The Bicycle Thieves was given an honorary Oscar in 1949, is routinely voted as one of the greatest films of all time and is exalted as one of the foundation stones of Italian neorealism.
At its heart is a simple, powerful film about a man who needs a job.
Set in the post war years when Italy was paralysed by poverty, Lamberto Maggiorani, not a professional actor, stars as Ricci, a man who each morning joins a hopeless queue looking for work. One day there is a job–for a man with a bicycle. “I have a bicycle!” He cries out, but he does not, for it has been pawned… like almost everything else they own.
His wife Maria strips the sheets from their bed, and he is able to pawn their linen to redeem his bicycle.
The bicycle allows Ricci to go to work as a poster-hanger, slapping paste on walls to stick up cinema advertisements (providing an ironic contrast between the world of Hollywood and the everyday lives of neorealism). This bicycle means everything to the family.
At one moment we watch through our fingers as Ricci leaves it alone and unlocked for a moment. Director Vittorio De Sica is teasing us, since we expect the bike to be gone, but when Ricci returns it is still there!
But then, inevitably, it is stolen- no doubt by another man who needs a job.
Ricci and his small, plucky son Bruno search for the bicycle, an impossible task in the wasteland of Rome with the few police officers around proving utterly unhelpful. Their task is fruitless and then, in the famous closing sequence of the movie, Ricci is tempted to steal a bicycle himself, continuing the cycle of theft and poverty.
This story is so direct it plays more like a parable than a drama. This is a story that magnificently withholds the comic or dramatic palliatives another sort of film might have introduced. The son is the intimate witness of the father’s humiliation, his inadequacy as a provider.
Ricci seems unable to embrace the obvious redemptive moral – that his son is the important possession, not the missing bicycle. But this moral is a luxury that only well-off people can afford.
He ignores his little boy while scanning the horizon for his bicycle. He doesn’t even hold Bruno’s hand! The poor boy is almost run over by a car because his father isn’t looking out for him. At one stage, Ricci hears an uproar from the riverbank about a “drowned boy”. With a guilty start, he looks around. Do they mean Bruno?
But the lesson is not learned. Bruno’s simple physical survival is the movie’s secret miracle, and he is finally to be his father’s saviour, but in such a way as to render Antonio’s humiliation complete. This is poverty’s authentic sting: banal and horrible loss of dignity.