The Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948): Italy

Reviewed by Kathleen Amboy.  Viewed on DVD.

 Post-war Italy, and Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is in the same predicament that many of his peers are in; he has struggled to find work for over a year, his new job hinges on the use of a bicycle, his bicycle is in hock, and his wife must pawn more of their belongings in order to reclaim it, or he’ll lose his job – one he desperately needs to support his proud family.

Young Bruno Ricci (Enzo Staiola) looks up to his “daddy,” and tries to be helpful in every way, even carefully cleaning the bicycle on the first day of work.  The sun is shining brightly, it’s a new beginning, and Antonio is off to work, hanging film posters of Rita Hayworth as Gilda, until a group of thieves carefully coordinate the theft of his bicycle.

After uselessly filing a complaint with the local authorities, Antonio enlists the help of his friends at the sanitation department, who set out together early the next morning, with Bruno, to search for the stolen bicycle, but the weather changes as quickly as Antonio’s hope, of ever retrieving his bicycle.

Dragging Bruno through town and the open market, Antonio is consumed with his search for the bicycle and less concerned for the safety of his son.  He accuses the wrong man, harasses another elderly man during Mass – ignoring the words of the Benediction to “send us guidance from within.”  He neglects Bruno, who grows increasingly frustrated, as he is harassed by a stranger, falls flat on his face in the rain, and is nearly hit by several cars, all during his father’s oblivion.  Ultimately a slap in the face (literally and figuratively) quickly separates him from love and devotion to his Papa.

Rejecting the counsel of a wise woman that “either you find it now, or you never will,” Antonio becomes desperate and soon has his eye fixed on an unattended bicycle – the father’s vulnerability soon becomes a lesson in compassion to his young son.

Post WWII Italy brought on the neorealist film movement, which often meant hiring non-professional actors, as in Maggiorani’s superb performance.  Other elements included modest funding, on-location shooting, and use of natural lighting.  The availability of lower grade film stock only added to the documentary style, and offered a feeling of immediacy.  These films contained simplistic plots about the everyday, working class, with low-key dialogue, that requires a keen ear for the hidden gems.

With subtle themes of the father-son, man and God relationship, Antonio is tested in character, but never abandoned.  The Bicycle Thief (a.k.a. Bicycle Thieves), won numerous awards including an Honorary Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Hearing a distant voice yell “help, a boy is drowning,” Antonio becomes panic-stricken, and runs toward the river, yelling “Bruno, Bruno, Bruno!”  Momentarily thinking of his son, a close up on Antonio’s face shows his furrowed brow relaxing, and looking around, he gazes upward.  An extreme long shot reveals helpless little Bruno, in the distance, sitting at the top of the steps, waiting patiently for his Papa.





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