Bicycle Thieves positions itself as the default neo-realism masterpiece. An era begun by Rome, Open City in 1945, Vittorio De Sica’s (1902-1974) Bicycle Thieves is a considerably smaller story.
Based on the post-war streets of Rome, the opening moments as Antonio Ricci sits forlornly on the streets awaiting a job summarises the extreme deprivation in Italy at the time. Work was scarce and citizens were struggling to pay their way, day to day. We may not have had a World War to contend with, or decimated towns to reconstruct, but the conflicted depiction of the struggling worker is a contemporary theme. De Sica’s tour de force, during its extended run at the BFI Southbank, tackles this issue without judgment and clearly connects the dots between poverty and crime.
Father and Husband Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) has been summoned for a job. He has been selected to be a poster boy, pasting Hollywood’s Rita Hayworth across the city. Unfortunately, he lacks a bike: A key requirement for the position. Returning home, his loving wife Maria (Lianella Carell) builds his optimism by selling their bed sheets to pay for the bicycle. Proudly, his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) cleans the bike and Father and Son, with their egg sandwiches, head out to a day’s work. But the positive outlook soon changes as Antonio is robbed of his bike when atop his ladder. He chases the thief (Vittorio Antonucci), but it is too late. With the support of his friend, Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda), he heads to the market in desperation. Such a small tale, filled with a scathing indictment of the poverty faced at the time, is accessible through considered humour and charming characters.
Stealing every scene he’s in, Bruno wins us over. His small stature and honourable support of his dad is the thumping heart at the core of Bicycle Thieves. We see the events play out in front of the child. His father, storming away, we know will be printed eternally on his sons mind. This framing of the story is one, of many examples that lift the film to the pedestal it sits upon. Another is his wife, Maria, expertly shaping our perception of their happy, supportive marriage. Her strength through the struggles and his clear adoration of this woman show a deep respect and understanding. Even the revelation, as the Antonio finds the culprit of the crime, forces reflection. The world that the thief lives within, and the bedroom he shares with four family members. The ambiguous, unexplained fit the boy has (is he sick? or is he acting?). The union-like mob that defends him, despite our own knowledge of the event. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, this story doesn’t fail to challenge your belief system.
And then the iconic finale. An ending that raises more questions than it answers and makes Bicycle Thieves endlessly re-watchable. Crucially, Bicycle Thieves is, initially, about unemployment. The desperate need to support the family as a father. It begs the question as to how a film, this poignant, is relevant today. Do we see such characters in television and cinema depicted without judgment? Prior to the theft, we see the struggle. Antonio is initially sat far away from the crowd as others plead for employment. He is effectively dragged over by a friend. This is not an example of the ‘scroungers’ at the job centre, this is merely a man who has lost his optimism. The reality, we know, is the endless cycle of joblessness for some. The contradictions in the system as hard workers turn to food banks. The vilification in TV (in programmes such as Benefits Street) drag broken men and women further down. The reason Bicycle Thieves remains relevant today is because the connection between poverty and crime remains shockingly relevant.
Bicycle Thieves currently plays at BFI Southbank until August 27th2015. Buy tickets here
This review was originally written for Flickering Myth in August 2015