to Maggiorani's performance, perhaps because his own life wasn't dramatically different from Antonio's. Maggiorani was a mere factory worker when he was cast in the film, and was paid roughly $1000 for his performance. He used the money to buy some new furniture and take his family on a vacation, but when he returned, he lost his job at the factory (the company he worked for was losing money, and they decided Maggiorani should be laid off since he had become a “rich movie star”). Unfortunately, Maggiorani couldn't find steady work as an actor, either. He struggled to make ends meet for the rest of his life, grabbing part-time assignments as a bricklayer and as a movie extra wherever he could find them. He was the face of one of the world's most iconic films (Sight & Sound had named it the greatest film of all time just four years after its release), but his life was mirror of Antonio's. Bicycle Thieves was his bicycle: a promise of a brighter future that was quickly stolen away from him. I suppose the neorealist movement really did capture the reality of life.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 89 minutes
Release Year: 1948