Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Written by Oreste Biancoli, Suso D’Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi, Gerardo Guerrieri, and Cesare Zavattini
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
The world is hell. But it didn’t just become hell. It’s been that way for a long, long, long time. Right now, the world is experiencing a significant shift in the world order, and when that happens, it is a harrowing experience. There are a lot of unknowns as a result. That uncertainty isn’t unfounded. When we don’t have guarantees about day-to-day life or even year to year, the opportunity for suffering is increased. The privileged pockets of the Western world finally feel this, while the developing world has been perpetually crushed under the boot. Nothing new for them, though they will likely be harmed more by the fallout of this changing of the order. The last time we had such a big shift was the collapse of the Soviet Union, but places like the United States didn’t really miss a beat, and Western Europe was definitely okay. The last time Western Europe went through “hell” was the aftermath of World War II, as large swaths of the region had been absolutely decimated by bombings. This is the world we enter into with Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.
In a post-war neighborhood of Rome, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is desperately searching for work. He has a wife, Maria, a young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), and a baby depending on him for food and shelter. During an early morning jobs announcement in the public square, Antonio accepts a job pasting up advertising bills, but he’s told this requires a bicycle. Not knowing how he will get one, the man claims he already possesses one. Maria strips the bed and sells the linens to get her husband just enough money to purchase one, and their problems seem to be solved. However, on his first day of work, Antonio has the bike stolen from him and has to search through the plaza market to see if it has been fenced. He thinks they found a bike, but the serial numbers don’t match. Later, Antonio believes he found one of the thieves, but the police tell him it’s all hearsay without additional witnesses. As Antonio becomes increasingly panicked, he contemplates stealing another bike and ultimately succumbs to this in front of his son, who becomes ashamed of his father.
Bicycle Thieves is considered one of the great Italian neorealist films of the period. This was a subgenre known for employing non-professional actors as supporting performers, with leading actors often put in the leads. These lead actors would often perform against type with films shot on location in working class and working poor neighborhoods. The conditions of those struggling were at the center of neorealist filmmaking, and frequently scenes were not scripted but showed the filmmaker’s interest in the day-to-day lives of the actors and their skilled trades. Director De Sica was a communist who empathized with the workers suffering under an oppressive government despite having a privileged upbringing.
Bicycle Thieves was initially titled The Bicycle Thief for its American debut in 1949 but has been more accurately retitled since. That original title makes the act of stealing a singular, individual decision. Pluralizing leads to a better understanding of the overall themes of the picture. We, as workers, are often made to turn against each other out of perceived necessity. When one person is wronged, instead of having a system where we can meet their needs, the wronged person may harm another to provide a false sense that justice has been served. These conflicts of working life aren’t often the focus of movies, certainly not the ones coming out of Hollywood, which would have been very familiar to De Sica and other Italians at the time. He purposefully set out to create a film that lifted the simple theft of a bike into grander terms. The act of having his bike stolen and, in turn, stealing another’s while within view of his son devastates Antonio to his core.
A bicycle is not a very important thing, so we often think. For Antonio, the bike is a means to care for and protect his family. De Sica wants to elevate that inner turmoil into something as important as large-scale epics and war movies. The government and corporate systems have turned people’s lives like Antonio’s into a constant, nightmarish struggle. The working poor never gain any real traction, unable to move towards a goal of a better life. When deciding to steal another man’s bike, Antonio is ultimately driven to tears, marching with the masses, ashamed of himself and how he is seen by his son. He doesn’t want to resort to these means, but can we see any path for him beyond what the system has laid out? It benefits those in power to have the masses fighting over crumbs; this allows them to keep wages and living conditions marginal. This complete lack of solidarity is seen in moments where Antonio desperately needs help, and no one will offer it, and even in seemingly unimportant moments like Bruno being lured in by a pedophile on the street in front of a crowd. Children aren’t even safe in a system that is so brutally avaricious.
It’s a testament that De Sica never attempts to become didactic during the movie. We never see or hear anyone espousing communist theory or references to that ideology. Instead, the filmmaker simply allows life to teach the brutal lessons that will lead to communist thinking. We as a species cannot survive if we do not become collective in our work and our responsibilities. By lifting up the people on the bottom rung of society’s ladder, we would also save ourselves from depravity. Workers would be a wholly united group that would not be so easily splintered because the others would provide when one of them was in need. We don’t get a happy ending because De Sica is trying to tell a realistic story. Not much in regards to working conditions in Bicycle Thieves has improved. Like Antonio, people find themselves still scrabbling for work in the gig economy, unable to continue with exploitative companies like Uber if their car breaks down, always one paycheck away from destitution. For the poor, life has been hell for generations. The end result will be that we will end up at the bottom of that ladder eventually, or we’ll find solidarity and forge a new, better way of living.